Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On capitalism and compassion

Peter Levine wrote that "if you have voluntarily spoken for hours to a person about matters of shared interest, you must show greater concern for his welfare. It is not always desirable to incur obligations of this kind; there is such a thing as being over-obligated. Yet a life with very few such relationships would be narrow and impoverished."

Most people, including most defenders of capitalism, defend the value and power of sympathy, at least in words. The economist Adam Smith said, "The charm of life is sympathy; nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast."

What emerges from capitalist systems in practice, however, usually doesn't look like it comes from human sympathy. Parker J. Palmer wrote: "Deep caring about each other’s fate does seem to be on the decline, but I do not believe that New Age narcissism is much to blame. The external causes of our moral indifference are a fragmented mass society that leaves us isolated and afraid, an economic system that puts the rights of capital before the right of people, and a political process that makes citizens into ciphers." Our social systems affect our inner lives. "Thus we see the secret failure of American capitalism," wrote Edward Abbey. "For all of its obvious successes and benefits...capitalism has failed to capture our hearts. Our souls, yes, but not our hearts."

"Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) — the urtext of the new individualism — dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity," Phillips and Taylor wrote. The political philosopher John Locke, who was 19 when Leviathan was published, argued that states form to protect the self-interest of individuals. Locke believed, in Jeremy Rifkin's explanation: "Society properly becomes materialistic and individualistic because...this is the natural order of things."


Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. p. 92.

Edward Abbey, "Appalachian Pictures," in Desert Solitaire, p. 149

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. On Kindness. New York: Picador, 2009. p. 7.

Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard. Entropy: A New Worldview. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p. 34.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. pp. 37-38.

Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Narses, 6th-century eunuch general

Born about 480 CE in the eastern part of Armenia that Rome had given to Persia, Narses lived to the age of about 90, his major accomplishments all coming after the age of 70 as General-in-Chief of the Roman army. Corippus (In Laudem Iustini Augusti Minoris [In Praise of Justin II], Book III, Lines 218-230, translated by Averil Cameron) described Narses in Justin’s procession:

"In the meantime came Narses, the emperor’s sword-bearer, Narses, following on in the steps of his master, towering a head over all the lines, and made the imperial hall shine with his beauty, his hair well arranged, handsome in form and face. He was in gold all over, yet modest in dress and appearance, and pleasing for his upright ways, venerable for his virtue, brilliant, careful, watchful night and day for the rulers of the world, shining with glorious light: as the morning star, glittering in the clear sky, outdoes the silvery constellations with its golden rays and announces the coming of day with its clear flame."

David Potter explained:

"'Respectable' women were those who lived in overtly sex-free environments. The first thing Thecla had done upon becoming a Christian was to break off the marriage her mother had arranged for her. And the exceptionally powerful Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II mentioned earlier, had publicly declared her virginity: furthermore, many of her most powerful servants were eunuchs, lacking the basic male equipment – similarly, many of the men on whom Theodora would depend in later life had been castrated when they were boys. People were willing to castrate their young sons in the hope that the operation would enable them to obtain positions in the imperial service, thereby becoming far more powerful than they otherwise might. Indeed, this often happened, for, as far as we know, most of the powerful palace eunuchs came from humble backgrounds, and almost all from rural areas on the empire's frontiers, since castration was technically illegal in the empire proper. We have to assume that the parents of these boys were able to deal with the notion that, in effect, being prepared to sell their child's body was the key to his future. In the ideological world of sixth century Byzantium, respectability required chastity, and power required respectability." (Potter, pp. 40-41)

The 60-year-old Anastasius became emperor in 491 when he was named by the Empress Ariadne after her husband Emperor Zeno's death, the palace's chief chamberlain having suggested that she should choose the new emperor. Ariadne married Anastasius.

On July 9, 518, the silentiaries "informed the magister officiorum, in charge of the palace secretariat, and the count of the excubitores (a branch of the palace guard) that the emperor was dead, and they should hold a meeting in the palace forthwith." Justin, commander of the excubitores, announced the emperor's death at the meeting. Meanwhile, "the excubitores in the Hippodrome proclaimed a man called John, only to be shouted down by the Blues. Inside the palace, another guard unit, the scholarii, tried to proclaim Anastasius' nephew, Patricius. But the excubitores, who disliked Patricius, were threatening to kill him." Also, "the palace eunuchs, who controlled the imperial regalia, were refusing to release it." They released it to Justin when the crowd declared him emperor. Soon,

"a group of palace eunuchs was charged with trying to assassinate Justin. This story appears to have been invented after a pro-Chalcedonian demonstration at Hagia Sophia named them as heretics who should be eliminated. Another story, which emerged later, was that the chief eunuch, Amantius, wanted to have his bodyguard, Theocritus, made emperor, and that he had given Justin money to have the crowd acclaim his man. In another version, Justin is said to have stolen the money to bribe his own way to the throne; and,in yet another, to have handed the money over and then had himself proclaimed. All of this looks like more nasty gossip concocted well after the event in order to both explain why Amantius, who would have been in control of the imperial regalia on the morning after Anastasius died, was executed, and to denigrate Justin, whom some of the aristocracy regarded as an accidental emperor..." (Potter, pp. 70-71)

The eunuch Misael was "exiled for complicity in Amantius' alleged plot against Justin in 518," but later became a personal servant to Theodora and "one of his jobs seems to have been to keep track of books that were sent to her." Severus wrote a letter to Misael discussing Theodora's reading habits. (Potter, p. 124)

At the Nika rebellion in 532, Justinian "sent the eunuch Narses to bribe some members of the Blue faction to begin acclaiming him and Theodora" in the Hippodrome. The Blues did so, but nevertheless Justinian's army slaughtered 30,000 people in the Hippodrome. (Potter, p. 154)

In 535, Theodora ordered Narses to bring forces from Constantinople to restore Theodosius to his position in Alexandria. (Potter, p. 174)

Under Justinian, who ruled until 565, Narses fought for the sovereignty of Orthodox Catholicism over the eunuch god Osiris and the goddess Isis, and he destroyed their Alexandrian sanctuaries. Narses believed that pleasure bred effeminacy and demanded traditional Roman ascetic discipline from his troops. He became a grand chamberlain in 540. He built a church and monastery in Cappadocia where he meant to retire, but was then appointed to overthrow King Totila and the Ostragothic Kingdom in Italy, which he did in the battle of Taginae in 552. He went on to siege the Goths at Hadrian’s Mausoleum, at Mons Lactarius, and at Lucca, where he faked the beheading of hostages and “resurrected” them as a condition of the Goths’ surrender. In 554, he became administrator of the Italy he conquered, and quarried classical buildings to build and restore churches.

Justinian’s successor, Justin II, chose not to support Narses, and the old general retreated to Naples. The Empress Sophia sent him a golden distaff with an invitation to return to the palace to oversee the women’s spinning, to which Narses replied that he would spin a thread of which neither she nor her husband would be able to find the end. Pope John III personally traveled to bring Narses back to Rome, where he returned to live on the Palatine Hill, the original site of the gallae’s shrine to Attis and Cybele. (The gallae had been banished from Rome when Narses was a young man.) Towards the end of his life, he built the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi.

David Potter. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zheng He, early 15th century explorer

Eunuchs were also generals in China. The Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle (ruled 1402-1424) relied on eunuchs, especially in the military, because they had helped him usurp the throne from a government that had limited their power and they continued to support him after he claimed the throne.

The hundreds of Mongol and Muslim prisoners of war taken by the Chinese in 1381 under the first Ming Dynasty emperor (Yongle's father) may have included the future Zheng He (Cheng Ho), then ten years old. When Yongle was on the throne, he honored this Muslim eunuch with a Chinese surname for his ingenuity in digging around a reservoir to mount a defense in a civil war. Zheng He led seven naval exploration expeditions, invested the kings of Sumatra and Japan, and was nicknamed the “eunuch of the three gems” because China received tributes from other nations as a result of his expeditions. He was responsible for the appearance of an African beast which the emperor took to be a good-omened, sacred, magical ki’rin (we would call it a giraffe).

Prof. Liu Yingsheng said: “In today’s Chinese history, Zheng He is seen as epitomising peaceful internationalism. That is the image of China that current leaders wish to present to the world."

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to end violent motives, according to 'Virtuous Violence'

Answer: Convince people to update their cultural norms and relationship models. Here's why.

Only a small proportion of all violence is an instrumental effort to get something, like someone else’s wallet, Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai maintain in their 2014 book Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Most violence, they say, springs from motivations within the perpetrator’s moral worldview, meaning that the perpetrator resorts to violence to constitute or regulate an important relationship “with a fully moral partner” especially as a kind of punishment or revenge. The perpetrator (and those around them) perceive it as a moral obligation to carry out the violence even if doing so triggers “guilt, shame, remorse, sadness, nausea, or horror” due to competing motives; overall, to the group, the violence “makes local sociocultural sense.”

Commonly, people understand their “setbacks, failures, illnesses, injuries, and deaths” to have been inflicted upon them by angry “deceased ancestors, spirits, or deities". This is just a supernaturally illustrated instance of the same principle. They believe the gods use violence to manage relationships, too.

Steven Pinker wrote the foreword, in which he claimed that his own prior book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, included a similar claim that violent people believe they are acting for a higher good. He praised “Fiske’s theory of relational models [as] the best — indeed the only — overarching theory of social psychology.” This refers to an identification of four types of relationships — Fiske calls them "communal sharing" (CS), "authority ranking" (AR), "equality matching" (EM), and "market pricing" (MP) — any or all of which can be transgressed and thus lead to violence.

In particular, violence is used to uphold expected relationships based on who one is, such as establishing power dynamics based on race and gender (CS, AR), as well as on what one has done to earn one's treatment by others (EM, MP).

A 1996 paper by Bandura et al. in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proposed a scale to measure moral disengagement based on one's willingness to use violence and lies to protect one's in-group. Fiske and Rai, however, say that behavior sure looks like moral engagement to them. Even if your personal or cultural norms hold that “moral motives must be peaceful,” it doesn’t mean that people with violent motives aren’t engaging in moral reasoning of their own. Once you accept that the violence is morally motivated, it “makes no sense” to understand violence as dehumanizing its victim, since the perpetrator must assume the victim is human enough to bear guilt and to feel pain “in order for his punishment to have any moral meaning.” Perpetrators “fully appreciate that they are hurting fully human beings, and judge that it is right to hurt them.” The prefixes of dis-engagement and de-humanization are also confusing here because they imply "an original state of social relatedness…[and] moral engagement” that has been abandoned in the act of violence.

Violence is usually treated as “the essence of evil,” but this is a mistaken understanding. “Morality is about regulating social relationships, and violence is one way to regulate relationships.” Ordinary people “feel that it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent.” They do it “to create, conduct, protect, redress, terminate, or mourn social relationships with the victim or with create, sustain, modulate, and repair the relationships that matter to them, to terminate relationships that become intolerable, or to mourn the loss of a partner.”

That is not to say that violence is (objectively) moral. It is only to say that real people perceive and reason it to be moral within whatever cultural view binds them. To argue that violence is truly immoral (as seen from some outside perspective) or that the violent person somehow misunderstands their own cultural norms is not the project of Fiske and Rai's book.

The authors present a recipe for "the only way to reduce morally motivated violence": Bolster relationship norms that support nonviolence and prohibit violence, grow networks of relationships that uphold these norms with complete clarity, and build awareness and consensus about these norms and relationship networks so that everyone knows that everyone else agrees on them. This is "what cultural change consists of: consensual transformation of preos and metarelational models." "Preos" and "metarelational models" are their funny words for cultural norms and complex relationships between multiple people. It just might work.