Gedankenexperimentophobia

It’s fun to play with thoughts, to riffle through ideas, don’t you agree? Take ‘thought experiments’ for example -think up a problem, set some parameters to confine it and see what your brain, unconstrained by external reality, comes up with. It’s almost akin to the Scientific Method some would argue: ask a question; form a hypothesis about it; make a prediction based on the theory; test the prediction; and finally, come to some conclusion. But is it? Can a mind sitting quietly by itself in an armchair, circumvent the need for external reality?

Ever since I first heard it, I have felt uncomfortable with ‘the Trolley Problem’. There have been several iterations of it over the years, but by and large it consists of a runaway coach on a track that is approaching a switch. Down one track is a single person, whereas down another are several people. The coach cannot be stopped, the person (or people) cannot get out of the way, but the switch can be thrown to direct which track is used. The question, of course, is which track to use -either track will result in death.

What does the choice of one track or the other say about the person who has to decide? About their morality? About ethics? About anything, really? It seems far too monochromal for my liking. And, unlike its real-life cousin, by definition a thought experiment cannot really be subjected to any rigorous objective analysis. It’s more like an experiment done in a lab where all parameters are carefully controlled, unlike what would happen in the real world.

But for years I’ve wondered whether my discomfort was misplaced. After all, Einstein used thought experiments. My concerns, like an unused city lot, lay fallow until I wandered into an essay by James Wilson, a professor of philosophy at University College London: https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-problem-with-ethical-trolley-problems

As he writes, thought experiments are ‘short hypothetical scenarios designed to probe or persuade on a point of ethical principle. Such scenarios are nearly always presented context-free, and are often wildly different from the everyday contexts in which ethical sensibilities are formed and exercised… Even when scenarios are highly unrealistic, judgments about them are thought to have wide-ranging implications for what should be done in the real world. The assumption is that, if you can show that a point of ethical principle holds in one artfully designed case, however bizarre, then this tells us something significant.’

Sometimes, however, when considered as things that might happen in the real world, we can envisage other conditions that would invalidate, or at least complicate, any conclusions drawn in the thought experiment. We know too much, as it were. ‘Thought-experiment designers often attempt to finesse the problem through an omniscient authorial voice that… is able to say clearly and concisely what each of the thought experiment’s actors is able to do, their psychological states and intentions. The authorial voice will often stipulate that choices must be made from a short predefined menu, with no ability to alter the terms of the problem. For example, the reader might be presented with only two choices, as in the classic trolley problem: pull a lever, or don’t pull it.’ Exactly.

So constraining the choices limits the possibility of novel approaches to the stated problem. ‘Imaginative ethical thinkers look beyond the small menu of obvious options to uncover novel approaches that better allow competing values to be reconciled. The more contextual knowledge and experience a thinker has, the more they have to draw on in coming to a wise decision.’

But there are at least two other difficult challenges with thought experiments: internal and external validity. ‘Internal validity relates to the extent to which an experiment succeeds in providing an unbiased test of the variable or hypothesis in question. External validity relates to the extent to which the results in the controlled environment translate to other contexts…[but] the very features that make an environment controlled and suitable to obtain internal validity often make it problematically different from the uncontrolled environments in which interventions need to be applied.’ In other words, the world just doesn’t work like that.

I remember trying out the Trolley Problem on the guys who meet for coffee some mornings in the food court. I wondered if they felt the same unease with it as I did.

“So, which track are you going to switch the trolley onto?” I asked, after giving them a brief summary of the thought experiment.

Burt put his doughnut back on the paper plate, and wiped some sugar off his cheek. “It’s so obvious, G -I’d ring the bell. All trollies have bells, eh?”

“But what if the workers on the track don’t hear it…?”

Burt rolled his eyes, as he brushed a lock of his paper-white hair off his forehead. “I’d keep ringing it. The workers would hear it when it got closer…”

“But suppose the workers are tied to the track.”

Burt glared at me for a moment. “You didn’t say that. And anyway, why would they be tied to the track? That’s a bit Little Orphan Annieish, don’t you think?”

I decided to relent a little to make it more -what?- real worldy. “Okay, let’s say they’re just deaf…”

Burt was clearly unmoved by my compromise. “Still…”

Jason, who had been quietly munching on a bagel put his hand up.

Burt sneered at the hand. “You’re not in school, Jas…”

Jason blinked and lowered his hand, and then glared at Burt. “Whatever. Anyway G, you said they were working on the track. They’d be able to feel the vibrations on the rails from a moving trolley, so that would warn them to get out of the way.”

I had to sigh; the guys were not really getting into the spirit of the ethical problem I’d offered. “I don’t know how much warning that would give, but let’s say they weren’t actually standing on the rails…” I had to think quickly here. “Let’s say they were on the ties between the rails then.”

Arthur, who had been teacher before he retired, sighed loudly and shook his head. “You folks are missing the point.”

Burt took a big bite from his doughnut. “The point being…?” It was hard to distinguish word from doughnut, but Arthur ignored the sounds.

“It seems to me the problem is bimodal.”

I smiled and nodded my head at him -finally somebody understood the ethics at stake. “Correct,” I interrupted, “There are two choices: the left track or the right track -several deaths, or one death. Which one would you choose, Art?”

He glanced at me quizzically. “I didn’t say there were two choices; I said bimodal: values occurring most frequently in the data set we were given…”

Jason, Burt and I stared at him, but it was Burt that summed it up. “You had too many cookies, Art…?”

It was Arthur’s turn to roll his eyes. “What I mean is that we have to consider two data streams that affect the choice of track…”

“Too much sugar in his coffee,” Jason whispered to Burt.

Arthur ignored them. “First of all, there’s the trolley driver. He would be ringing the bell, of course, but presumably to be allowed to drive the trolley, he’d have been expected to know about things like the switch signs that indicated which track was open.” He stared at me. “Would that not be the case?”

I shrugged, but I had to agree with him.

Then a wry smile appeared to hover tentatively along his lips. “And then there is the person whose responsibility it is to work the switches.” His smile softened briefly. “A very important job, as you can imagine.”

None of us disagreed. I was more interested in where this was leading, though.

“So,” he continued, “We can assume that the switch person knows that the driver has to have some expertise in reading the switch signs…” He looked at each of us for a second to see if we were following him. Nobody moved. “Therefore, the switchman flags the approaching trolley to let the driver know he understands the trolley is out of control, and then sets the switch only at the halfway position. The driver would see this as an uncompleted switch and realizes it will derail the trolley, so he jumps clear.”

Arthur sat back in his chair this time with a big sloppy grin on his face. “So, nobody dies. Problem solved…”

I suddenly remembered that scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I wonder if Hamlet could have resolved the Trolley Problem as quickly as Arthur, though.

Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

Is time really out of joint?

I imagine there comes a time for each of us when we finally realize we are getting old; a time when we feel that we are just catching up on news so aged that we were only children when it first arose. Information so old that I’m not sure what it should be called –opinion perhaps; or, since it is still around and circulating quietly and seemingly  immune to the cobwebs draped across its shoulders, wisdom…? And although some things may really be changing quickly, others are just now soaking through like water in a thick sponge and seem new to me.

I realize that not even young people can stay au courant with everything -the trick, I suppose, is to specialize one’s interests. Mine were never all that well defined, it seems; apart from my particular professional métier, the rest was spread as unevenly as the peanut butter on my morning toast. Retirement merely allowed me to pile more toppings on it, I fear -some of them dated, albeit untarnished by their ages, and, as far as I can tell, unburdened by a best-before stipulation.

Thus did I discover Simone de Beauvoir’s writings as I began redabbling in the existentialist work of Sartre. The two of them were an item, you remember. At any rate, I soon realized I would need some help, so it was with no little relief that I happened upon an edifying essay by Kate Kirkpatrick, a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture  at King’s College London among other things. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoirs-authentic-love-is-a-project-of-equals

‘The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free… In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments… As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering.’

Some of what she observed in those days no longer obtains, of course -Zeitgeist evolves along with societal values- and yet there are still things to be learned from her writings. Pitfalls to avoid in our headlong rush for change.

‘Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become.’ And love, as difficult to define then as now, ‘was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself.’ As she saw it in her early writings, love had two components: self-interest (narcissism), and devotion – the former plagued by forgetting there are two in love and that love must seek the good of the other, whereas the latter (devotion) can be suffocating -a form of ‘moral suicide’ in its abnegation of self.

‘Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’.’ And yet, suppose one of the two does not feel equal -or feel they have not earned or deserved the love of the other? ‘The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.’

Despite my lengthening toll of years, I have to admit that, although her initial observations make sense, I am more intrigued by the direction in which they evolved. Obviously, unlike De Beauvoir, I had not taken as much time or effort to analyze the question of love. Throughout my life, I suspect I have been more a captive than a general.

Later, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Beauvoir came to realize that ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love required action. There was a growing concern about the meaning of life that was rife in France towards the end of WWII that bred the existentialist movement, one of whose champions, was Sartre. Beauvoir (in Pyrrhus and Cinéas) suggested ‘an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed.’ We need to love and be loved; we need to be affirmed.

But there is a middle road. ‘Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’ [narcissism], by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit… What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing… there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination.’ Reciprocity, in other words.

Much as I continue to have trouble forcing myself to struggle through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’m still trying to psyche myself into reading her Second Sex, but like eating, it’s probably wise to stop when you’re full. In a sense, we all have rumens in our brains that allow us to re-chew what we’ve read to make more sense of it -put it in a more contemporary context, perhaps.

I suspect, for example, that most of us are at least more aware of the existence of hierarchical societal roles that still begrudge women their rightful places in the world. Even the ability to see that there are hierarchies is a victory of sorts; it seems almost unbelievable when we remember that at one time men could claim ‘that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit.’ It was culture that was sanctioning this, and just as society has been evolving, so too, however slowly, has the male Weltanschauung.

In Beauvoir’s day, ‘many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own… [mistaking] the desire for love for love itself.’

Of course, it’s still deceptively easy for either sex fall into that trap, I fear, And yet, it was people like Beauvoir who helped us to understand that we create our own shadows. I suppose it’s never too late, but I wish I’d studied more about her than Sartre when I was young… although maybe you have to be old to really understand the wisdom, eh?

Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…

Let shame say what it will

Call me overly sensitive, but I don’t like to be shamed. There, I’ve said it. I suspect it is because shaming causes me to think less of myself: to feel humiliated, demeaned. And yet, there is another side to humiliation that seems to hide in the shadows: the feeling of humility – ‘This amounts not to thinking less of yourself but to thinking of yourself less. The person so ‘humiliated’ becomes less self-centred: her ethical concerns bear witness to a kind of revolution through which her own private and peculiar desires lose credence and authority, a diminution that finally allows her to take notice of what is positively owed to others.’- so writes Louise Chapman, a PhD candidate at the time in Philosophy at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge in an essay on shaming in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/on-immanuel-kants-hydraulic-model-of-moral-education

‘Has the behaviour of another person ever made you feel ashamed? Not because they set out to shame you but because they acted so virtuously that it made you feel inadequate by comparison.  If so, then it is likely that, at least for a brief moment in time, you felt motivated to improve as a person.’

Perhaps, in the embarrassing circumstances of the moment of humiliation, I never stopped to think about it very deeply, but operating behind the scenes was a type of hydraulic system whereby ‘the elevation of one desire in a closed system causes a proportional diminution in another… the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant presents it as a useful metaphor for capturing the seesawing nature of real psychological forces. In his view, the subordination of self-interest removes, or at least diminishes, hindrances to willing the good. For Kant, the denigration of one’s pathological interests is thus tantamount to removing barriers to acting well. This pivotal mechanism of moral education could be classed as a form of sublimation or diversion, whereby inappropriate desires are channelled into higher pursuits.’

In more recent times, it was Sigmund Freud ‘who claimed that psychic energy can be redirected from lower aims to higher ones, at least when the patient herself recognises that the desiderative drive imperils her.’

This is where exemplary individuals come into the picture. ‘These are people who have the ability to cause profound shifts in the motivational landscapes of their spectators.’ But the exemplars should not serve as a model but only as proof that it really is possible to act in a better way.

Social Media nowadays provides an instructive example. It is tempting to rid ourselves –unfollow– those who continually post their successes, and yet ‘while they can stir up the pains of comparative humiliation, in so doing they strike down our tendency towards intellectual and physical torpor, thereby inspiring us to action.’ This could be termed a form of ‘appraisal respect’. We don’t have to engage with them, only to bear witness -and appreciate that we are not being manipulated if we see some merit in their success as an example for ourselves. In theory, at least, ‘Once the spectator has been shamed by the exemplar’s behaviour, external examples of morality are no longer necessary for continuing moral progress.’ Moral hydraulics.

Comparisons with others merely remind us of what we ourselves are capable of, and with continuing practice, can find ourselves achieving. But we do need reminders from time to time.

Take the old man I saw leaning against a lamppost on a main street in downtown Vancouver. It was a typically cool, wet, and windy day in autumn and I was snuggling into my umbrella trying to make the best of it. I almost bumped into him, but when a gust of rain suddenly tore at the umbrella, I jumped to the side in time. Dressed in a dirty brown baseball cap, a torn cloth jacket, and -judging by the cuffs that were rolled up many times- jeans that were obviously too large for him, he still managed a smile at the near collision.

It’s sometimes hard to judge the age of people who frequent the streets, but he looked old, and frail -someone who would have been sitting in a warm room somewhere, had Life not been so harsh on him. He did not have the look of a dissipated life -just an unfortunate one that had dealt him all the wrong cards.

“Spare some change…?” he rasped with an old man’s voice, then coughed as if the effort involved in speaking was too much for him. He sent his eyes to inspect my face, and they hovered over my cheeks like hopeful sparrows looking for a roost, then flittered away when they saw my expression.

I suppose his words caught me off-guard -embarrassed me, perhaps- and I merely pretended to listen, shook my head, and fought another gust of wind as I walked away. My first impression was distrust of the neighbourhood, and yet when I turned, warily -and, in truth, with guilt- to check behind me a few moments later, he was still there, the smile clinging to his face: a default expression – hoping, like its owner, for a reason to survive.

He looked so delicate, and elderly that I stopped, uncertain what to do. I was ashamed I had brushed him off so quickly, to tell the truth. His smile, I think, was what had disarmed me -that and the fleeting hope I’d seen written on his face at our chance encounter: an unexpected gift on a cold and blustery day on the street.

Something -perhaps his eyes, still heavy on my shoulders- made me turn to face him. His smile grew and his face crinkled happily at my change of heart. And when I reached him, his hand did not extend as if he expected a reward- just his eyes: two souls searching for my own to touch; two minds joining, if only for a moment in greeting.

I struggled for words, and all I could manage was an apology for being so insensitive. “I’m so ashamed,” I mumbled, reaching into my pocket. “It can’t be easy on the street…” I felt myself blushing as I pulled out the only bill I had -a crumpled ten- and handing it to him. I didn’t want him to think I was just expiating my guilt.

“Don’t be ashamed,” he said, evidently also embarrassed. “You came back… Most people don’t.” And he reached out and shook my hand like a long lost friend.

Looking back, I think he was what we all fear we might become some day. He was my face, in another’s mirror.

Of thinking too precisely on the event

The right not to know -now there’s an interesting concept in today’s competition for instant news, ‘breaking stories’, and the ever present titillation of factoids. It seems almost counterintuitive -why would anyone choose not to know something? Surely knowledge trumps ignorance. Surely Hamlet’s timeless question ‘Whethertis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?’ has been answered in the modern era: it is better to know what hides behind the door than to turn one’s back… Or is that just naïve? Hopelessly romantic?

And yet, at least in Medicine, there is the potential struggle between beneficence -promoting and advocating for the well-being of others and autonomy -the right of someone to determine their own fate. And when the two are in conflict, there is an ethical dilemma.

But what about the right not to know something? Something that neither party had any reason to anticipate, and of which ignorance could be disastrous? Does the knowledgeable party have an obligation to inform the other, even if they were instructed not to? In everyday affairs, that seems an unlikely scenario, but an interesting article in Aeon by the writer Emily Willingham outlines some examples from medical research that probably cross the line: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-right-to-know-or-not-know-the-data-from-medical-research

A blood sample targeting cholesterol for example, might show another, seemingly unrelated abnormality. Should your doctor tell you about it, even though the cholesterol value was normal? Of course she should, you would assume. ‘But what if the finding turned up in samples donated for medical research instead of taken for medical testing? … [The] UK Biobank offers a case in point. When participants submit samples to be mined for genetic information, they agree to receive no individual feedback about the results, and formally waive their right to know…’ But that seems unethical, does it not? ‘The reality is that the ‘right’ thing to do about these competing rights to know and not know – and to tell what you do know – varies depending on who’s guiding the discussion. For example, a clinician ordering a test and finding something incidental but worrisome is already in a patient-doctor relationship with at least a tacit agreement to inform. But a researcher collecting DNA samples for a big data biobank has formed no such relationship and made no such commitment.’

Still, there should be some way -perhaps a retroactive clause that would enable a researcher to inform. One way, for example, might be to recognize that ‘people who submit samples for research might benefit from the same process that’s provided to people undergoing genetic testing in the clinic. Genetic counselling is strongly recommended before such testing, and this kind of preparation for research participants could clarify their decisions as well. Investigators who engage with these data on the research side deserve similar preparation and attention to their rights. Before getting involved in such studies, they should be able to give informed consent to withholding findings that could affect a donor’s health. Study investigators should also be unable to link donors and results, removing the possibility of accidental informing, and lifting the burden of the knowledge.’

Of course, the problem doesn’t just start and stop with whether the study participant decides she doesn’t want to know, does it? If the problem has a genetic component, ‘what about the people who were never tested but who are genetic relatives to those with an identified risk or disease? … After all, your genes aren’t yours alone. You got them from your parents, and your biological children will get some of yours from you…  in reality, the revelations – and repercussions – can span generations.’

On a lighter note, I can’t help but be reminded of my friend Brien. Readers of some of my more retirement-centered feuilletons will recall that he is a rather eccentric individual who seems to enjoy living on his porch and watching the world go by, no matter the weather. Rain or shine, summer or winter, I see him ensconced in his seat with a beer in his hand and another one on the railing in case I happen by. A harmless sort, and barely noticed by those who amble past, he is not an infrastructure man. His porch ekes out an existence from day to day in terminal decline. Every time I visit, he assures me that because the sidewalk leading to the house is also deteriorating, it discourages unnecessary visitors. And those who brave the path -me, I suppose he means- know and accept the risks -especially of the dangerous and disintegrating steps onto the porch.

But the last time I was over there, I almost put my foot through a rotting board near his chair, and I felt it had gone too far; I thought he should know. “Brien,” I started, somewhat hesitantly, given his explicit instructions to avoid any criticism of his porchdom, “I just…”

But he silenced me with a regal wave of his beer-hand -a sure sign of displeasure. “You’re gonna tell me something bad, I just know it…”

“No… I was just going to suggest that…”

“Remember the rules, eh?”

Brien can be so annoying sometimes. I think he honestly believes that naming a problem -identifying it by whatever means- gives it the right, formerly denied to it -of existence. So I shrugged, and decided to acquiesce and similarly ignore its right to life. Autonomy, after all is a right as well.

I didn’t see Brien for a week or two, but when I next happened by, as I often do on my way to the store, he seemed unusually bulky on his chair. He was covered in a thick Hudson’s Bay blanket, of course, but I assumed the cold autumn wind had made him bring it out early this year.

He waved at me from the porch and told me not to worry about the steps anymore. And as I approached, I noticed they were brand new and ready for painting. In fact, as I neared the porch, I noticed some of the boards near his chair had been replaced as well.

“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as he handed me a beer.

He smiled and pulled back the blanket to show me the cast on his leg. “I decided to take your advice…”

“But, I never…”

He held up his hand to silence me. “Sometimes I can hear what you don’t say, G…” he interrupted, calling me by my nickname. “And just because I don’t want you to tell me, doesn’t mean I don’t want to know about it, eh?”

I’m still not sure I feel good about not telling him, though…

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

Religious writings usually serve a special function amongst their adherents -not the least of which is to convey the beliefs and principles in a way that allows them to be used as a reference. They may be regarded as sacred if believed to be divinely revealed, or merely special guides to expected behaviour. But whichever, they usually embody the fundamental assumptions of their divine source. And, although they may be summarized for the easier assimilation of their acolytes, the message is the same, no matter the simplified wording.

I am not an especially religious person, but I was brought up in the Christian Protestant traditions, with the Bible -amongst fervent believers, at any rate- a sacred book to be searched for clues as to proper comportment. It was a moral and ethical guide, if sometimes a little vague on specifics.

Indeed, so important was the Bible, that Martin Luther felt that it, not the Pope, should be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from and about God. He also translated the it into German making it more available for any of the laity who could read.

My point is that the Bible has been considered the foundational book for the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its wisdom, I assumed, undisputed until relatively recently. Altering it or questioning its teachings was anathema, and anyway, unthinkable. So it was with considerable surprise that read about the changes made to it by British missionaries in the Caribbean: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heavily-abridged-slave-bible-removed-passages-might-encourage-uprisings-180970989 Today, just three copies of the so-called “Slave Bible” are known to exist. Two are held in the United Kingdom, and one is currently on view at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

‘When 19th-century British missionaries arrived in the Caribbean to convert enslaved Africans, they came armed with a heavily edited version of the Bible. Any passage that might incite rebellion was removed; gone, for instance, were references to the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt… The abridged work was first printed in London in 1807, on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. The missionaries associated with this movement sought to teach enslaved Africans to read, with the ultimate goal of introducing them to Christianity. But they had to be careful not to run afoul of farmers who were wary about the revolutionary implications of educating their enslaved workforce.’

‘That meant the missionaries needed a radically pared down version of the Bible. A typical Protestant edition of the Bible contains 66 books, a Roman Catholic version has 73 books and an Eastern Orthodox translation contains 78 books… By comparison, the astoundingly reduced Slave Bible contains only parts of 14 books.’

I must admit that I don’t recognize many of the omitted texts, but I can see that some of them might induce some anxiety in the slave holders and, no doubt, some inspiration in those who were enslaved. For example, ‘Exodus 21:16—“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” -they cut that one out, but of course, were happy to leave ‘Ephesians 6:5: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.’

I suppose an obvious point about leaving things out of Biblical text needs to be made here: Luther, and what he decided to do with his translations. Because he believed in Sola Scriptura -in other words that the scripture alone was adequate to define Doctrine- he decided that some of the other (opposing) apostolic traditions of the existing church weren’t appropriate. The book of James comes to mind. Luther felt it disagreed with his Sola Scriptura, so in his ‘Protestant’ Bible he put it, and a few others, in a separate section, the Apocrypha.

I’m certainly not a Biblical scholar, so I have to admit I’m obviously floating on the surface here, but my point is that one might well argue that rearranging the text, as did the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, does not set any precedents. What it does do, however, is change the entire thrust of the Biblical message by not merely rearranging it, but by expurgating it. It ends up as different information -a different spirit.

It is a variety of historical revisionism -history is written by the victors, after all: the most powerful. And the winning side not only gets to control the propaganda, it also gets to interpret the outcome, doesn’t it? Views change as history moves on I suppose, but sometimes we can only contextualize things in retrospect. At the time, it’s only too easy to cave in to vested interests too comfortable to omit the inconvenient truths.

With the egregious omissions of the Slave Bible, the intent is fairly obvious, of course, but there seems to have been no effort to adhere even to Luther’s stringent changes, and at least from the article, I’m not convinced that the Christianity promulgated was of much comfort to the enslaved workers either.

Unfortunately, we often rationalize the means to whatever end we have convinced ourselves is right -whether it be for the good of Britain’s overseas empire that enriched the home country establishment, or for the benefit of the government closer to home. After all, in Canada, we decided that the aboriginal owners of the land we appropriated would be more manageable if they came to accept our Old World -largely European- values. So, we stole their children and forced them into Residential Schools with or without parental permission and attempted to interdict their native languages and inculcate standards entirely foreign to them. Although we all pretended it was for their own good, the reasoning was an opaque attempt at domination. And the irony, in Canada at least, was that it was done both with the blessings, and under the aegis of the Church.

Plus ça change, eh? We have learned little over the years, I think. There still seems to be a need to convince anyone who will listen -and perhaps especially those who won’t- of the righteousness of our beliefs. Of our cause. And yet, a hundred or so years in the future, if there’s still anyone left, they will study us and sigh. ‘What were they thinking?’ they will ask, and then shrug and read their own zeitgeist into the story.

Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…

 

 

 

 

 

 

To wear an undeserved dignity

 

Lately, I’ve been worried about dignity -not my own, you understand, although I’m sure that could use a little work. I’m more concerned that what I assumed was an inherent quality possessed -if not always demonstrated- by us all, may not be as innate as I thought. An essay in the online publication Aeon, by Remy Debes, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis entitled Dignity is Delicate, helped me to understand some of its issues: https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots?

The word itself is derived from the Latin dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, but as with most words, it can be used in different ways, each with slightly different meanings. ‘Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank… Much more common is the family of meanings associated with self-esteem and integrity, which is what we tend to mean when we talk of a person’s own ‘sense of dignity’… Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.’

This latter aspect, which Debes calls the ‘moralized connotation’ ‘is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons.’ As Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785: ‘ whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.’ He also argued that we have a duty to treat other humans ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ -with respect, in other words. Unfortunately, ‘the Groundwork wasn’t professionally translated until 1836. And even that translation wasn’t easily available until a revised edition appeared in 1869.’

So, in terms of its moral and ethical aspects, the concept of dignity is a recent one. ‘[U]ntil at least 1850, the English term ‘dignity’ had no currency as meaning anything like the ‘unearned worth or status of humans’, and very little such currency well into the 1900s. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed.’

What am I missing here? As Debes illustrates in his essay, ‘the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder.’ So what is going on? Debes thinks ‘The primary way we have dealt with this shock and the hypocrisy it marks has been to tell ourselves a story – a story of progress… the story’s common hook is the way it moves the ‘real’ hypocrisy into the past: ‘Our forebears made a terrible mistake trumpeting ideas such as equality and human dignity, while simultaneously practising slavery, keeping the vote from women, and so on. But today we recognise this hypocrisy, and, though it might not be extinct, we are worlds away from the errors of the past.’

Of course, a still different way of explaining our abysmal lack of dignity is to suggest, not that we are getting better, but that we are getting worse -that there was a time when it was not so, and we need try going back to that ‘better time’.

Uhmm, they can’t both be correct. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed the presence of gerunds (verbs functioning as nouns with –ing endings), or implied gerunds, in the description: from the Latin gerundum –‘that which is to be carried on’. In other words, that which is not yet completed, or is in the process of happening, and hopefully will be so in the indefinite future.  As Debes writes, ‘facing up to the hypocrisy in our Western ethos requires resisting the temptation to scapegoat both the past and the present. We must not divorce ourselves from the fact that the present is possible only because of our past, the one we helped to create. Likewise, the existential question isn’t, are we really who we say we are? The question is, have we ever been?’

But why is everything so viscid? Humans have always been seen as valuable -the concept evolving through time. ‘The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, praises man as the most ‘wondrous’ thing on Earth, a prodigy cutting through the natural world the way a sailor cuts through the ‘perilous’, ‘surging seas’ that threaten to engulf him.’ The word ‘dignity’ was not used, but it seems to me he was on the right track, although perhaps not in the sense that mankind’s value was incommensurable and couldn’t be exchanged for other kinds of worth as Kant had concluded.

Or how about Aristotle: ‘Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’

Even Shakespeare’s Hector says to Troilus about whether Helen of Troy is worth going to war for: Value dwells not in a particular will; it holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ‘tis precious of itself as in the prizer. In other words, value -dignity- isn’t subjective, it’s intrinsic.

So what has kept us from believing in that ‘inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally’? Admittedly we are children of our era, and very few of us can escape from the Weltanschauung of our time, let alone the political and social ethos in which we find ourselves embedded. There is much that conspires to homogenize and temper our views, I suspect.

Maybe it was as simple as a fear of the unknown, and fear of disruption, that kept the lid on the pot -better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Moral dignity –ethical dignity- did not accord with the status quo: keeping slaves, or a class system that offered wealth and status to the powerful; women were trapped in a never-ending cycle of pregnancies and children, and so were themselves essentially biologically enslaved… A clock will not work unless all of the parts are in their proper places.

So many levels: civilization -well, at least culture– has always been a matryoshka doll –‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, as Winston Churchill so famously said about Russia. But maybe, concealed inside the innermost layer, the sanctum sanctorum of the inner doll, a flower lives, not a minotaur.

We can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine:  https://aeon.co/ideas/should-you-shield-yourself-from-others-abhorrent-beliefs It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.