Tuesday, August 28, 2012

3QD Philosophy Prize

Some of you usuals might be interested in participating in this contest at 3 Quarks Daily. Why not?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rousseau on Animals

From the Preface of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754):
Leaving aside therefore all the scientific books which teach us only to see men as they have made themselves, and meditating on the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I believe I perceive in it two principles that are prior to reason, of which one makes us ardently interested in our own well-being and our self-preservation, and the other inspires in us a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer. It is from the conjunction and combination that our mind is in a position to make regarding these two principles, without the need for introducing that of sociability, that all the rules of natural right appear to me to flow; rules which reason is later forced to reestablish on other foundations, when, by its successive developments, it has succeeded in smothering nature.
In this way one is not obliged to make a man a philosopher before making him a man. His duties toward others are not uniquely dictated to him by the belated lessons of wisdom; and as long as he does not resist the inner impulse of compassion, he will never harm another man or even another sentient being, except in the legitimate instance where, if his preservation were involved, he is obliged to give preference to himself. By this means, an end can also be made to the ancient disputes regarding the participation of animals in the natural law. For it is clear that, lacking intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognize this law; but since they share to some extent in our nature by virtue of the sentient quality with which they are endowed, one will judge that they should also participate in natural right, and that man is subject to some sort of duties toward them. It seems, in effect, that if I am obliged not to do any harm to my fellow man, it is less because he is a rational being than because he is a sentient being: a quality that, since it is common to both animals and men, should at least give the former the right not to be needlessly mistreated by the latter.
I'd forgotten about this until preparing again to teach Rousseau in my Honors Humanities courses. Since I was at the same time discussing Kant and Bentham in my animal ethics class, I had them look over the paragraphs above as well. The end of the passage anticipates Bentham's remarks, and also helps, I think, in raising questions about Kant (and his grounding moral considerability in rationality).

Of course, there's much else that could be discussed. Rousseau is positing those two principles as our basic moral psychology--and as I understand him, the moral psychology of "original man," prior to life in society, and language (and reason, in any sense above the kind of reasoning other animals are capable of). And so then one might wonder whether Rousseau is attempting to derive an ought (in the second paragraph) from the is of our, as it were, prehistoric psychology. Still, that seems like a fine place to start: what are we "really" like; what has society foisted upon us? Of course, since his "history" of our development is "conjectural," there are problems here. As he allows, perhaps we never existed as solitary beings. (Does that obviously undermine either of the two principles above, self-preservation and pity?)

Another thing that strikes me is what he says about "the participation of animals in the natural law." He says that animals cannot follow the law because they lack freedom, but that we still should not mistreat them. But when he is describing the relationship between humans in (his version of) the state of nature and other animals, he stresses that predators tend not to attack other predators, and that the threat posed to them by robust, self-sufficient human beings would have led such animals not in general to tangle with humans. (And predators do not prey upon more than they need.) So it would seem that such animals participate (if not self-consciously) in at least the first law (of self-preservation). But if there's something that such animals lack that prevents their--natural, instinctual--participation in the second law (pity)--understood as a psychological law--it wouldn't seem to be intelligence or freedom that's relevant, but rather pity. Of course, there are now various studies that suggest that some animals exhibit "empathy" toward other members of their species when those animals are hurt, and so those animals would seem to exhibit both of the traits that Rousseau identifies as fundamental in our own (original, natural) moral psychology. We could then, I suppose, say that such animals are "moral animals"--which is just to say that their moral psychology (or, behavior) is somewhat like our own. And more like us--or some of us--to the extent that the capacity for empathy crosses species lines. We might say that their "participation" in the natural law is merely involuntary (instinctual). But on Rousseau's picture, that would have been true of the original humans, too.

In some sense (and this is perhaps too quick), Rousseau's ethic amounts to something like this: act like an animal (and bear in mind that animals do not have the various false needs that have been engendered by egocentrism and society). Or: act like the kind of animal that you (really) are. Our freedom, it turns out, often gets in the way of that, which is peculiar, since it implies that what we are is the animal that has a hard time acting like itself (or its "true" self).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back to Nature

"I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but the kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care." - Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 82

In response to an earlier posting on ecological humility, Tommi Ushanov noted Huxley's critique of Wordsworthian adoration of nature. I am now writing a shorter paper for a book (edited by my colleague Mike Austin) on "applied virtue ethics," in which I start with Huxley vs. Wordsworth. I also plan to use the passage above by Murdoch.

So, one in a Huxleyan frame of mind might wonder whether we can only give attention to nature in the way Murdoch describes once nature has been tamed and made safe. (If we are in the "tropics" and a hungry tiger spots us, we will no doubt give attention to the tiger, but we will also care not to become the tiger's dinner.) Huxley:
The inhabitants of the tropics have no such comforting reasons for adoring the sinister forces which hem them in on every side….Rivers imply wading, swimming, alligators. Plains mean swamps, forests, fevers. Mountains are either dangerous or impassable. To travel is to hack one’s way laboriously through a tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness.
True. But then it can't all be bad either, otherwise we wouldn't be here. (Huxley acknowledges that.) Provisionally, it seems one could argue that even the "hostile and sinister" in nature can humble, precisely because of its otherness (or, if you like the word, it's alterity). Such aspects of nature force us confront the fact that the natural world does not--naturally, as it were--revolve around us, and challenges the self-serving idea that nature was created for us (or, challenges a self-serving way of interpreting that idea as meaning that nature is just a stock of resources for human use; what then of all the animals that Job cannot control?).

Of course, the moment you've been spotted by a hungry tiger is not the moment to wax philosophical. Unless that tiger has been hanging out with Jeff McMahan.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Back From Arkansas, Still Lost in the Cosmos

I didn't manage to read as much of Talbot Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics as I'd planned, but I did find (and read) a nice used copy of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, which has been on my wish list for awhile. (I never quite feel I've been home unless I get a chance to visit the Dickson Street Bookshop.)

A cousin who teaches English in Fayetteville (and writes) led me to Percy a few years ago. Percy has a penchant for philosophy--particularly Kierkegaard--and Tom (my cousin) wanted to know what I knew about SK. This led me to The Moviegoer, which was great. (It's been a bit too long since I read it to say more than that; sorry!)  

Lost in the Cosmos was a worthy interruption from my reading plans, and probably something better to read while on "vacation" (visiting family). Percy uses the form of a "self-help quiz" to probe twenty different aspects of the "self" and to raise, with plenty of irony, lots of questions about the various hangups, biases (religious fundamentalism on the one hand and scientism on the other), existential quagmires, and so forth of the modern self. He's well-versed enough in philosophy (and science) to be dangerous (his anti-reductionistic critiques of naturalism seem generally on point), and his wit reminds me in some ways of Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins (though it's been awhile since I've read either of them so I might be a touch off in the comparison). The whole book is at once both serious and a hoot. Written in 1983, some of the pop culture references are dated (Carson vs. Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue, etc.), and his digression into a discussion about semiotics is a bit peculiar (though his point in doing so isn't), but the basic questions he's probing still seem relevant.

The flavor of the book is hard to illustrate succinctly, but here are a few passages that tickled me:

[On "The Bored Self"]: "Why is it that no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep." (71)

[On "The Depressed Self"]: "Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression:
     The only cure for depression is suicide.
     This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it..." (75)

[On "The Orbiting Self" which transcends the everyday through art or science, but then has to return to everyday reality]: "But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o'clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoyevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?" (142)

[On "The Lonely Self," which feels so alone "that it will go to any length to talk to Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Humpback Whales"]: "So anxious, in fact, have some people been to communicate with Washoe, the most famous chimp, that in the attempt to make signs for Washoe three psychologists have had their fingers bitten off for their pains. Alas for man: rebuffed again." (169-70)

It's a fun, peculiar read.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Virtue in (the) Twelve Steps

Here's a draft of something I've been working on: "The Virtues of the Twelve Steps." Around the time I was working on the relation between integrity and certain kinds of inner conflict and struggle (resulting in "Integrity and Struggle"), I saw a call for essays on "Twelve Step Spirituality" and was intrigued by the idea of writing about the Twelve Steps. I'm not entirely sure why. (I've been to one AA meeting in my life, having gone with a friend who was "forced" to, as it were. At the time--I had a very different attitude about a lot of things--I thought it was all unimpressive. But then I didn't know much about much at that point in my life.) But it seemed connected to some things I'd been writing about. So I did some research, saw what seemed like a fairly obvious way of reading the Twelve Steps as a virtue ethic, with some virtues that I've been thinking about at its center--and so as something more than a program for addiction recovery--and had at it.

I'm looking forward to reading the other essays in the volume; I'm an outsider looking in and trying to make connections (and I hope that because of that I haven't made myself into a hack). Some of the other contributors (from what I can tell from their bios and abstracts) have more personal experiences and stories to tie in with their philosophy. At any rate, I thought I could say something fruitful here (and based on a proposal I submitted the editors seemed to think so, too), so I gave it a shot. And the project as a whole strikes me as a good one because it takes up something that matters to real people, even if some snooty types "purists" will wonder whether such undertakings count as "real" philosophy. (Blah.)

If you have suggestions or criticisms, please share. I hope this is a more or less final draft, but I may still need to make some changes, and possibly shorten it just a bit. And I hope you find it a worthwhile read, maybe even worthwhile philosophy. (!)