Sunday, July 31, 2011


From The Gay Science, Sec. 325:
What belongs to greatness--Who will attain something great if he does not feel in himself the power to inflict great pain? Being able to suffer is the least; weak women and even slaves often achieve mastery at that. But not to perish of inner distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering--that is great; that belongs to greatness.
Rob Sica brought this passage to my attention when I first introduced the notion that facing others as subjects is an essential part of moral courage, the taking of stand for one's moral convictions. This is no doubt one of the "terrible" moments in Nietzsche's work--that is, roughly, the sort of thing that the Nazis would have liked.

I don't know enough about Nietzsche's life to speculate much about the psychological motivations for this kind of statement, though my general impression is that he was a generally civil, gentle, and frail man. Perhaps there was some self-loathing here?

Whether we want to agree that what he describes is a feature of greatness, he is at least right that we do not like to look at suffering, and it is furthermore difficult, as Gaita has said, to see the humanity in another who is suffering greatly from some affliction. There is a greatness of soul in the person who can see that. (Gaita would say that it takes a saint to see it in the hardest cases, but that seems rather different from what Nietzsche has in mind.)

But what about Nietzsche's seemingly terrible point about inflicting suffering? I think it is connected to the point about, for to "hear the cry of this suffering" could be read as hearing the cry of a fellow human (or even fellow creature). It might seem that Nietzsche's great man is capable of being utterly heartless.

On the other hand, it might seem that he has a point to make that connects to what I've suggested about facing others: if genuine moral courage involves facing others as subjects, and should the stand one takes cause others to suffer (either physically or psychologically), then it is one thing to avoid facing those effects of one's actions by objectifying (or demonizing, etc.) those one opposes, and something different to remain steadfast in one's aims, while recognizing the humanity of those one opposes. As Duncan Richter has recently noted, it will be tempting to see those one opposes in abstract, objectifying terms. This, I suspect, makes it easier to justify doing terrible things to them, because this objectification allows one to act without facing the particularity (and distinct humanity) of those others. One might think that this is where the Nazis failed, though I'm not sure how plausible this is, and such a sweeping suggestion is an abstraction itself.

So, maybe Nietzsche is thinking that it is only if one can honestly face the other as a fellow human that one shows greatness. We could understand such an honest facing as being fully alive to their suffering--to how bad it is, not "alive" in the sense of enjoying it. In many cases, I would guess that being fully alive to it would force us to stop what we are doing, and in many cases, that might be the point (even Nietzsche's point). But then Nietzsche leaves open that one's cause could be worthy enough to overrule this empathetic engagement. And this would be part of saying "Yes!" to everything, as Richter notes (in the post above). At the moment, I can't think of a way of describing such a situation that wouldn't still leave it seeming terrible--"I'm sorry, but this is what I must do..." or, "I know you are suffering, but you deserve it..."--but perhaps that's Nietzsche's point. This is related, among other things, to revenge, and I hope to return to that topic soon (in connection with moral courage).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"I'd do anything for my children."


Today I discussed Crito with my two summer classes. Lively discussion. Most of those sympathetic to Crito's view that Socrates should escape are most impressed by Crito's complaint that if Socrates refuses to escape, he is betraying his children.

Beyond the considerations raised in the dialogue--including that Socrates could have his friends care for his children--I tried to get the students to think about this from the future perspective of Socrates' children: if he escapes, might his children lose respect for him, to think that he is a hypocrite? Might they learn from him that doing what one thinks is right isn't important when there's a threat of punishment?

What about cases where a person does something shameful, or even abhorrent, because "the children must eat"? At least one person in class suggested that those children should, when they grow out of their "childlike views," be grateful that they are alive and that their parents did what was necessary to feed and support them. Is that true? Would it be wrong to resent what one's parents did, or to feel that one's own life is tainted by the shame of what they did. Suppose a child says: "I cannot bear to live with the fact that I am only alive because of the terrible things you did." Is that unreasonable? Must one be grateful? (One might understand, but understanding is not acceptance.)

Of course, some people seem to take the position that there isn't anything shameful about doing what is necessary to care for one's children. What might be shameful if done for other reasons isn't so if done out of love for one's children. No doubt there can be dilemmas, but should we believe that doing the thing for one's children automatically removes the shamefulness? If nothing else, I doubt that in every case it is psychologically possible to buy into this, unless one has no sense of shame at all. (That is, there will be something which, even if done for one's children, will leave one with a sense of shame.)

Someone might say: "Then you must not really love your children." I recall this response being made on a comment thread about the possible parole of Michael Woodmansee (who committed a terrible murder)--that the person who does not see the point of killing Woodmansee (as the father of the victim said he would, were Woodmansee to be paroled), of exacting that revenge on him (were he to have killed one's own child), fails to have true love for his children. (I discussed this briefly here.) This strikes me as completely wrong, and perhaps a bit hysterical. It at least begs the question against the person who rejects revenge as a matter of moral principle. Apply this to Socrates' case: "you must not really love your children if you refuse to escape."

This seems like an attempt to make Socrates' principled stand seem merely selfish. Wouldn't that make taking any moral stand, at the cost of incurring risks to oneself, merely selfish (if one has children to care for)? That can't be right. This idea that we should do absolutely anything for our children seems absolutely dangerous. And it points to an important way in which love for one's children can be a source of great temptation.

In a way, I'm tempted to think that just as Gaita says he has never met anyone he credits with actually believing that "meat is murder" (even if they say it), that anyone who says, "I would do anything for my children," has not really thought about what "anything" includes, and so can't be credited with believing what they have said. But I'm not so sure. Maybe some people do believe it and understand exactly what it entails. Is that love? Or: is that the kind of love we should teach our children? Is it not simply to teach them that, deep down, anything goes?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Omnipotence & Evolution

I just got done going through some student homework responses on the argument from design. I posed the following: "True or False: Evolution is inconsistent with the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe." Mainly, I did this as a way of seeing what people know about evolution and where they are coming from.

Of note is that a considerable number of students conflate evolution with the theory of spontaneous generation (and so, as it were, run together cosmological and teleological issues). Keep that in mind (if you didn't already) the next time you discuss this.

I don't have any particular axe to grind on these issues, except that I am, as its called, an accomodationist. That is, it seems silly to me to think that evolution necessarily (logically) crowds out any sort of divine hand. Whether there is a divine hand (or whatever) is a different issue. I personally think it's silly to pit one's religions against science, and to be a strict literalist about creation. So here's a new sort of response I've hit upon, to challenge those caught up in literalism to re-think what they're doing: I ask, "In saying that evolution and intelligent design are incompatible, are you saying that there's something God can't do, namely, create things through a process of evolution?" I think this is a useful Socratic move because it uses their assumption that God can do anything to reconsider their resistance. Whether it works, we'll have to wait and see.

No doubt, Dawkins wouldn't like this kind of thing, since he would say that there's no need to posit the divine hand if random mutations can fully explain the origin of various species (etc.). But again, that's a separate issue. I just want them to think about the logical compatibility issue. Thoughts about the strategy above?

Certainly, one could say: but that isn't how God did it; haven't you read your Genesis? (And of course, there's not enough time to talk about that theological issue in the philosophy classroom, in all its various permutations. I do point out that, whatever the motivation for literalism, there were plenty of saints who weren't literalists, like Augustine.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Some Good News for Moral Courage

Situationist critiques of character (as discussed in Appiah's Experiments in Ethics appeal to psychological research to challenge the idea that there are general, stable character-based dispositions. A classic case is the phone booth study (Isen and Levin (1974)), in which individuals who found a dime in a phone booth nearly all helped a person who dropped a pile of papers, whereas those who went dimeless almost never helped. So, kindness, it would seem, is contingent on situation (and perhaps mood) rather than any kind of stable character trait as kindness. One can contest these sorts of critiques on various grounds--perhaps genuine character is the exception rather than the rule, for example, and so it shouldn't be surprising that the behavior of most people varies more radically.

So here's the good news I discovered for moral courage, in a paper from The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue. If we take mood to be the factor affecting helping behavior in the phone booth study, Niesta, Greitemeyer, Fischer, and Frey (2008) (cited in Osswald, Greitemeyer, Fischer, and Frey, in the volume linked above) found that mood does not affect morally courageous intervention. This may be because the perception of a greater wrong is more strongly motivating than just the perception of something, as it were, amiss. That seems right. (This sort of action, unlike helping behavior, involves incurring substantive risks to oneself in order to intervene in the unjust (etc.) treatment of another.) The article in which the study is cited doesn't say what proportion of subjects intervened in the courage situation, and that might be worth knowing, too, for other reasons.

Some less good (though perhaps not shocking) news from the article is that while people are typically quick at recognizing situations that would seem to call for a (morally courageous) intervention, "people feel less competent to intervene than in other prosocial incidents." That's important, insofar as confidence is essential to courageous action (and where calling the police isn't a viable option...) I wish I could read German, as the authors have several works in their native language, and conduct workshops that aim to equip people with reasonable strategies which at the same time minimize risk to self (in part by finding ways to involve others in the intervening action).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Integrity, Tranqulity, and Conflict

If you have comments on my (draft) paper "Integrity and Struggle," now is the time. I've gotten some helpful feedback from an anonymous referee, and have some work to do.

In the paper, I challenge a conception of integrity that I call "psychological integrity" and attribute to (among others) John Cottingham. This may seem puzzling since Cottingham argues that either psychological wholeness is not sufficient for a good life (though it may be necessary), or "true integrity" requires not only psychological wholeness, but also an orientation to the (objective) good.

However, I think the label is apt for my purposes because Cottingham appeals often to the notion of psychological wholeness in articulating integrity before turning to the question of whether integrity is sufficient for a good life. He reads the Psalmist's prayer for an "undivided heart" as a desire to attain sufficient psychological wholeness (or order, or unity) in order to be capable of orienting oneself wholeheartedly to the good.

The bone I have to pick is not with the desire to be oriented toward the good, or with the idea that the good is something transcendent of our own desires, projects, or commitments. (Here, Cottingham argues against the notions of integrity and authenticity flowing from the work of Williams and Frankfurt, or against the notion that authenticity or wholeheartedness itself is sufficient for a good life.) Rather, it has to do with the attitude Cottingham takes toward conflict and struggle. The person who struggles against temptation may show fortitude, but not integrity--the struggle reveals a lack of full integration. There is, I agree, something to this, and on the other hand, Cottingham acknowledges that the person of integrity is not an "angelic zombie for whom there are no hard questions" (p. 8).

However, while Cottingham rightly acknowledges that cultivating integrity involves a great deal of self-understanding--among other things about the sources of desires that give rise to conflict, or which threaten to lead us down paths which are reasonably seen as temptations--my sense is that Cottingham too easily assumes (or hopes, as he suggests at the end of his paper), that full integrity culminates in a kind of tranquility which contrasts strongly with our typical existence as "conflicted beings," which is part of our "lot as flawed creatures" (p. 13).

Perhaps. But my basic question, and challenge, is: why can we not allow that integrity could involve a deep understanding of oneself that recognizes--and perhaps in some cases, embraces--the conflicts that are part of self and life? This is not to suggest that we celebrate conflict for its own sake, or do not seek integration where possible (perhaps resulting in new creative discoveries or possible ways of living), but without being lured into the tempting thought that a kind of Stoic tranquility in all things is where we should, after all, be heading. If we are essentially conflicted beings--which we could see in the positive light of our being attracted to many positively good things, and not just conflicted in the negative sense of being prone to immoral temptation--then that aspiration for a tranquil reconciliation and resting place is unreachable, unrealistic, a desire to be something we are not, and yet another instance of yearning for a kind of "living death."

I'm not exactly saying, contra the last point, that we must rage against they dying of the light, either. Rather, I mean roughly that we grow through our struggles, and may take the particular challenges and even afflictions life throws at us--which we may overcome or may have to contend with for the duration of our lives--to be the very things through which our integrity (or lack thereof) is manifest. This has to do with what Gaita calls facing our situation in an "uncompromising spirit of truthfulness," and I think we can do that whether or not it results in the elimination of conflict. Facing our situation in a spirit of truthfulness, we may discover the limited extent to which psychological integration is possible for us. (Think of the cases in my paper in which I discuss addicts and people with multiplicitous identities, for example.)

It might be thought that Cottingham is right after all, and that while such cases will require great (and perfectly admirable) fortitude (or courage)--including the courage not to give in to despair--such conflicted, fragmented lives are not what we desire when we aspire to greater integrity. Certainly, they may not be the kinds of lives we would desire (or trade for), but there are perhaps other kinds of admirable lives that, in that desire for tranquility, we would prefer to admire from afar (the tormented artist and so forth). Nevertheless, I agree with Gaita (and need to find better ways of articulating this) that a conflicted life can be lived with integrity. This may depend upon the fragmentations not being too deep, or upon their not making reflection and self-understanding impossible. And such people would presumably have some sense of who they are and aspire to be, and recognize giving into certain temptations, or making certain self-compromises, as inconsistent with that. But if we begin with conflict, and not all conflict is bad, then integration is not simply the elimination of all possible conflicts within the self. Cottingham might agree with this.

I can agree with Cottingham that it involves attempts to bring, as far as possible, one's first-order desires and dispositions in line with one's second-order desires (or, one's values), to understand hidden or repressed motives and so forth. And so integrity would rule out certain kinds of temptation (if by temptation we mean actually deliberating about doing or taking what tempts us, and not just being aware that it has a kind of pseudo-attractiveness that our own values rule out as giving us a reason to fully consider it). So then where is the difference between us? Perhaps in this: that at the end of his paper, he hopes for tranquility, and (again) sees that as the culmination of full integrity. Whereas I would picture things as: making something grand or beautiful or meaningful of our struggles, on the basis of some guiding principle or ideal (and, again, I agree with the spirit of Cottingham's views about the good), though I would see the hope for a kind of tranquility itself as perhaps (or sometimes) a temptation to be overcome, and at least as unnecessary for our taking a person to have shown great integrity in how she led her life.

While some degree of psychological wholeness thus matters even here, I contrast Cottingham's "psychological integrity" with what I call "practical integrity," since the accomplishments I associate above with integrity are not just psychological accomplishments, but practical accomplishments that outshine the inner struggles from which they were born, and yet without which, they might not, in many cases, have existed at all. (I'm thinking for example of people whose testaments of their own struggles with addiction and to maintain sobriety can reveal the kind of spirit of truthfulness Gaita mentions, as well as steadfastness in the face of forces difficult to control, and who, among other things, make themselves living examples of what is possible for others facing similar problems.)