(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘moral philosophy

“Philosophy fails to give injustice its due”*…

 

I am an American Sklar

“Following evacuation orders, this [Oakland] store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.” Photo/caption: Dorothea Lange (3.13.42)

 

An astute commentator recently suggested that Isaiah Berlin would be Riga’s greatest political thinker ‒ if not for Judith N Shklar. We are seeing the beginning of a rediscovery of Shklar and her contribution to 20th-century intellectual life, but she remains something of an insider’s reference. Who was she and what did she have to say that is so important? How did this Jewish émigrée girl from Latvia come to be regarded by many legal and political theorists as one of the 20th century’s most important political thinkers?

Shklar is most often cited as a critic of mainstream liberal thought. During the Cold War in particular, liberalism served as an ideological weapon against the totalitarian threat of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. But Shklar was concerned about the stifling dimensions of this kind of Western intellectual defence mechanism: it served merely to protect the status quo, and was very often a mere fig leaf for the accumulation of material wealth and for other, more problematic aspects of Western culture. It didn’t ignite any critical reflection or assist any self-awareness of how the liberties of Western democracy had arrived at such a perceived high standing. It was also silent about the fact that fascism had developed in countries that had been identified as pillars of Western civilisation.

In contrast to such self-congratulatory rhetoric, Shklar’s criticism aimed primarily at checking the easy optimism of Cold War liberalism, which, despite challenges to its authority, continues to maintain the inflated image of Western democracies. In Shklar’s view, liberalism is neither a state nor a final achievement. She understood, better than most, the fragility of liberal societies, and she wanted to preserve the liberties they made possible. Shklar saw the increasing availability of private consumer choice and the ever-expanding catalogue of rights often propounded in the name of liberalism as threats to the best achievements of Western democracies. In contrast to orthodox liberal arguments that aim at a summum bonum or common good, Shklar advocated a liberalism of fear, which holds in its sights the summum malum ‒ cruelty. Avoiding cruelty, and the suffering it causes, is the chief aim. Other vices such as hypocrisy, snobbery, arrogance, betrayal and misanthropy should be ranked in relation to this first vice…

Sklar

Shklar in her Harvard office

Judith Shklar and the dilemma of modern liberalism: “The theorist of belonging.”

* Judith Shklar

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for Robert Maynard Pirsig; he died on this date in 2017.  A philosopher, professor, and author, he is best remembered for two books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (an exploration into the nature of “quality” in the form of a memoir of a cross-country motorcycle trip) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (the account of a sailing journey on which Pirsig’s alter-ego develops a value-based metaphysics).

Pirsig2005_(cropped) source

 

“Who owns the future? This is the question at the heart of every stock market.”*…

 

stock market

 

In November of last year, I opened a brokerage account. I had been reading simple, bullet-pointed introductions to financial literacy for a few months before that, manuals “for dummies” of the sort that I am conditioned to hold in contempt when their subject is, say, Latin, or the Protestant Reformation…

It was driven home to me repeatedly in my early efforts to build an investment strategy that, quite apart from the question of whether the quest for wealth is sinful in the sense understood by the painters of vanitas scenes, it is most certainly and irredeemably unethical. All of the relatively low-risk index funds that are the bedrock of a sound investment portfolio are spread across so many different kinds of companies that one could not possibly keep track of all the ways each of them violates the rights and sanctity of its employees, of its customers, of the environment. And even if you are investing in individual companies (while maintaining healthy risk-buffering diversification, etc.), you must accept that the only way for you as a shareholder to get ahead is for those companies to continue to grow, even when the limits of whatever good they might do for the world, assuming they were doing good for the world to begin with, have been surpassed. That is just how capitalism works: an unceasing imperative for growth beyond any natural necessity, leading to the desolation of the earth and the exhaustion of its resources. I am a part of that now, too. I always was, to some extent, with every purchase I made, every light switch I flipped. But to become an active investor is to make it official, to solemnify the contract, as if in blood…

Justin E. H. Smith (@jehsmith) wrestles with taking stock of one’s soul: “On the Market.”

* John Landgraf

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As we ponder the long and short of it all, we might recall that today is National Pig Day.

pig source

 

 

Written by LW

March 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…

 

Trolley Problem

 

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:

 

Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:

 

For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

220px-john_rawls source

 

“We must believe in free will — we have no choice”*…

 

CHidi

 

In March, a group of neuroscientists and philosophers announced that they’ve received $7 million to study the nature of free will and whether humans have it. Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University, is leading the project. “As a scientist, I don’t know what it entails to have free will,” he said in an interview with Science. That’s a philosophical puzzle. But once Maoz’s philosopher colleagues agree on a definition, he can get to work to see if it occurs in humans. “This is an empirical question. It may be that I don’t have the technology to measure it, but that is at least an empirical question that I could get at.”…

Or can he?  An update on neuroscientific efforts to answer a philosophical question– and an appreciation of your correspondent’s favorite television series, The Good Place: “Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?

* Isaac Bashevis Singer

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As we muse on motivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that George Herriman‘s signature characters, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, made their first appearance in the bottom of the frames in Herriman’s The Dingbat Family daily comic strip.  They got their own strip three years later, scored a Sunday panel in 1916– and delighted readers with the surreal philosophical questions they raised until 1944.

krazy-kat-first-daily1058_page2_large-2 source

 

 

Written by LW

July 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“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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