Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Emerson on Patience and Education

"Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience. Do you know how the naturalist learns all the secrets of the forest, of plants, of birds, of beasts, of reptiles, of fishes, of the rivers and the sea? When he goes into the woods the birds fly before him and he finds none; when he goes to the river bank, the fish and the reptile swim away and leave him alone. His secret is patience; he sits down, and sits still; he is a statue; he is a log. These creatures have no value for their time, and he must put as low a rate on his. By dint of obstinate sitting still, reptile, fish, bird and beast, which all wish to return to their haunts, begin to return. He sits still; if they approach, he remains passive as the stone he sits upon. They lose their fear. They have curiosity too about him. By and by the curiosity masters the fear, and they come swimming, creeping and dying towards him; and as he is still immovable, they not only resume their haunts and their ordinary labors and manners, show themselves to him in their work-day trim, but also volunteer some degree of advances towards fellowship and good understanding with a biped who behaves so civilly and well. Can you not baffle the impatience and passion of the child by your tranquility? Can you not wait for him, as Nature and Providence do? Can you not keep for his mind and ways, for his secret, the same curiosity you give to the squirrel, snake, rabbit, and the sheldrake and the deer? He has a secret; wonderful methods in him; he is--every child--a new style of man; give him time and opportunity."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Education"

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bumper Sticker Philosophy & Wittgensteinian Reminders

Our dependence upon others and the natural world can be summarized almost perfectly by a bumper sticker I occasionally see on the roads in Kentucky, where I live: “No Farms, No Food.” Indeed. If, as Wittgenstein claimed, the point of philosophy is to give reminders of truths that we all too easily forget or take for granted, then that bumper sticker is an exemplary piece of philosophy.

(A snippet from a piece I'm working on about humility and environmental ethics...)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mark Twain on "The Moral Sense"

I just came across Mark Twain's essay "Man's Place in the Animal World" (discussed in David Livingstone Smith's Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. (You can find Twain's essay in this collection.) This is the essay in which he famously wrote, "man is the Animal that Blushes. He is the only one that does it--or has the occasion to."

As you might guess, the essay is a send-up of the idea that humans are the "highest" of the animals, or the highest of earthly beings on the Great Chain of Being. By contrast with other animals, Twain finds us avaricious, quarrelsome and cruel, and not nearly as "reasoning" as we like to think. ("Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute....His record is the fantastic record of a maniac.")

Twain traces our various questionable characteristics to the ultimate Defect of our being endowed with "The Moral Sense":
He is the only animal that has it. It is the secret of his degradation. It is the quality which enables him to do wrong. It has no other office. It is incapable of performing any other function. It could never have been intended to perform any other. Without it, man could do no wrong...
Twain goes on to compare the moral sense to having rabies, to suggest that it, too, is a disease, but a worse one:
Rabies is bad, but it is not so bad as this disease. Rabies enables a man to do a thing which he could not do when in a healthy state: kill his neighbor with a poisonous bite. No one is the better man for having rabies. The Moral Sense enables a man to do wrong. It enables him to do wrong in a thousand ways. Rabies is an innocent disease, compared to the Moral Sense. No one, then, can be the better man for having the Moral Sense.
Is this a sound argument? One could accuse Twain of ignoring the counterpoint that the "moral sense" also enables one to do good. Nevertheless, he concludes:
What, now, do we find the Primal Curse to have been? Plainly what it was in the beginning: the infliction upon man of the Moral Sense; the ability to distinguish good from evil; and with it, necessarily, the ability to do evil; for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it.
Unless Twain thinks there's an asymmetry between doing good and doing evil, it seems like we should say the same thing about doing good--that there can be no good act "without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it." Twain certainly doesn't appear to be an internalist about moral motivation; that seems to be implicit. So, the good is not internally motivating. He suggests that our ability to distinguish good and evil enables us to consciously choose evil. Given his inattention to the converse point--that we could also consciously choose to do good--I take it that he finds the converse point to be of little consolation.

Twain's point may simply be that the "moral sense" alone does not make us good, or "better" than other animals. The ability to distinguish between good and evil, in the way Twain characterizes it, is itself a morally neutral capacity, like sight or echolocation. Sure, we have the capacity to do good, but we also have the capacity to do great evil. Animals, by contrast, are not "vicious" (as I have discussed before), though animals do engage in violence and killing. The difference, for Twain, appears to be that they do not choose it for its own sake, nor do they rationalize their violence by dehumanizing their victims, or by claiming metaphysical/theological license for their acts. Animals do not make excuses. I wonder whether anyone has made that suggestion: that what distinguishes humans from other animals is that we make excuses. (If not, then you heard it here first!)

Or, to follow Twain's form: humans are the only animals that can apologize, or need to.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Some Aspects of Interpersonal Humility

I'm working on an essay that distinguishes between "interpersonal humility" and "environmental humility" in order to try to make (better) sense of the charge that anthropocentrism falls prey to the vice of arrogance (in a way that is not question-begging). Currently I'm working out a sketch of interpersonal humility (humility understood in terms of our relations with other people) and have suggested the following. The interpersonally humble person:

1. Is mindful of his or her dependencies upon others, and thus is inclined, on the one hand, to acknowledge privately and publicly the role that others have played in his or her own successes, and on the other hand, to be receptive to assistance offered by others (i.e. is not “proud” in the sense that he or she refuses help or benefits from others);

2. Regards him or herself as one among others, and thus not deserving of special (inequitable) moral consideration (viz. is not arrogant); because of 1 & 2 the humble person;

3. Sees his or her own well-being as interconnected with the well-being of others; furthermore, he or she

4. Understands our psychological propensity to self-enhancing bias and egoism, and so strives to counteract this propensity by giving special attention to the well-being of others (that is, he or she does not think that the well-being of other matters more than her own well-being, impersonally considered, but recognizes the risk of personal bias);

5. Recognizes his or her own epistemic limitations, and thus that giving special attention to others, caring well for others, requires attending to the perspectives of others, learning from others and not merely about others; and,

6. Acts in ways that reflect these various recognitions and evaluations.

The ultimate goal is to use considerations flowing out of the fifth point (both the need and the value of learning from others) to ground an understanding of "environmental humility" as a virtue, too. Roughly, we can learn from nature, too, but this requires a kind of attention and openness and absence of self-absorption that go along with interpersonal humility, too. In addition, our dependency upon the natural world makes the idea that we can coherently value human life as superior to that which sustains it seem a bit suspect; the achievements and abilities of humankind don't occur without the cooperation, as it were, of the natural world. Of course, some of the things we can learn from nature are scary and dreadful, and our dependence upon nature has a dark aspect, too (the natural world can crush us). So, I'm hoping to pull this off without being sentimental about "nature." I realize this may seem a bit messy at this point, but just as I was about to abandon the project, a path seemed to reveal itself. Thoughts?

(Apologies for the recent silence. Busy teaching.)