Our search for a great living ethical philosopher has so far turned up empty. We're only at the early stages of the search, having recently examined the work of Alain De Botton and Sam Harris, both of them young trendy philosophers who swing in the TED set. But preliminary results have been worrying.
We like the aesthetic approach of Alain De Botton, who has bold, fanciful ideas about many things. However, a close look shows that artistry may be all he has. De Botton has written books (mostly to polite applause) on moral philosophy, but he appears to be too much of a wonderer, and not enough of a fighter, to make his name in the muscular field of ethical debate. De Botton clearly likes to dress himself up in a philosopher's antique clothes, but one senses that it's all some kind of fetching show. A great philosopher? Not yet.
The young atheist firebrand Sam Harris is refreshingly pugnacious and argumentative, and he can turn a sharp phrase. But he's also unimaginative and unperceptive. He has lately specialized in "rational" Koran-bashing, with the upturned chin of a brave sophomore who isn't going to pussyfoot around this. Reading Sam Harris's angry diatribes about fundamentalist Islam, or about religion in general, one can't help feeling that one understands more about human nature than Sam Harris does, and that Sam Harris ought to be listening to all of us instead of the other way around. A great living philosopher? In his dreams.
After these bruising early results, I decided to get away from the hip young TED familiars and focus next on some heavier weights. I've been reading up on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Derek Parfit, Slavoj Zizek and Sarah Sawyer, and hope to cover them all soon. However, two separate links to the work of a Virginia author named Jonathan Haidt appeared in two of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and the Maverick Philosopher, and caught my attention. As far as appearances go, Haidt is another trendy young TED-ish ethics guy. However, he is showing signs of a wider mind. Even though he wears the same clothes:
I'm only two chapters into Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I won't try to say much about him in my own words today. But many others have recently noticed Jonathan Haidt too, and I'd like to share a few pullquotes.
I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.
Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.
What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:
Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?
This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand's Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn't impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don't think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn't care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.
Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can't pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan "marvelous". Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.
1. This looks to be pretty special:
The Tenant’s Association of the Chelsea Hotel presents a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s 1966 masterpiece, Chelsea Girls, introduced by poet and Warhol superstar Rene Ricard.
Rene Ricard is one of the few surviving members of the cast, and was a close friend and associate of Warhol from 1965 until the artist’s death in 1987. In a rare public appearance, Rene Ricard will discuss the making of the film and offer reflections on Warhol’s larger career as painter, author, publisher and wit.
Chelsea Girls was shot in various rooms in the Hotel Chelsea (and the Warhol Factory) over three weeks in the summer of 1966. Rene Ricard lived in the hotel at the time, and he remains a current resident.
Appearing in the film, amongst others, are Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, International Velvet, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and Marie Menken, with music by the Velvet Underground. Filmed at a cost of $3,000.00 The film grossed $130,000.00 in its first five months of its release, making it perhaps the most successful underground film of all time It has since earned cult status as one of the most stunning and provocative cultural documents of the 1960s, and is considered by many to be Warhol’s filmic masterpiece.
Filmed in black and white and color and shown on two screens simultaneously, the film runs three hours and fifteen minutes.
At the premiere of the film at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque, the film sequences were listed on the program accompanied by fake room numbers at the Chelsea Hotel. These had to be removed, however, when the Chelsea Hotel threatened legal action.
Today the residents of the Chelsea Hotel are fighting to retain and preserve one of the great cultural landmarks of New York City. The Chelsea Hotel is not only a historic landmarked building, but also a living national treasure, and a vital part of the intellectual and artistic heritage of New York. Residents have incurred great expense fighting evictions and what they consider to be the illegal demolition of over a hundred rooms in the historic hotel.
3. The PEN World Voices Festival is about to begin, and has a fantastic lineup.
5. I had a very negative initial reaction to the news that a team of transcendentalist video game designers from the University of Southern California has created an electronic interactive version of Thoreau's Walden (still and always my favorite book in the world). But the preview visible at the link above really doesn't look so bad. And while it's true that playing a video game is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years -- well, come to think of it, reading a book is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years either. So I guess I won't judge this project until I get to see it for myself.
I'm searching for a bright light of truth among the hip young "public philosophers" selling books today. Last weekend, we admired Alain De Botton's sensitive style but worried that he might be the Martha Stewart of philosophy. This weekend, I'd like to look at a harder-hitting upstart, Sam Harris, whose key ethical work is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
I got off to a bad start with Sam Harris in 2004 when he rose to fame with an angry book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason that identified fundamentalist religion (particularly radical Islam) as a major source of the world's problems. Harris was part of a wave of new atheists, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and eventually Christopher Hitchens, who posited Osama bin Laden as the reductio ad absurdum of all organized religion, a formula I completely disagree with (I'm quite sure that "religious hatred" is only a surrogate for ethnic or national hatred, and I suspect that guerrophiles like Osama bin Laden have little authentic interest in religion to begin with).
So I avoided Sam Harris's early books, but he may be improving. His 2010 Moral Landscape is worth digging into and taking quite seriously. This book lays out an extended argument for the real existence of a concrete and universal moral code that could, if properly expressed and understood, significantly, improve the world. This is the kind of ambition I like to see in an ethical philosopher.
The primary challenge facing Sam Harris in this book is not to define a concrete and universal moral code -- not surprisingly, he resorts to a John Stuart Mill-ish Utilitarian approach -- but rather to show that a concrete and universal moral code is possible at all. Harris presents a clear argument for the positive conclusion here, which I will paraphrase as follows:
When I write about the concept of the group mind, I'm often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn't need an advocate.
The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives -- whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives. We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.
In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous "Neighborhood Watch" volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans. The first shock is the injustice of the crime -- a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.
But George Zimmerman's crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the "group mind" are all over this case. Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community's "Neighborhood Watch" program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger. When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision. What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city.
One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter. But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.
Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.
Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.
How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?
Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...
On a recent very cold day, I dropped by Zuccotti Park, the once-rollicking site of Occupy Wall Street during its first joyous phase (before the city shut the gathering down). I wasn't surprised to find only a couple of isolated protestors hanging around on this freezing day, though I was surprised to find many cops still on the job, as if they were needed.
Despite the considerable chill in the air, everybody involved with Occupy knows that the movement has never stopped growing, and has not lost momentum. Instead, it has reacted to the loss of its original New York site by adopting an "occupy everywhere" approach. "It's still happening all over the city," said a guy tending a giveaway pile of pamphlets and Occupy buttons and a mostly empty donation jar near where I'd stopped to gaze upon the desolate plaza. "I know," I told him. I had just come from the atrium at 60 Wall Street, where the working group sessions were as active as ever. I picked up some pamphlets from his stack, including one particularly good one: Anarchism by Andrej Grubacic and the influential political philosopher and economic historian David Graeber, whose Debt: The First 5,000 Years I've been meaning to read. The pamphlet is a slightly less daunting Graeber volume, but no less relevant. David Graeber, one of the original personalities behind the original Wall Street occupation nearly six months ago, sees "anarchism" as the best word to describe the sensibility of the movement, and this pamphlet explains why. He and Grubacic make it clear in the opening pages that the goals they are fighting for will only grow organically, and gradually:
Increasing numbers of revolutionaries have begun to recognize that "the revolution" is not going to come as some great apocalyptic moment, the storming of some global equivalent of the Winter Palace, but a very long process that has been going on for most of human history (even if it has, like most things, come to accelerate of late), full of strategies of flight and evasion as much as dramatic confrontations, and which will never -- indeed, most anarchists feel, should never -- come to a definitive conclusion.
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.