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I imagine everyone has seen the amazing videos of Google's robots by now.
At 0:35 in this video, a researcher gives the robot a kick to demonstrate its ability to maintain balance. No matter how many times I watch it, it still disturbs me. It's not that I ascribe feelings to the robot. Apparently I do believe that one can be mean to insentient beings.
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I think a striving to be "a good person" often derails into rationalizing and justifying our not-so-good actions as somehow virtuous. I have the impression that often, when there is a conflict between our moral sense and some other consideration, people try to redefine their morals so as to avoid ever acting immoral in their own mind, even if such rationalisations appear blatantly self-serving to others. I think that is actually the greater evil - it's a habit that can lead people very far astray, committing atrocities that they've convinced themselves are moral.

I think the main fallacy behind this is seeing "goodness" as an attribute of a person (if we do a bad thing we're not a good person anymore) rather than a property of an action. It gets even more convoluted by bringing intentions into it - so if you do a bad deed with good intentions or a good deed with wicked intent, it's the intent that determines your "goodness". Clearly if we strive above all to be "a good person" it becomes more important to us that our intentions were "pure" than how many people were hurt by our actions. Like a Christian focus on sin, it can lead to judgmental airs of moral purity and hypocrisy - one's "stance" trumps the actual consequences of one's behavior.

I tend to think that moderation in all things (including moderation) is usually preferable to all manner of extremism. In my opinion, it is better to *not* try for "moral perfection". Because, if we think a certain course of action is "good", then being anything less than fanatical about it would mean acting less "good" than we are able to. But the moment we start investigating, the concept of absolute, objective or essential morality quickly collapses, and one is left trying to do good when "good" has no fixed meaning.

The childish answer is the negative "don't do anything bad" - don't break the rules. A more mature morality will make judgments on what a given situation requires - who will benefit, who will we harm, in which kind of world do we want to live? Even then I think perfect morality would require perfect wisdom; it's easy enough to say that, for example, minimising harm is a good thing, but it's far from easy to figure out what course of action in a given situation corresponds to minimal harm.

Since I'm only moderately wise, I think it's best if I accept that I can only be moderately moral, too. History is full of atrocities committed by people whose desire to be moral exceeded their wisdom. Or as they say; "the best is the enemy of the good." I think it's preferable to leave my morals intact even if I sometimes don't live up to them for various reasons of fallibility.

If people try to "be good" rather than "do good", they have to resolve the tension between who they are and who they think they ought to be. I think that being excessively bothered by that gap may lead one into bizarre directions. Much simpler to say that no person is "good" or "bad" as some inherent property, but rather the same people can act in ways we admire or disapprove of...
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I was watching a lecture on morality by prof. Sandel when some questions occurred to me (

Most students chose the option to divert the trolley on a track with only one person, thereby avoiding five. But most students didn't want to save the five by pushing a fat man in front of the trolley car.

Sandel is a Kantian, so he theorizes that pushing the fat man in front of the trolley is "using a conscious entity as a means" and we instinctively shy away from that. But what intrigued me was the (all to brief) explanation from one of the very few students who didn't want to divert the trolley in the first scenario - in my opinion it was basically a similarly Kantian argument; the student said that by diverting the trolley you are sacrificing the one to save the five, and that is something one should categorically never do. Sandel asks, almost sarcastically "even if it means five people are killed instead?" yet doesn't ask this from people who don't want to push the fat man.

Personally I think Kant's maxim is flawed because it's totally fuzzy what "treating a person only as an end in itself" even means. I think you can *always* find a perspective that says you're using someone "as a means". So I was probably not going to be convinced by that anyway, but I think the student's position shows how subjective and arbitrary Kant-like arguments are applied.

An interesting idea then occurred to me: look at what the choices *avoid* rather than what they select. In the first scenario people don't actually choose to kill the one person; they choose to avoid running over the five others. What of the second scenario? You avoid either (1) pushing the fat man in front of the trolley, killing him; or (2) standing by and doing nothing while five people die.

I think we can explain the reaction to the second scenario by stating that people would vastly prefer to stand by and do nothing rather than get involved, deciding who lives or dies, and run the risk of criticism for it. The difference with the first scenario is I think that there, we are said to be at the steering wheel of the trolley, and one could argue that steering one way or the other is anyway our choice so we can't really escape blame either way. But if we DID push the fat man, the trolley would stop, the fat man would be dead, the five would never know they were in danger, and it'd be left to us to explain why pushing someone onto the tracks seemed like a good idea.

It seems to me that the student who objected to diverting the car in the first scenario basically declined responsibility for steering, he wanted to let the car run as it would rather than bear the moral consequences of making a choice. He preferred to be a bystander, it seems.

So I don't think this shows that we somehow instinctively obey Kant's moral maxims. Rather I think it may show our penchant for what is called the "bystander effect".

But knowing that humans have a proven tendency to shirk responsibility in emergencies, what are we to make of our instinctive reluctance to push the fat man in front of the train, thereby saving five lives? Can we trust it as a "moral intuition" telling us what's right? Or are we merely finding justifications for our unwillingness to do the right thing and take responsibility for it?
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These are some thoughts following an argument I had with someone who believes that "cruelty" implies a malevolent will to hurt others. As a result of which I was prompted to ponder my views on the nature of evil.

Legally, "malice" depends on the intent to inflict harm, or recklessness as to whether such harm should occur, regardless of any pleasure taken in the pain of others, or malevolent will to do evil. So I think one can be called cruel without implying intent to inflict harm.

Regarding evil, personally, I don't think "evil" is an independent quality - rather, I see evil as lack of "goodness" (in a Qlippothic sense), a deviation from the ideal, actions devoid of conscience, life spelled backwards. Evil is banal, it is stupid. It is ignorance according to Plato, or lack of imagination according to Arendt.

To quote Arendt: "It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims."

So like with cruelty, I don't think "evil" implies demonic intent so much as a disregard for consequences.

It could be argued that my definition of "evil" is no different from being human and fallible - that is the point. I have no use for a concept of supernatural evil. Even someone who is enslaving nations, burning cities, eating babies and strangling kittens for fun is being fallibly human. They are "evil" because they are being less good than they could be. If they absolutely *couldn't* be better, that would make them less evil, not more so. A mudslide, a hurricane or a bullet aren't "evil," because there are no "better angels of their nature" which they ignore.
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This is from the memoirs of Jean de Joinville:

On the way from their dwelling to the Sultan's palace, Brother Ives saw an old woman crossing the street, who carried in her right hand a pannikin full of fire, and in the left a flask full of water. "What are you going to do with this?" Brother Ives asked her. She answered: That, with the fire she was going to burn up Heaven; and with the water she was going to quench Hell, that there might be no such things any more. And he asked her: " Why do you want to do that? " " Because I want no one ever to do right for the sake of the reward of Heaven, nor for fear of Hell, but simply to win the love of God, which is worth all the rest, and in which consisteth all our good."


The person craving blessedness
gives food to the poor
to save his own soul.
The Taoist sage
gives food to the poor
because they are hungry.
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In human-speak, if you say that you are sad and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours ("sadness"). This triggers in me a recollection of "what is sadness" or "what is to be sad". I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.

Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection and on my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my "sadness" is even remotely similar to your sadness. I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it "sadness" and I empathize with you.

This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn't been the cornerstone of morality.

But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy - it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective processes in two or more subjective. Such an agreement can never have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned. They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, falsify or verify (prove) that the "same" emotion is experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement. Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced to a set of meaningless private languages.
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Given that we each have our individual sexual desires, pleasures and squicks, we would need to respect the autonomy of the person answering that question. Even if we feel disturbed or disgusted by something that somebody does, we would need to recognize that the source of those feelings come from within ourselves and that it is our job to manage that, rather than trying to keep people from doing things that “gross us out.”

In support of that, I would suggest that we need to change our language from “that grosses me out” to “I feel disgust/shame/anger/etc when I see that.” It seems to me that a content-based ethical system will work better when we can take responsibility for our reactions rather than blaming them on someone else. That’s easier to do when we can use language that reflects that understanding. Right speech doesn’t mean that we don’t have reactions or strong emotions. It simply means that we speak in ways that avoid harm. In my experience, blaming others for our emotions causes harm, both because it accuses someone of something that they didn’t do and because it takes away our power by claiming that someone else is responsible for our feelings.
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Sin is not very popular as a concept these days. But in the rush to get rid of arbitrary commandments it is easy to forget that the concept goes way back and had a number of applications, some of which still relevant.

Sin, in the catholic definition, is an act deprived of its due rectitude. Our acts are due "rectitude" because we are created in God's image. Sin then is to act against our (divine) nature. It is a sickness of the soul. The seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, lust, greed, sloth, gluttony) are "mortal" in that context - like a disease. And like a disease, there isn't that much to do about them directly; "don't feel anger" is not a realistic suggestion. Fortunately there was a cure: the practice of the opposite virtues. Practicing the virtues will prevent falling into the opposite vices.

Lust - Chastity
Gluttony - Moderation
Greed - Liberality
Sloth - Diligence
Anger - Patience
Envy - Charity
Pride - Humility

(note; historically this list has varied a lot. It goes back to pagan origins. Interestingly, there used to be a sin of "melancholy" and its opposite virtue "joy" which got replaced by sloth-dilligence)

At the head of the deadly sins was pride, this being the first sin, which caused the fall of Lucifer.

Now pride can be both excessive self-love, or excessive self-hatred. At heart it is an unrealistic self-assessment, and a failure to recognize "the grace of God" in oneself or others. In the Greek tradition of seeing virtue as the mean between two extremes of vice, pride then seems to be concerned with the scale between self-hate and arrogance. There is however another dimension to it; both excessive self-love or self-hate have in common an excessive preoccupation with oneself and a lack of consideration for others.

The virtue of humility is also not very popular today, as it gets associated with abject self-abasement. But proper humility is "taking for oneself an appropriate amount of space while leaving room for others".

So the "sin of pride" can manifest as a despairing lack of self-esteem. It can be argued that one aspect of this is indeed "excessive preoccupation with oneself" - One doesn't care much about others, mostly they are just a backdrop to measure one's self-esteem issues against. One could combat this by an effort to develop an attitude of caring for others - not in a selfish and clingy way, but really "giving them room" in one's life. This may be very awkward at first if it feels like just pretending - but they say "virtue is a habit." Habits can be learned. When one views others as persons, it becomes apparent that nearly everyone is "broken" in some way but they have positive qualities despite or even because of it; and secondly and perhaps most significantly, as one learns to be more patient with others, one starts to have more patience for oneself too.
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I've been playing with the idea of mapping systems of morality to Freudian levels of personality.

It seems fairly straightforward for deontological morality and Kantian categorical imperatives (you should follow the rules regardless of who gets hurt): this is the superego speaking, or the superego hijacking the ego to provide a rational justification for its rules. Consequentialism/utilitarianism on the other hand can easily turn into (not-so-enlightened) self-interest (what benefits me is good and therefor moral): this sounds like the Id, or the Id masquerading as the ego.

What I'm not sure about is where to put virtue morality - it's rather different from the other two in that it gives guidelines on what to BE rather than on what to DO. I find this an appealing concept, but it has a bit of a drawback in that it ideally supposes the availability of virtuous examples to follow. Finding those might be a bit tricky these days.
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Rummaging through my old files, I came across this - probably something I was planning to plagiarise for a newsletter article.

The ancient Japanese, drawing heavily on Chinese Taoism and native Shinto, adding notions of ki and human physiology, developed a theory of how power is produced by the human body. This theory can be summarized according to:

Honshin -> I -> Shin -> Ki -> Ryoku/Kei

Morality falls into place as a natural outcome of being guided by your honshin back to your michi. Following your own michi, one is at harmony with all things, and one's actions are necessarily right. No outside dictation of moral principles is necessary. No enumeration of specific principles is necessary. Based on first principles, one must be doing the right thing. Makoto or simply ma, is considered the "true" virtue-it is to be true to oneself, to be true to your honshin, hence at one with your michi.

Once one follows his or her own michi, one is well-centered in oneself and in the universe. Thus clear and unconfused intent, based on loving harmony, is possible. This intention is called i or yi. It is pure intent without action; it is a crystal-clear vision beyond words or images. It is similar to the concept in the painter's heart the instant before brush touches canvas. It is the guiding spirit that guides the sculptor's chisel. In the moment of i, the individual and the universe (through the experienced michi) are united in a common purpose so basic as to be beyond expression. This i is sometimes called i-wi, meaning "life-intention."

Without honshin the individual never finds his or her michi. Without michi, the individual never finds unity, never sees himself or herself as a proper part of the larger universe, and the intention (i) is never pure and crystal-clear.

Once this is in place, the will or the god-part of the individual comes into play. This is called shin. It is that mysterious, divine flash of lightning that joins us to higher things. The will then moves the ki (equivalent to the Chinese chi) which then flows through the various bodily channels to activate the muscles to produce highly focused, unconflicted (internally) motion. Thus kei is the highest form of physical action, essentially the same as the Chinese chin or jin.

If one does not follow the honshin and live in accord with one's michi to find the higher moral path, then the resulting strength available to the warrior is meager. The warrior becomes weak as a result of this important "gap." Thus morality is a key to strength and success on the battlefield. Likewise, one's physical strength and success provide some visibility to the degree that one embraces makoto and hence morality.


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