(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘moral philosophy

“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

###

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

source

 

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right”*…

 

People disagree about morality. They disagree about what morality prohibits, permits and requires. And they disagree about why morality prohibits, permits and requires these things. Moreover, at least some of the disagreement on these matters is reasonable. It is not readily attributable to woolly thinking or ignorance or inattention to relevant considerations. Sensible and sincere people armed with similar life experiences and acquainted with roughly the same facts come to strikingly different conclusions about the content and justification of morality.

For examples of disagreement about content, think of the standards ‘vote in democratic elections’, ‘do not smack your children’, and ‘do not eat meat’. Some reasonable people recognise a moral duty to vote, or a moral prohibition on smacking or meat-eating; others do not. To see the depth of disagreement about justification, consider the variety of reasons advanced for the widely accepted moral standard ‘do not lie’. Should we refrain from lying because God commands it, because it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number, because in deceiving others we treat them as mere means to our ends, or because the virtue of honesty is a necessary condition of our own flourishing? Each of these reasons is persuasive to some and quite unpersuasive to others.

Reasonable disagreement about morality presents educators with a problem. It is hard to see how we can bring it about that children subscribe to moral standards, and believe them to be justified, except by giving them some form of moral education. But it is also hard to see how moral educators can legitimately cultivate these attitudes in the face of reasonable disagreement about the content and justification of morality. It looks as though any attempt to persuade children of the authority of a particular moral code will be tantamount to indoctrination…

Michael Hand asks– and suggests an answer to– a desperately-important question: “If we disagree about morality, how can we teach it?

* Isaac Asimov

###

As we struggle to teach our children well, we might send fabulous birthday greetings to Publius Ovidius Naso; he was born on this date in 43 BCE.  Known in the English-speaking world as Ovid, he was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus.  He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature.  Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative written in the meter of epic, and for works in elegiac couplets such as Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) and Fasti.  His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature; he was, for instance a favorite– and favorite source– of Shakespeare.  And the Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.

Ovid enjoyed enormous popularity in his time; but, in one of the great mysteries of literary history, was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death.  Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake”; but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

 source

 

“Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put in the world to rise above”*…

 

Questions about what matters, and why, and what exists in the world, are quintessentially philosophical. The answers to many of these questions are informed by how we conceive of ourselves. How has what is often described as the ‘Copernican revolution’ effected by Charles Darwin changed our self-conception? One particularly surprising feature of evolutionary biology is that it lends significant support to existentialism…

Philosopher Ronnie de Souza suggests that ethics cannot be based on human nature because, as evolutionary biology tells us, there is no such thing: “Natural-born existentialists.”

[Photo above: “Children play on Omaha beach in Normandy, France, 1947,” by David Seymour/Magnum Photos. International Center of Photography]

* Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen

###

As we sidle up to Sartre, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam; he died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670

 source

 

Written by LW

February 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

 

You are on an asteroid careening through the cosmos. Aboard the asteroid with you are nine hundred highly-skilled physicians, who have been working on developing a revolutionary medication that will cure every disease in the known universe. The asteroid’s current trajectory is taking it straight toward the Planet of Orphans, where all intergalactic civilizations have dumped their unwanted offspring, of which there are now 100 trillion, all living, breathing, and mewling. If you detonate the asteroid, all of the doctors will die, along with the hope for curing every disease in the universe. If you do not detonate the asteroid, the doctors will have time to develop the cure and send it hurtling toward the Healing Planet before you crash into and destroy the Planet of Orphans. Thus you face the crucial question: how useful is this hypothetical for illuminating moral truths?

The “Trolley Problem” is a staple of undergraduate moral philosophy. It is a gruesome hypothetical supposedly designed to test our moral intuitions and introduce the differences between Kantian and consequentialist reasoning. For the lucky few who have thus far managed to avoid exposure to the Trolley Problem, here it is: a runaway trolley is hurtling down the track. In the trolley’s path are five workers, who will inevitably be smushed to a gory paste if it continues along its present course. But you, you have the power to change things: you happen to be standing by a switch. If you give the switch a yank, the trolley will veer onto a different track. On this track, there is only one worker. Do you pull the switch and doom the unsuspecting proletarian, or do you refrain from acting and allow five others to die?…

How a staple of moral education “turns us into horrible people, and discourages us from examining the structural factors that determine our choices”: “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily]

* Aristotle

###

As we carefully consider the questions that deserve our response, we might spare a thought for German Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; he died on this date in 1831.  While his ideas have been divisive, they have been hugely influential (e.g., here).  Karl Barth described Hegel as a “Protestant Aquinas,” while Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that “all the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis—had their beginnings in Hegel.”

 source

 

Written by LW

November 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: