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Posts Tagged ‘ethics

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”*…

 

Adolf Eichmann at his 1961 trial

Can one do evil without being evil? This was the puzzling question that the philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with when she reported for The New Yorker in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil(1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil’…

The banality-of-evil thesis was a flashpoint for controversy. To Arendt’s critics, it seemed absolutely inexplicable that Eichmann could have played a key role in the Nazi genocide yet have no evil intentions. Gershom Scholem, a fellow philosopher (and theologian), wrote to Arendt in 1963 that her banality-of-evil thesis was merely a slogan that ‘does not impress me, certainly, as the product of profound analysis’. Mary McCarthy, a novelist and good friend of Arendt, voiced sheer incomprehension: ‘[I]t seems to me that what you are saying is that Eichmann lacks an inherent human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness – conscience. But then isn’t he a monster simply?’

The controversy continues to the present day…

Interrogate right and wrong at “What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil?

* Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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As we think about the unthinkable, we might wish a crafty Happy Birthday to Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli; he was born on this date in 1469.  Machiavelli wrote comedies, poetry, and some of the best-known personal correspondence in Italian; but he is best remembered as a Man of Affairs, first as a servant of the Florentine Republic in a time during which Medici influence was on the wane.  His most famous work, The Prince— first published as a pamphlet in 1513– was written mid-career to gain favor with the Medici, who were at that point regaining dominance in Florence.  The essay on the exercise of power (inspired by Cesare Borgia) not only failed to win over the Medici, it alienated Machiavelli from the Florentine public; he never again played an important role in government.  Indeed, when the Florentine Republic was established in 1527, Machiavelli was effectively ostracized.

But published in book form posthumously (in 1532), The Prince began its steady growth in influence.  And of course today, Machiavelli is considered one of the fathers of modern political theory.

For an extraordinarily-insightful look at Machiavelli’s thinking, see Isaiah Berlin’s “The Question of Machiavelli.”

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

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“Fear cuts deeper than swords”*…

 

GtIzEok

 

The reality distortion field at work:  Cause of Death – Reality vs. Google vs. Media

* George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

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As we get a grip, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by LW

April 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Question: ‘How does one philosopher address another?’ Answer: ‘Take your time.’”*…

 

Vincenzo Di Nicola argues that

We need a philosophy of Slow Thought to ease thinking into a more playful and porous dialogue about what it means to live…

Read his “Slow Thought: a manifesto.”

[Image above from “Why Slow Thinking Wins,” a less philosophical, more functional argument…]

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we listen to Ludwig, we might spare a thought for Saint Thomas Aquinas; he died on this date in 1274. A Dominican friar, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church, he was an immensely influential philosopher, theologian, and jurist in the tradition of Scholasticism.  Following Aristotle’s definition of science as sure and evident knowledge obtained from demonstrations, Thomas defined science as the knowledge of things from their causes. In his major work, Summa, he distinguished between demonstrated truth (science) and revealed truth (faith).  His influence on Western thought is considerable; much of modern philosophy (especially ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory) developed with reference– in support or opposition– to his ideas.

Thomas, from an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

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Written by LW

March 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Whatever is my right… is also the right of another”*…

 

After Charlottesville, it is clear once again that one of the most fundamental American tenets—that all human beings are created equal—is nowhere near universally accepted. When white men on the march are nostalgic for a time when blacks and women were subordinate by nature, it rightly stokes our anger.

For the most implacable opponents of equality, differences in abilities or appearance or affiliation count for most. It seems doubtful that a philosophical argument that humans are equal will do the trick on its own. In fact, it has been strikingly hard to win over opponents of the proposition that all people are of equivalent worth in some morally pivotal sense. That doesn’t mean the argument is not worth making. Yet as Jeremy Waldron ends up showing in his new book, it is not simple to establish it…

Equality is a modern idea.  Its detractors have included Plato and Aristotle; indeed, for most Western thinkers, humanity was marked by discriminatory divisions and distinctions.  Samuel Moyn considers Waldron’s new book, One Another’s Equals, and its fascinating– and challenging– project: “What is the Basis for Human Equality?

* Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

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As we join in the pursuit of his project, we might be relived to remember that today is the traditionally-accepted start of the Halcyon Days.  Ovid recounts, in The Metamorphoses, the story of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, his daughter Alcyone, and her husband Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. When Ceyx was drowned at sea, Alcyone threw herself into the waves in a fit of grief– whereupon the gods transformed them both into halcyon birds (kingfishers).  When Alcyone made her nest on the beach, waves threatened to destroy it; so Aeolus restrained his winds and kept them calm during seven days (some believe fourteen) in each year, so she could lay her eggs.  These became known as the “halcyon days,” when storms do not occur.

While in modern usage the phrase has taken on a nostalgic cast (folks pine for the “Halcyon Days of Youth”), we can hope that they spell a safe and calm Holiday season in 2017…

The Kingfisher

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Written by LW

December 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The thought of two thousand people crunching celery at the same time horrified me”*…

 

Eliminating meat from our diets would bring a bounty of benefits to the planet’s health and to our own – but, a quick transition would not be without its costs: it could harm millions of people…

People become vegetarians for a variety of reasons. Some do it to alleviate animal suffering, others because they want to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Still others are fans of sustainability or wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter how much their carnivorous friends might deny it, vegetarians have a point: cutting out meat delivers multiple benefits. And the more who make the switch, the more those perks would manifest on a global scale.

But if everyone became a committed vegetarian, there would be serious drawbacks for millions, if not billions, of people.

“It’s a tale of two worlds, really,” says Andrew Jarvis of Colombia’s International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “In developed countries, vegetarianism would bring all sorts of environmental and health benefits. But in developing countries there would be negative effects in terms of poverty.”…

More at “What would happen if the world suddenly went vegetarian?

* George Bernard Shaw (vegetarian)

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As we opt for the vegiburger, we might recall that, for all our sins, to day is National Sausage Pizza Day. While pizza dates back (at least) to the ancient Greek custom of covering bread with oils, herbs and cheese (in Byzantine Greek, the dish was spelled πίτα (pita)meaning “pie”), pizza-as-we-know-it seems to have been born in modern Italy as Neapolitan flatbread.  An estimated 3 billion pizzas are sold in the U.S. every year, an average of 350 per second; 17% of all restaurants in the U.S. are pizzerias, more than 10% of which are in New York City. [source]

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Written by LW

October 11, 2016 at 1:01 am

Caveat discipulus…

 

 xkcd

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As we lick our pencils, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics as well:  Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by LW

April 22, 2013 at 1:01 am

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