Sunday, November 6, 2011

Boredom, spuds and charity

In this post I will be discussing cats, concepts, Mr. Potato Head and "being difficult".

In an email discussion recently, the possible merits of a new book by Stephen Pinker were being weighed on the basis of a review entitled "Is Violence History ?". In discussing the book the reviewer, Peter Singer, employs notions such as reason, ethics, justice, repression, mind, morality, cognitive and emotional faculties, hunter-gatherers and so on. He comes to the conclusion that Pinker's book is "supremely important". I have quoted some passages at the end of this post.

My reaction to this review was very different from that of the other participants in the discussion. So different, in fact, that I thought I had better not say it straight out, but only remarked: "This is kaleidoscope thinking: round and round go the same old notions, flashing and rattling. Morality, reason, violence ... I got tired of reading such stuff decades ago." Having thought over all this later, including my decision to hold back, I identified boredom and charity as essential components.

1. Boredom

It was around the age of 15 or so that I first encountered books and articles about reason, ethics and so on. I was particularly taken by Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind. This led me to the British analytic school of moral philosophy and R.M. Hare, all of whose books I read that I could get my hands on in Texas (I see in the Wipe article that the reviewer, Peter Singer, studied under Hare). For a long time I read with particular interest the TLS reviews of books of philosophy.

Over the last forty years, however, I have lived in Germany, reading Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Plessner, Gadamer, Sloterdijk, Deleuze, Rheinberger, Rorty, Atlan, Morin, Bachelard ... As a result I seem to have lost my ability to make much sense of those TLS reviews (even the fretfully humorous ones by Fodor !) or the Singer review. This is where the trouble starts with my American and British acquaintances - where I find myself being charged with being difficult, cynical, insecure ...

The image that sprang immediately to mind when I read the Singer review was Mr. Potato Head. The words "reason", "ethics" etc. seemed to be bits of plastic being rearranged yet again to produce a striking result. Now whether or not an Anglophone person has read any of the German and French writers I mentioned above, surely - I feel - he/she must have tired of all those inconclusive but insistent Anglophone discussions over the years: reason is a component of morality (or not), violence is natured (or nurtured), mind is a neural epiphenomenon (or not), justice is positive (or natural), cognition and emotion are separate (or bound together in our hunter-gatherer natures) ...

The fact that I find all this worthless - does it imply cynicism, a belief that "there is no such thing as reason and justice" ? It does not. It implies that I believe (at the very least) that the words, the conceptual cut-lines, are worthless. Exercise: try to formulate what you want to say without using the words "reason", "justice" and the rest of 'em. Do you find it difficult to break that habit ? It is rather reminiscent of addiction, isn't it ? And that potato - is it not "the neutral subject" surveying the world of ideas without a clue as to how it constructs that world, and is constructed by it ?

I am not trying to create the impression that I know-it-all and that these are easy-peasy issues - far from it. What I am trying to do is bring attention to how difficult they are. Glibly, skillfully shuffling traditional words around won't hack it. Boredom, though, is the mother of invention, a state of mind conducive to finding different approaches.

2. Charity

Dogs easily learn to look in the direction a person points with his index finger. Cats never learn this, but always look at the finger. I myself will look in the direction pointed when there's something there worth looking at. Otherwise I tend to stare at the finger, trying to figure out the point of pointing at such a pointless thing.

At first glance, it seems that I am being rather uncharitable, to put it mildly, to dismiss a serious discussion of Singer's/Pinker's ideas as a game of Mr. Potato Head. I'm sure the participants would not thank me for suggesting in this way that they are wasting their time. But do I find it uncharitable to be dismissed as "cynical" ? No, I find it frustrating, since my interventions are equally serious.

Maybe the problem is the analogy with Mr. Potato Head. This image may seem offensive, but I found it apposite and funny. And this is, I think, the core of the problem: I tend to be serious and make jokes at the same time. Many people interpret that as cynical frivolity, whereas I expect it to be taken as a token of self-deprecation and open-mindedness.

It seems there is more seriousness in the world than I had expected, and charity is not going to fix it. Thank God for books and blogsites, where one can speak one's mind without immediate reprisals.

Quotes from the review:
When you heard that a gunman had slaughtered scores of Norwegian teenagers on a holiday island earlier this summer, did you think that here was another symptom of our sick and violent world? So did I, until I read Steven Pinker's brilliant, mind-altering book about the decline of violence.
The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive to one that believes child-killers have the same rights as everyone else. As Pinker shows, it is both a long story and a relatively recent one. The first thing that had to happen was the move from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence (where your chances of meeting a violent end could be as high as 50:50) to settled communities. The trouble was that early governments showed themselves at least as capable of cruelty as anyone else: most of the truly horrific instruments of torture Pinker describes were designed and employed by servants of the state.
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did. (Disclosure: Pinker wrote an endorsement for a recent reissue of “The Expanding Circle.”)
[The escalator of reason appears to be a cautious intellectual version of the Rapture]


AJP Crown said...

...Mr. Potato Head. The words "reason", "ethics" etc. seemed to be bits of plastic being rearranged yet again to produce a striking result. Now whether or not an Anglophone person has read any of the German and French writers I mentioned above, surely - I feel - he/she must have tired of all those inconclusive but insistent Anglophone discussions over the years

I don't think of Peter Singer as inconclusive at all, needless to say. It probably depends upon whether you're interested in animal rights, and I'm pretty sure you aren't. His work seems to have some prosaic grassroots practical value (don't forget he's Australian) that you may be discounting. He's a professor of moral philosophy, and in the '70s he built a framework for the animal rights movement to: a) exist, and then b) for it to convince people that there are moral reasons for respecting animals, reasons that may be not unlike the ones on which your country or religion or legal system are founded.

I've probably mentioned before that I have a terrible time with continental philosophy. Much of it's been deliberately made hard to understand and I've not got time for that. But I must be wrong, because who does have time?

AJP Crown said...

...On the other hand, I don't buy Singer's argument about Pinker. Who cares if the world's getting, statistically speaking, less violent? The idea that violence may, eventually, in about ten-thousand years, wither away and die is nothing more than science-fictionlike speculation, and until then there's going to be more than enough violence to go around. It just doesn't matter.

Stuart said...

Crown, the welfare of animals is certainly not a matter of indifference to me. I just can't make any sense out of animal "rights". I find it hard to believe that there are many people, if any, who changed the ways they treat animals - or the ways they view how others treat animals, for instance battery hens - as a result of public discussions about animal "rights".

What I see is that people over the last 40 years have learned to use the notion of "rights" as pseudo-juridical armor for deeply-felt convictions. Nothing wrong with deeply-felt convictions, of course. But this "rights" discussion, in America and (my unreliable impression) also in Great Britain, has drawn people ever more tightly into the culture of litigiousness, accusation and acrimony that now grips America.

I suppose that from a salesman's point of view, any argument is OK that helps him sell his ideas. I am not a good salesman, since I reject arguments and counter-arguments that I know are constructed from bits of plastic. But that does not make me a monster. I am guided de facto by sympathy, not by the flashlight of reason.

For instance, over the past few years I have become fairly revolted by supermarket meat, because of what I have seen on TV. I remember from the '60s something Hare wrote about the possibility of convincing a person that there is something wrong about (I think it was) cruelty to others. If that person is unable to imagine himself in the situation of those whom he treats cruelly, then no rational discussion is possible. All my experience has confirmed this.

In Germany there are no Tierrechte (animal rights), there is just Tierschutz (animal protection), which covers a range of radical changes in the way animals are now treated. I had never heard of Singer until you mentioned him.

I agree with you 100% that grand talk about increasing/decreasing "violence" is irrelevant.

AJP Crown said...

Oh well these distinctions are terribly important to the animal lot, and there must be some Rechte people in Germany, though I've no idea what they call themselves. Schutz is a whole nother position, sort of like the ASPCA. Animal rights, as first proposed by Singer in the 1970s, is the idea that there's no inherent difference between humans and other animals, and that the supposed differences have been put in place and exploited by various religions; so that just as all humans deserve "human rights", animals ought to be protected under the law in the same ways & to the same extent as humans. So the idea of "pets", for instance, is as abhorrent to some animal rights activists as special treatment for your house nigger might have been a few years ago for a human-rights activist in the South - whereas the ASPCA or a Tierschutz person wouldn't have a problem with "pets" per se, just with how well they're treated.

No, of course I didn't mean that you're a cruel person. I don't expect all my friends to be 100% interested in animals or with any other of my own pursuits.

Stuart said...

there's no inherent difference between humans and other animals ... animals ought to be protected under the law in the same ways & to the same extent as humans.

I agree. But for just that reason I have the same difficulties accepting the notion of "human rights" as I do that of "animal rights". If such notions must be introduced to justify legislation to prevent the worst, then so be it - for now.

What worries me is the browbeating, crypto-religious nature of this rights business. You must do things in a certain way because something absolute and unappealable - now rights, in the past God - says so. This undermines our modern legal systems, which work with "positive" law - laws that have a certain form today, but perhaps a different form in 20 years. They give us provisional order under a legislative consensus, not eternal justice.

Eternal justice is what rightwing Christians and lesbian black animal-loving homeowners are aiming for - a settling of accounts once and for all. The lawyers love it, I bet.

Stuart said...

What is behind these developments in America, I think, is a widespread desire for ultimate security and fulfillment of every wish - a consumer paradise. But the only kind of state that can address all these claims and clamor is an absolute state that pokes its nose into every cranny. I submit that many rights people have not seriously considered this consequence.

AJP Crown said...

Yes, the problem with a list of rights is that, like the Ten Commandments, it's always being interpreted to fit someone's views. With the US Constitution it's simultaneously its strength and weakness.

Some security and wish-fulfillment may be possible, & not all bad, surely? The consumer thing is temporary, in my opinion, just a carrot part of the loans crisis. I think we'll see a backlash.

Stuart said...

It's not all bad, but things have gotten out of hand when everyone thinks their little special-purpose plot of life should be protected by special-purpose rights actionable at law. That's what I meant by "consumer paradise" - all demands and money-back guarantees, even though everything is paid for by credit.

I still wonder about one thing: do you think it likely that arguments about "rights" and "justice", in connection with the treatment of animals, had any effect on persons who did not already feel strongly about the subject ?

AJP Crown said...

It's probably not in itself going to make someone change their mind, but it's at least a rational argument against those who say worrying about animals is mere sentimental fussing. Also, "rights" is a goal for people who care about animals: a) they don't have to start thinking from scratch every time there's an injustice and b) there are successful precedents (slavery, gay & women's rights) that show that something this big can be changed over time. There are lots and lots of young people who are vegans (including Ø's son), it's not like when we were young. They're turning vegan for assorted reasons, but the concept of animal rights is one of them.

Siganus Sutor said...

Let's then try to couper la poire en 2...



Quotes from the review:
When you heard that a gunman had slaughtered scores of Norwegian teenagers (...)
The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive (...)
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology (...)

That's strange. I read the NYT article yesterday and I couldn't find the first two paragraphs quoted. Is the newspaper changing its articles over time?

Regarding animal rights, the Spanish members of parliament seriously considered conferring some human rights to great apes. One could then imagine a court case during which a primate (a man) would be judged for the murder/rape/abuse/you-name-it of another primate (an orang-utan).

But it could be asked to the Spanish lawmakers: Why great apes only? Because they look somewhat like ourselves? Because they are deemed to have feelings similar to ours? Then our dogs (or other people's goats) surely have feelings as well, don't they? Every now and then, when I crush a damn snail that has been devouring the passion fruits we had planted, I keep on thinking what he/she/it must be feeling.

About three centuries ago, it was more or less accepted in the Western world that one human being could own and sell another human being. Maybe some time during the next century it will be found impossible, in the West, that a living creature (a man) could own and sell another living creature (a cow).

When it comes to violence, in modern societies it is more or less acknowledged that only the State has the right to exert coercion or violence on people, while at the same time the laws it makes forbid violence between individuals. And it is probably better this way, as revenge or lynching has never made things better. Nowadays it even seems that in some Western countries slapping a child can bring parents to the police station, and it is frowned upon when parents appear as coercers.


Siganus Sutor said...



Aggressiveness is an instinct rooted in most creatures of the animal kingdom — of which, needless to say, mankind is part —, and it can help survival in a hostile world or, as the case may be, have more offspring. The thing with man and other domesticated/social animals is how to control that instinct. Very often aggressiveness needs to be redirected to avoid unnecessary conflicts, and in that respect sports must have played a key role in modern human societies. (Competition in sports could indeed be seen as a substitute to warfare.) But this is passive for most people — who only sit in front of a TV to watch it.

I don't know if there is any link with it, or if things were better when long ago human beings could more easily be aggressive with strangers, but I was amazed the other day to read that, in the U.S., “nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner” (NYT – 14/12/2011). Maybe one didn't need to beat or rape his wife when he could let his aggressiveness be expressed through skirmishes or full-fledged battles with members of other tribes? (But I doubt it could actually be the case.)

Konrad Lorenz has written a fairly good book on aggression (Das sogenannte Böse. Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression). In chapter V, he describes how freshwater fishes known as cichlids are aggressive between partners (the male being the aggressor) if they are left only with one another. If the aquarium is separated in two by a sheet of glass and if two couples are placed on each side of the glass, the two males can — harmlessly — discharge their anger on one another, which makes relations inside the couple much better.

over the past few years I have become fairly revolted by supermarket meat, because of what I have seen on TV

Bougon, have you read What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe? In this novel, there is one member of the awful Winshaw family — Dorothy if I'm not mistaken — who runs an intensive farming business with only profitability in mind. If memory serves me right, one of the things she does is cutting off the beak of chickens which tend to become aggressive due to lack of living space, thus harming each other. It's quite a good read.

Stuart said...

Sig: Is the newspaper changing its articles over time?

I have on various occasions seen that being done on blogsites, not just that of the NY Times. Thanks for the tip ! I wrote a longer comment about this, which I have now promoted to a post.