Monday, August 18, 2008

Hobbes: Learn the "Rules of Civil Life" and Stop Civil War

"The end of knowledge is power," Hobbes wrote. The point of thinking is to get things done. One of the most important tasks to achieve, he believed, having lived through the seventeenth-century English Civil War, is the cessation of wars.

Hobbes blamed civil wars on the citizens' ignorance of their moral duties: "The cause...of civil war is, that men know not the causes neither of war nor peace," he wrote. "Now, the knowledge of these rules [of civil life] is moral philosophy." More philosophy, more peace.

But this does not seem right. Many of the people who initiate civil wars surely have an over-developed sense of their moral duties as citizens, and they are outraged by people and institutions with fundamentally different beliefs. Such thinkers resort to violence, not for lack of philosophy, but for lack of dialogue with other philosophers.

If one of the warring sides is defending a political belief that is popularly considered to be more obviously right--perhaps democracy against totalitarianism, freedom against fear--then one could also argue it demeans the people and degrades their ideals to imply that both sides are ignorant, when one appears to be correct. It may also be unproductive to blame either side for a lack of education or moral literacy if each perceives itself to be defending itself against imminent physical aggression.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Unmarried and pregnant--man's responsibility, or woman's?

Wollstonecraft opined that men should be compelled to provide for the unmarried women with whom they sleep and impregnate, as long as the women remain sexually faithful to their providers. Such an arrangement she terms a "left-handed marriage" (distinguished from proper marriages which she deems superior and preferable).

Her argument here is difficult to follow. The passage reads:

"...yet when a man seduces a woman, it should, I think, be termed a left-handed marriage, and the man should be legally obliged to maintain the woman and her children, unless adultery, a natural divorcement, abrogated the law. And this law should remain in force as long as the weakness of women caused the word seduction to be used as an excuse for their frailty and want of principle; nay, while they depend on man for a subsistence, instead of earning it by the exertion of their own hands or heads."

As far as I can tell, the exhortation goes as follows:

Unfortunately, contemporary women are weak in moral principles and financial resources.

Women can and should be strong in these respects.

As part of their empowerment, pregnant unmarried women should stop blaming their "seducers" for the sexual activity in which both parties willingly participated.

(Implied) If men do not enjoy providing for their lovers and their offspring, then they should admit that women have sexual and financial responsibilities, i.e. assent to Wollstonecraft's feminist platform.

It is unclear to me how the claim that pregnant unmarried women should stop blaming their "seducers" is compatible with the idea that men should provide financially for their lovers. Wollstonecraft critiqued the contemporary assumption of her wealthy economic class that men were expected to earn money for their families while women were expected to sit at home and look pretty, and she envisioned a future in which women took responsibility for their own lives. The present and the future visions are clear, but her intermediate step--the specific practical recommendation by which the society would arrive at a more perfect future--is not clear at all. She said that men should provide for women until women got sick of the attention and, perhaps, if I read her correctly, until men became feminists (ceasing to use the word "seduction" as an excuse for women's behavior). We need a better-detailed program for social change.

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 4: Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Fondness and friendship

"To gain the affections of a virtuous man is affectation necessary?" In formulating this question, Wollstonecraft put her finger on an ancient question that even today populates advice columns. Courtship involves playful pretense and mystery to stimulate mutual interest. But when does coquettishness cross the line into affectation, that is, a false persona that hides the true self?
Asking if a woman should "condescend to use art and feign a sickly delicacy in order to secure her husband's affection", Wollstonecraft answered, "Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!"

In the search for romantic partnership, many people (both male and female) display their own weaknesses and are attracted to weaknesses in others, to some extent because they are searching for a partner who can tolerate, complement, or even fix their problems. This is not an entirely bad desire. Everyone is imperfect, and everyone has needs; these facts certainly influence our choice of partner, and our behavior with our partner! Yet, we have all seen examples of how the simple admission of vulnerability can go awry, in certain couples where one of the partners behaves in a manner that just seems annoyingly fake and therefore desperate.

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 2: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Berkeley: What color is that dismembered body part you are imagining?

In the last post, we quoted a 1772 text from David Hume that referred to compound ideas, that is, the combination of known concepts such as "gold" and "mountain" to generate new ideas and fantasies such as "golden mountains."

Here is a similar idea from George Berkeley, 62 years earlier:

...for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself, the ideas of those particular things I have perceived, and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper parts of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Likewise the idea of man that I frame to myself must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever.

Rightly (in my opinion) Berkeley points out that, while one can imagine a human being, one cannot imagine a human being without particular qualities of height, color, etc. This illustrates two meanings of the word "abstract." One can imagine an abstract human, or even an abstract body part such as a hand or head, separated from all context and having no basis in reality; but remove all physical description and sensory reference points from the abstract idea, and it is no longer an image of anything.

I imagine the same is true with virtue. When we imagine virtue, we imagine examples of virtue. The abstract ideas of kindness or honesty would mean nothing if they were so far abstracted as to be no longer grounded in human relationships.

George Berkeley. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. (1710) Introduction, Paragraph 10.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Hume: Ideas are imitations of sense perceptions

David Hume believed that the most direct, "lively" mental images are those caused by sensory impressions, and that the gyrations of the imagination and intellect are weak imitations or hybrids. "All the colours of poetry, however splendid," he wrote, "can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape. The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation." I am unsure whether I agree with this, particular as, during my morning meditation, my opinions on Hume's book nearly succeeded in crowding out my attention to a bird chirping outside my window.

He also applied this to emotion, pointing out that we can recognize or imagine emotion in ourselves and others without actually feeling that emotion: "A man in a fit of anger, is actuated in a very different manner from one who only thinks of that emotion. If you tell me, that any person is in love, I easily understand your meaning, and form a just conception of his situation; but never can mistake that conception for the real disorders and agitations of the passion." One might add--I wish to point out--that when we hear of others' fortunes and misfortunes we often have our own emotional responses. Thus, when we hear about someone's unjust punishment, we actually become angry on her behalf, and when we watch the hero kiss his beloved on a movie screen, we actually feel the love we imagine he feels.

Many of our mental creations are hybrids in the simplest and most literal sense. "What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived...When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain..." And yet, these ideas ultimately must be rooted in experience. He wrote, "A blind man can form no notion of colours, a deaf man of sounds." He also applied this to virtue: "A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty, nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity." Though it feels depressing to say so, this seems true to some degree. Why is it that deeply felt impulses and ethical commitments are so difficult to sympathize with in other people who experience them differently? If we were capable of understanding each other better, surely this would promote peace.

David Hume. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1772) Section II: Of the Origin of Ideas.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Smith: Sleeping soundly through famine

Adam Smith wrote of the ordinary man:

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he will not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?

A couple weeks ago, when I heard of UNICEF's estimate that 120,000 Ethiopian children will starve to death within the month, I felt disturbed and upset; but what I lay awake thinking of last night was whether my boss would be able to open my PowerPoint presentation on an excruciatingly minor business topic. Smith is not concerned with sleep patterns per se, but with the moral question of whether we would sacrifice our own lesser goods for someone else's greater good.

One might ask if I would exchange my precious PowerPoint file for the lives of the children. I find such formalized questions frustrating, because no bandit will attempt today to ransom the lives of the children by demanding my office effluvia. It seems not even to be a moral question, because it is not a real situation; to me, it seems the real must be the province of the moral.

But without the aid of such silly, fictional questions, how else can I examine myself to discover whether I am willing to sacrifice some of my own small concerns for the urgent, terrifying concerns of others?

Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. (1790, reprint Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) pp. 136-137. Quoted in "Humanity and Citizenship," by Amartya Sen, in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Martha C. Nussbaum with respondents. ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Truth is the same for man and woman

"I...deny the existence of sexual virtues," Wollstonecraft wrote. "For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same..." By "sexual virtues," she means any virtues assigned primarily to one sex or the other. She would be happy to learn that, in the United States today, there is general agreement that we should not have "double standards" of virtue for men and women, especially in areas such as education, career, athletics, sexual behavior, and child rearing.

But on another point of Wollstonecraft's, there is less agreement. She continued: "I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society..." Many people, including feminists, do not want to promote androgyny for everyone or the erasure of differences between the sexes and genders. Some believe that there are biological differences between males and females, the importance of which should not be discounted; others simply feel that differences in gender performance make the world a more interesting place.

Yet it is hard to see how these two claims can be separated from each other. How can one make the former claim that men and women are alike in all morally relevant respects without also making the latter claim that there should be no social distinction between them?

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 3: The Same Subject Continued, and Chapter 4: Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wollstonecraft: The formation of the human heart

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: "Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness." "Innocent" comes from the Latin for non-harmful. Wollstonecraft used it in the sense of ignorant, pointing out that ignorance entails weakness. She defended the right of women to have access to education so that they are not forced into intellectual subservience to men.

She believed that "every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason; for if but one being was created with vicious inclinations, that is positively bad, what can save us from atheism? or if we worship a God, is not that God a devil?"

This view assumes that God creates humans with the desire to be virtuous so that they may perfect themselves. Education must be a central part of a social program "to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason." But isn't this contradictory? It attempts to take both sides of the question of whether we are shaped by nature or nurture. If God forms our hearts, why should we need education to do it for us? What types of virtues or inclinations, we might ask, must be implanted in us by God (if we are to maintain a theism worth its salt, in Wollstonecraft's opinion) and what types may be acquired through education?

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 2: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Hobbes: "Essence" is a useless concept

Not all languages join subject and predicate by the verb is. Speakers of such languages will say "man a living creature" rather than "man is a living creature"; those who use the former construction make just as much sense and are just as rational as those who use the latter. Hobbes concludes "it is evident that philosophy has no need of those words essence, entity, and other the like barbarous terms."

Some philosophers incorrectly believe that qualities can be separated or "abstracted" from their bodies or subjects, and unfortunately "from hence proceed the gross errors of writers of metaphysics; for, because they can consider thought without the consideration of body, they infer there is no need of a thinking-body..." Hobbes's statement in favor of the mind's necessary grounding in the body was unusual for his day and remains controversial today, even given recent revolutions in cognitive science.

We human individuals have no essence? Really? Another round of drinks, please.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)
Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 3: of Proposition.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hobbes: Bullshit artists make "nothing but words"

"What, then, can be imagined to be the cause that the writings of those men have increased science, and the writings of these have increased nothing but words, saving that the former were written by men that knew, and the latter by such as knew not, the doctrine they taught only for ostentation of their wit and eloquence?" -- Hobbes

This is an excellent writing tip. Wouldn't most people prefer to belong to "those" people who contribute to human knowledge, rather than to "these" people who clutter the Internet and waste pages?

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hobbes: You Can't Ratiocinate God

Philosophy, Hobbes says, "excludes Theology, I mean the doctrine of God, eternal, ingenerable, incomprehensible...It excludes the doctrine of angels, and all such things as are thought to be neither bodies nor properties of bodies; there being in place for ratiocination [reason]."

The world indeed would be a better place if we did not pretend to engage in rational debates about incomprehensible subjects! The assumption of God's existence should not masquerade behind a cloak of philosophical or scientific words.

On the other hand, some types of theology are well-suited to rational discussion. Faced with a Biblical passage that promotes invading a neighboring village and smashing their sacred statues, believers in the moral authority of the Bible might debate whether that particular directive should be followed today, and in what manner it should be followed. The ethical concern is comprehensible and can be assessed rationally. To pretend that the ethical concern cannot be discussed, simply because the issue is ultimately faith-based, is to hide behind the cloak of the incomprehensibility of God.

Philosophy is a smokescreen for beliefs that do not require it. Avoidance of philosophy is a smokescreen for beliefs that do require it.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)