Thursday, February 23, 2012

Patience vs. Anger, Resentment, and Revenge

I wrote this yesterday. Does it seem like an utter crock of shit a bit too Pollyanna-ish?

...It might be said, however, that some actions are unforgivable, that some wrongs cannot be tolerated or borne patiently. In such cases, resentment and revenge might seem more appropriate: who wants to hear about giving Nazis or other war criminals a second chance? Of forgiving them for their horrible crimes against humanity? These objections are powerful, and I don’t want to undertake a detailed response to them here...Instead, I want to note...a significant difference in the orientation of patient tolerance and endurance in contrast with anger, resentment, and revenge. As I have already discussed, the patient person is also a mindful, attentive person; patience is not oblivious to harms that occur and have occurred, and the patient person need not fail to judge wrongs as wrongs. But patience is also forward-thinking, attuned not only to the past and the present but also to the future. Persistent anger and resentment, by contrast, get stuck in the past. Although the person who seeks revenge certainly makes plans for the future, his or her plans are completely constrained by the harms of the past. The way in which past harms dominate the life and thought of the vengeful and resentful person thereby constrains this person’s vision and attention—the present and future are no longer a source of novel opportunities and new ideas and relationships, but only the continuation of a bitter, narrowly defined past. This raises a question about whether the person dominated by anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge is capable of moral, intellectual, or, if you wish, spiritual growth. Patience, as well as mercy and forgiveness, might by contrast be seen as activities that enable us to get on with our lives, to be receptive to a future that is richer in its opportunities and possibilities than the future of someone who lives only for the sake of revenge, or of someone embittered against life as a result of past harms and losses. Of course, this doesn’t mean that in patience we will simply forget the past. Rather, patience makes it possible to continue to live an open, searching—one might even say, hopeful—life, in spite of the past harms and adversities that often leave permanent and deep marks upon us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Tibetan Story About Patience

[A] hermit was living alone in the mountains. One day, a herdsman happened to pass by his cave. Intrigued, the herdsman shouted at the hermit and asked, “What are you doing alone in the middle of nowhere?”
      The hermit replied, “I am meditating.”
      “What are you meditating on?” asked the herdsman.
      “On patience,” said the hermit.
      There was a moment of silence. After a while, the herdsman decided to leave.
      Just as he turned to go, he looked back at the hermit and shouted, “By the way, you go to hell!”
      “What do you mean? You go to hell!” came flying back.
      The herdsman laughed and reminded the hermit that he was supposed to be practicing patience!
[As related by the Dalai Lama's translator and assistant, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, in his introduction to The Dalai Lama's Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective. I also heard him tell this story when I saw the D.L. in Arkansas last year!]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

My thinking has been shifting lately in ways that are important, but hard to articulate, most likely in part because I'm still shifting. Let me start with some relevant quotes:
"My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul." -Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

"A method of purification: to pray to God, not only in secret as far as men are concerned, but with the thought that God does not exist.
      "Piety with regard to the dead: to do everything for what does not exist." -Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

"But when God has become as full of significance as the treasure is for the miser, we have to tell ourselves insistently that he does not exist. We must experience the fact that we love him, even if he does not exist." -Weil, Gravity and Grace

"The only philosophy that can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption....beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters." -Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Sec. 153 (Finale)

"Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God." -Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (last paragraph)
The middle three (Weil and Adorno) have most recently been on my mind; I then recognized a connection with Wittgenstein's remark about soul, and that Sartre's last paragraph of his famous essay (which has come to be my favorite paragraph from it) is also part of the story.

My ethical sympathies--e.g. my recent interest in virtues such as humility and patience--are certainly "religious," and I have a great respect for serious religious thought, and perhaps tend toward a kind of mysticism--but nothing in any way specific or theistic (in metaphysical terms). I'm coming to find at times that terms like "soul" and "God" are exactly the right terms to invoke--that God knows if anyone does, and that, as Socrates put it, one should care foremost about the state of one's soul. But my finding them this way is about using the right language to express a point; it is not a "metaphysical" discovery but rather, as it were, an ethical one.

Weil's remarks are particularly striking since she did believe in God (I assume). But she clearly thinks that a certain kind of "believing in" is a distraction and a false consolation. I just recently decided to start reading Adorno, and lucked into the line above by flipping randomly to the last page. At any rate, I think what all these passages are driving at is the idea that there are ways of orienting ourselves with regard to, and situating our lives and thoughts within, certain religious concepts, for which the significance is not a matter of taking on the metaphysical commitments normally associated with invoking those concepts.

Perhaps that's what people mean by "fictionalism." (I read Kalderon's book on moral fictionalism, or meant to read it, back when I was working on my dissertation, but it didn't leave any mark on me. I found, at that time, Blackburn's "quasi-realism" unsatisfying.) But, as in the title of this post, my sense is that what's going on isn't captured by the notion of a fiction. But I haven't figured out what does capture it. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that these concepts capture, or appeal to, the mysteries of life, to what is hidden or ineffable (or just very hard to eff, or what can only be effed at the cost of feeling that our expressions remain tentative, incomplete, and unsatisfactory)--to the depth behind the actionable surface of moral discourse, the thought and inner struggles that go on "behind the scenes" but which are ethical in character (even if of little interest to consequentialists, for example). These things are not fictions and they are not myths. But the concepts which seem to touch on them are those which are themselves mysterious. As a result, the way I would use the terms I mentioned above will not be satisfying to skeptics (who will think that such language is dispensable) or to "believers" (who will think that I have no right to this language unless I "believe in"). The trick, then, is to get away with it, which means making clear that the use of such language need not be "metaphysical." (Does that make any sense?)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Environmental & Animal Ethics (The Fast and Loose Version)

One of my colleagues, Laura Newhart, is co-teaching a course for the graduate school called "Research Ethics for Graduate Students." For part of the course they are having various faculty give brief presentations of various areas of applied ethics and to lead discussions of case studies in those areas that involve issues relevant to research. I got asked (and agreed) to give a presentation on environmental ethics and animal ethics, which is a lot to do in 25-30 minutes, leaving the rest of the time for case study discussion. I think it went reasonably well. Hard to walk into a classroom cold.

In the event that others might find it useful, here's the presentation I came up with.* (Otherwise, I just forget it ever happened.)

The case studies I discussed are online here** and here. I chose them in particular because they both involve graduate students.

* I apologize in advance for my use of all images in this presentation. (I will remove or alter the document in the face of strong complaints.)

** In case you're wondering, the study and surgery proposed in the "Experiment Discomfort" case study would never (now) be approved by a review board in the U.S. The U.S. Principles which guide all federal policies on the use of lab animals (specifically vertebrates) prohibit surgery without anesthesia. As with a lot of things, it's not technically illegal, but one could never receive funding for, and possibly not find anyone who would be willing to publish, such research. At least that's my understanding.