Three quotes I like, not necessarily related in any particular way:
When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,- and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:
Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!
For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.
But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.
Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!
Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!
Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!
Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.
Thus began Zarathustra's down-going.
What do the following scenarios have in common?
- A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
- An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
- A family watches TV together.
- Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
- Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
- A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
- A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
- Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
- A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
- A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
- A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.
Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:
What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.
A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.
It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
The producers of last year's film Atlas Shrugged: Part One, based on Ayn Rand's controversial 1957 novel about heroic business vs. corrupt government in a mythical USA, have just announced that the second installment in the three-part series will be released in 2012. The first installment got poor reviews and failed to pack theaters, so there was some uncertainty as to whether the second and third installments would ever secure funding. But it wouldn't be very Randian to yield to bad reviews, so I'm not surprised these filmmakers have found a way to persevere.
Ayn Rand was a hot-button topic through 2011, and there's no sign that the fiery author-philosopher's newly popular Objectivist ideology won't stir up the same intense debates in 2012. An avowed Randian named Paul Ryan remains one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seems to agree with Paul Ryan's plan to drastically cut Social Security. That doesn't mean Mitt Romney is an Objectivist (though, we can imagine, he'd probably become one if necessary). But it does mean that the controversy over entitlements for middle-class Americans and safety nets for the poor will continue to be a gigantic topic of public debate through the upcoming election year. This is the controversy that Objectivists eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ghost of Ayn Rand will continue to make herself felt in 2012.
I can tell that Ayn Rand is still hot by looking at the continuing sales of my short book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). I'm about to pass the 1000 sales mark for this modest publication, and it's still selling more copies each month than the month before. There are 72 comments (some of them brilliant, some of them absolutely ridiculous) on the book's Amazon page, and several readers have also posted critiques of the book (sometimes harsh ones) on Litkicks.
I love it when readers give me negative or positive feedback about this book, and I don't mind the criticism. I'm aware that I advance some unusual (some might even say "quirky") ideas to support my argument, and I'm not surprised that many readers are initially put off by some of my premises or methods. (I do think, though, that the book stands up to close examination, which is why I always try to respond to a serious critique.)
We've covered a lot of ground since I kicked off this Philosophy Weekend series a year and a half ago. But I'm not sure if it's clear how these blog posts are meant to build upon each other towards an ultimate result or conclusion. I'd like to take a step back and look at the overall plan of the project today.
I began this series because I know we all live by philosophical and ethical principles that affect everything we do. This is true, I've observed, of people at every level of education and intellectual sophistication (those few individuals who might claim not to live by deeply-held principles would probably be not uneducated but highly educated, and perhaps overly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche).
We all live by philosophical principles; we all stand up and fight for our principles in one way or another, and many of us would carry our beliefs to our deaths rather than give them up. And yet, when exposed to the light of the slightest examination, many of these deeply held principles and beliefs quickly show themselves to be weakly constructed, purposefully ignorant, childishly simplistic.
However, it does not seem that people hold naive or unexamined beliefs because they are lazy, or because they don't care. Rather, it seems to me that every single person cares very much about the validity of his or her deepest beliefs. The problem with philosophy is on the supply side. The professional philosophy community is lost within abstract layers of internal debate that do not connect with the larger public at all -- not to the slightest degree. (Name one living philosopher. If you said "Daniel Dennett" or "Alain de Botton" you get a prize.)
Many people want to be exposed to philosophy, but the suppliers have let us down. We lack even the most basic forums for in-depth logical debate. Worse, we have failed to construct the linguistic and social structures that would allow us to follow ethical arguments through to their conclusions. Instead, arguments typically die in the very moment they are born, because participants are often unable to establish a common vocabulary with which to speak, or viable rules of debate. We lack the social toolbox that would allow us to resolve even the most basic and obvious philosophical conundrums.
A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.
Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.
It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.
Since our weekend debates about ethics often revolve around the word "empathy", it occurred to me that we should find out exactly what the word means. Let's hit up Wikipedia and see what we find:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B. Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word "Einfuhlungsvermogen", a new phenomenon explored at the end of 19th century mainly by Theodor Lipps
I'd like to hunt down these etymological hints for a future article, but first I want to examine the meaning of the word. Does "empathy" indicate a person's rational awareness of another person's feelings, or rather does it indicate an emotional concern with another person's feelings? The word is often popularly used in the latter sense: if I am empathetic with you, I care about your well-being. But the Wikipedia definition draws a prominent distinction between "empathy" (the intellectual awareness of another person's feelings) and "compassion" (a concern for another person). "Empathy", then, seems to have no necessary moral substance. It's possible to feel empathy with someone while also wishing them harm. Empathy is only the antenna, the awareness, the sense.
This distinction may be too finely drawn for some people's tastes, as it disagrees with the popular use of the term. But the distinction between awareness (empathy) and concern (compassion) does seem useful, and I am willing to go along with this strict definition of the term from now on, and differentiate between "compassion" and "empathy" as needed in future discussions.
But an even tougher controversy involving the meaning of "empathy" becomes apparent in the next section of the Wikipedia page, titled "Theorists and definition". This controversy appears to be so active that Wikipedia throws up its hands and offers a list of possible definitions from various theorists, presenting a fascinating dichotomy between two popular meanings of the word. Here's the section in full:
I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.
Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.
I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.
It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.
I disagree with ultra-conservative presidential candidate Ron Paul on most issues, and I can not imagine myself ever voting for him (I'm a lock for Obama in 2012 anyway). Still, I recently found myself vigorously defending this controversial Texas politician to my journalist and fellow liberal friend Tom Watson. Tom has been a severe and constant critic of Ron Paul, and has called him the worst of the Republican presidential candidates.
I know that Paul has many flaws, but I think he's clearly the best of the Republican presidential candidates, because he's the only one who does not advocate a ridiculous "get tough" policy on Iran. This "get tough on Iran" idea is rooted in the same guerrophilia and bigotry as George W. Bush's previous "get tough on Saddam Hussein" idea, and I really can't understand how Ron Paul can be the only Republican candidate to understand the similarity. He is also the only Republican candidate willing to propose strong cuts in military spending and military activities around the world. The Republican candidates for 2012 are a raggedy bunch, but Ron Paul seems at least to be more clued-in than the others on military and foreign policy.
After reading a steady stream of anti-Ron Paul tweets by Tom Watson, I asked Tom why he puts so much effort into criticizing the one Republican candidate who has an antiwar platform, and who stands very little chance of getting elected, when other Republicans who have stated an inclination to invade Iran if they get elected are actually considered serious contenders. I also asked Tom why he doesn't feel any optimism about the fact that Ron Paul is introducing an antiwar message to many conservative voters who have long ago shut their ears to antiwar messages from liberals or from the mass media.
Cool the engines
red line's getting near
cool the engines
better take it out of gear
-- Boston, 'Cool The Engines'
I'd better take a break, let this Philosophy Weekend thing cool off ... let myself cool off a little bit too.
I've been writing a lot of high-pitched stuff lately, and getting into plenty of debates with friends and relatives everywhere from Thanksgiving dinner to Facebook. It's time for me to step back, review my progress, find my balance, and prepare for a new round of Philosophy Weekend next year.
I began this series sixteen months ago, first with a halting introduction followed a week later by the presentation of my main thesis, which amounts to a defense of the political and personal philosophy known as pacifism. I have gradually come to realize -- this wasn't apparent even to me at first -- that every article I write in this series is related in some way to the argument for pacifism. The connections may be hard to trace, but they are always there.
I'm giving this intense series a Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa break, and will kick off the new year with a new thread in January. Till then, here are a few philosophical links you might like: