Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Relativism is not a monster

Stephen Law and the Barefoot Bum have both written numerous articles about relativism. The Bum has some particularly interesting thoughts, while Law's debate is intriguing because of the exaggerated poles of debate he seems to be operating with. He sets up what appears to be a phoney dichotomy between Authoritarianism (the belief in one overall moral truth) and Relativistic non-judgementalism (unappealing idea that all moral beliefs are equally convincing) largely borrowed from the religious fundamentalists he seeks to combat. If you find this article interesting I suggest you check out their sites.

There is a prevalent point of view which holds that morality should have some foundation in objective truth and fact. This idea seems to me entirely wrong-headed in that it mischaracterises the nature of moral belief. A scientific theory can be true but morality seems to depend on conventions, emotions and beliefs.

Many religious believers think that morality has foundation in truth because under such systems there seems to be a correct way to live one's life. Such a viewpoint makes sense in that religions have a hugely ritualistic character and there is often an emphasis on correct ways of living. However, this viewpoint depends on the existence of a god. Many people believe the existence of a god improbable and so the dependence of moral truth on such a controversial being is extremely unsatisfactory, at least for those who have not had the Road to Damascus moment.

Law interestingly seems to be a radical atheist and a believer in non-relative moral truth but sadly despite my attempts to press him he did not provide me with an explanation of what he believes these non-relative moral truths are. Professional philosophers are by instinct very careful and so I hope such an account will be forthcoming. I'm sure it will be interesting even if I suspect he will have difficulty convincing myself and many others.

A common example in the literature of a non-relative moral truth is "killing a child for fun is morally wrong". Most of us would assent to this statement and we would be vaguely disturbed by other people we met who believed differently and started recounting how they got their kicks every afternoon. Yet despite the unappealing nature of this statement and the fact I would never want to live in a society that held it true, the idea that it is a non-relative truth seems extremely odd even if it is the kind of attitude we would be extremely proud of holding.

The best way it seems to me to retain sense of moral attitudes is to assert that all our moral beliefs and emotions are interconnected. The strength of our belief that "killing a child for fun is morally wrong" is not undermined by the consciousness that it is dependent on all sorts of other beliefs. We need only consider the proposition transposed to the animal kingdom and we will realise such qualms do not arise in interspecies interaction. The need to communicate and dialogue about morality thus becomes greater when it is realised that there is "no non-relative moral truth" because it concedes that people can be convinced by your beliefs and yet the fact that disagreement arises need be nothing to do with one side being objectively right.

As this is a blog I'd like to continue this discussion later and provide some real arguments for the belief there are no non-relative moral truths. Yet I hope this has provided a rough outline of the issues.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Square Pegs in a Round World

The Eclectic Eccentrics has been launched. Hopefully this can be a new venture to work in tandem with our other sites.

I think Frank has done a very nice job designing the place. Please feel free to visit and contact him to get posting rights. The details are on his site.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Knowledge Games

I have always had a sneaking suspicion that many people attracted to philosophizing like making up outlandish scenarios; testing theories is just a subtext for creating extraordinary yarns.
Above all others, epistemologists (people who study what knowledge is) are attracted to this seminar room fantasising. The traditional definition of knowledge was "justified true belief". The major problem is that such knowledge can be undermined by sceptical scenarios.

A favourite example of mine involves a girl, let's call her Lavender, who visits a zoo. She thinks she sees a zebra in a cage, it has black and white stripes, four legs and looks like all the zebras she has ever seen. A strange old wizened philosophy professor sidles up to Lavender and asks her what she knows about the thing in the cage. Lavender says "I know that's a zebra." The epistemologist (for that is his speciality) cackles and says "do you, I wager it's a cunningly disguised mule." The problem thus becomes, could Lavender really have the justified true belief in the first instance? For the epistemologist is right, because he himself has painted the mule to fool poor unsuspecting zoogoers and plunge them in to sceptical doubt and also make a bit of money by duping them.

If you take the moral from such considerations what we say we know thus becomes justified belief, but surely we want our justified beliefs to be true? It may well be the case that they are not and so our ability to know what is true in the world has been rocked. Are philosophers having fun or are these sceptical examples a serious way of spending one's time? I say both are true, because these simple examples are ways of dramatising problems we face in making headway in philosophy, but it seems clear to me that such examples are really invented to have a good laugh and what's bad about that?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Together We Stand - Divided We Fall?

This Awkward Squad may have spread itself too thinly. We started as a joint publication enterprise and it seemed clear it was easier to keep in touch with each other and our silent readers that way. Does anyone fancy starting again? First up we need a name - my initial suggestion is Renaissance to reflect our desire to be universal men/women with a refusal to turn a blind eye to any topic no matter how obscure and also indicating a glimmer of hope that perhaps society could be experience a rebirth carved out by the new voices in the internet age. Any thoughts? Who wants to help out? Any other names?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Awkward University

Now I am rested and free to read and write philosophy, having been wholly absorbed in my preparation for my journalism exams, I hope my attempts to talk about the Prophet Isaiah are not too late and the Awkward Squad who visit here are disposed to chewing over what liberty is.

Turning to Berlin's essays on Liberty it seems obvious he was an exceptionally worthy philosopher; a man clearly worried about worldly issues despite his abstract discipline; a man conscious the thoughts of a professor in his study could wreak havoc in later years having been semi-digested by the Robespierres, the Napoleons, the Hitlers and the Stalins. He begins his famous "Two Concepts of Liberty" chastising the assembled academics who listened to this stirring lecture and his later readers by stating if a Martian were to visit a British or American University they would be forgiven for thinking the people lived in Utopia "for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers". Somehow this worry, twinned with a consciousness that the great writings of Rousseau, Marx and many others could be the foundation for such destruction, propels the essay and much of what Berlin wrote.

Given the essay is ostensibly about negative and positive liberty it comes as a shock to the reader how little the first kind of liberty is discussed. A stirring quote from J.S. Mill, a famous defender of this liberty, defines it thus: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This, despite some academic mumbling and analysis which claims Mill’s utilitarianism is possibly incompatible with his libertarianism, seems largely to be a cornerstone for the tolerant pluralism that Berlin offers in the essay’s conclusion.

Having given a light impressionist picture of negative liberty, the chase moves to positive liberty, that altogether more abstract beast, which Berlin perceives as motivation for the totalitarian regimes haunting his writing. Essentially positive liberty is a variant of Kantian rationalism, the idea that man should act rationally, suppressing desire in favour of what the rational will dictates, and this and only this, is to be truly free. According to Berlin’s potted history of this potentially tyrannical idea it took on a menacing aspect in the hands of Fichte, who is the subject of the following brilliant animadversion:

“’No one has rights against reason.’ ’Man is afraid of subordinating his subjectivity to the laws of reason. He prefers tradition or arbitrariness.’ Nevertheless, subordinated he must be. Fichte put forward the claims of what he called reason; Napoleon, or Carlyle, or romantic authoritarians may worship other values, and see in their establishment by force the only path to ‘true” freedom.”

Dotting through intellectual history Berlin charts a historical map setting out how catastrophic positive liberty can be. Whether he is trustworthy guide to other thinkers is open to question, but there is no doubt his brilliant prose fires a blast against any philosopher or person who thinks that the failings of our fellow man can be eradicated by force and that the perfect state can be arrived at by terror.

So positive liberty is a dangerous idea, not necessarily a false one, for Berlin also thinks it animates “the most powerful and just public movements of our time, and that not to recognise this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all diverse ends of men can harmoniously be realised is demonstrably false.”

Berlin’s critique is of the system building of philosophers. The idea that the right way of acting for all can be discovered by introspection is treated with scepticism, and instead a richer understanding of the needs of others is advocated. Let yourself be driven by conviction, but don’t expect others to share your convictions. Allow people the freedom to get on with their lives even though your strong convictions might make you believe you can engineer the inner souls of others for the better. This delusion will only lead to tragedy. Simultaneously the philosopher or thinking person cannot retreat from the world, but the temptation to dictate to others what they should think should be avoided.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A call to move beyond left and right

I'm now knuckling down for my journalism exams and so I will be putting my posts on hold until February 9. Although I would far rather provide all of you with entertainment, memorising phrases from law-books verbatim, the nitty-gritty of local and central government, and short-hand tapes will take up much of my time from now on.

To bid you adieu, I recommend the extracts from Nick Cohen's book. While the majority of you will disagree and be offended by his rather crude characterisation of the protests against the war in Iraq as vast swathes of people taking to the streets to defend a fascist state; I reckon some of you may find his criticism of the prosetylising "left" is spot-on. Obviously actively marching for a dictator is plain stupidity, yet the protesters were questioning a war that was sold as a pre-emptive strike. As has become plain the war was a case naked imperialism and furthermore poorly planned. I do however think Cohen is right to emphasise that given we've made things even worse for the people in Iraq, we shouldn't cut and run but instead do our utmost to help them build a decent democratic state. How this will be possible is anyone's guess, but I'd still say we have a responsibility to provide order from the chaos our leaders have created.

Yet I find Cohen's criticism of stereotypical "leftist" viewpoints convincing even if I hope that few people are committed to holding such extreme points of view. To me it seems clear people who support Islamic terrorism as a means of counteracting the power of capitalism and American imperialism clearly have some form of death-wish. Yet how many people really believe Al Qaeda are fellow travellers? We might try and understand the motives of an average Jihadi, but despite the crudity of the Western world's foreign policy the murder of innocents should still strike all reasonable human beings as wrong and also deeply worrying as a trend. Also, blind support for the Palestinians against the Israelis seems to be the wrong way of addressing the situation and I think there are definitely those who take sides over such an issue. Yet surely there can be a middle path: namely open support of a settlement to provide peace and fairness, instead of taking a partisan stance in favour of either side.

These issues are clearly too complicated to sum up in a paragraph, yet I think Cohen has tapped in to a rich seam of thought for a book: the attempt to move beyond left and right. To this topic a sensible addition would be a call for a modern humanism. The debates between left and right have become jaded and we must focus on an attempt to attain fundamental freedoms for all people in the world, encouraging them to use these responsibly and to encourage a dialogue about how to maintain peace, stability and the survival of our race whilst finding some way of co-existing with our surroundings and environment. Can we cease to be destructive?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Staring in to the Abyss

Poor Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, was condemned never to be believed after having turned down the advances of Apollo. She foresaw the plight of Troy and her death in Agamemnon's bath but could never avert her country's (or her own) sad fate. Bloggers often share Cassandra's catastrophist tendencies, although it remains to be seen whether our own worst fears are wildly speculative fantasy or a grim reality which many of our contemporaries shirk from confronting.

What does this highly pessimistic mindset indicate? Is it a valuable voice of discontent that can stop things disintegrating before they are too late or the last cries of a dying civilization? I have heard some say that Blogging compares with the pamphleteers of the Seventeenth Century who supposedly turned the world upside down during England's brief republic. The comparison brings together the crumbling of barriers to publication that in times prior to 1639 were set up by strict blasphemy laws and an authoritarian Monarchy, and nowadays, by a press that have caved in to an oafish populism and subservience to a court whose information they depend on for advancement. Our press have found out they have backed a bunch of liars and middle managers whose only solution to our problems seem to be to rename things, yet they seemingly cannot summon any way to effectively criticise the magicians who so wowed them at first with their presentational skills. At the same time the public over the last 10 years has had a complicated lesson in the power of Newspeak and simultaneously a medium has arrived which allows us to express what we think to one another bypassing the contented and lack-lustre news-gathering middleman.

This is in some ways what I would like to think, but I also worry that the sheer scope of the internet and the failure to fully discuss issues can mean this new medium has several flaws. It is incredibly surprising, for instance, how quickly some on the internet launch in to attacks, not on the arguments of others, but their personal characters. This might just be a direct consequence of the enraged silenced masses who have had a new medium open up allowing them to say what they really think. Yet how will any of this change policy and how do we hold government to account as the minutiae of the latest acts and trends at Westminster are overlooked even as distrust spreads like a cancer? The detail and the professionalism of traditional news reporting is scrapped and instead disparate bits of information, are discussed all over the web with far greater interest then the irrelevances of celebrity gossip, yet often lacking the contemporaneity we would demand from a traditional news feature. This is great news for minority interests, but could it also mean that as the traditional news institutions crumble from the levelling effect (produced by millions tapping away at their computers, eschewing the tittle-tattle that even the serious press have now stooped to publishing) the net result will be worse, for the sea of information will carry on expanding and we will have no way of checking its veracity.

The problem with our attempt to take on the grand themes is that the Cassandra complex will arise. Looking at the world we will in general see many horrendous things. I have simply talked of the new changes I see afoot in the information age, and part of me surges with optimism yet other doubts envelop me. If we are all talking together and expressing similar doubts why is it that nothing seems to change? Could it be that the groups we form on the net, like in life, are largely self-selecting and that the grave doubts we so often express are not perceived by millions of our other fellow men? Is the net full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Monday, January 8, 2007

What does our navy do?

As a very ignorant civvie I've failed to get overly worked up by the funding cuts of our navy. In fact, rather like the Chancellor I think a good segment of the £40 Billion deficit could be wiped out by scaling down investment in the armed services, especially the navy. So I found this article to the contrary by Max Hastings of interest. Hastings must be one of the more eccentric and talented writers to have been conscripted to the Guardian team since civil liberties became top of the agenda for the 21st Century; rather than the boringly entrenched debates between left and right about redistribution. Yet Hastings also serves that nice role of providing the unwashed masses who read the Graun (such as myself) a bit of the Torygraph point of view as to how Britain should continue to rule the waves. His argument takes the line that we underfund the armed forces at our peril, as the quality of the soldiers will go down. Yet despite this argument why do we need a navy of the size we do and what does it serve? As the front page of the Telegraph stated a few days ago (in a piece ironically in defence of the navy, revealing the funding cuts), the last time we used its full capacity was the Falklands War. Are there any better reasons to retain the navy and what are they?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The limits of my language are the limits of my world (or can we think beyond language?)

Having taken a healthy 2 week holiday away from blogging to stuff my face on Spanish christmas fare and demolish my liver it is a bit daunting to be back in the UK having to face exams and the baying crowds (my definition is the 3+ variety) who visit this blog in search of a grammatical, or, heaven forbid, a logical mistake!

Which brings me to my good friend Mr. Wittgenstein, whose wonderful, if impenetrable book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus woke me from my dogmatical slumbers in bed. The bracketed comment in the title above, is mine, and is the thought that tortures anyone who enters in to Witt's philosophical world. Is life just language or is there something that can be thought about outside language? If you're a french philosophe of the Derrida school the first might seem an attractive option, but if, like me, you're of the romantic and yet realist persuasion that we are not all created constructs of the language that we use, the fact that Witt, in this famous passage seems to endorse the idea that there is no world outside of language can be terrifying. Does he really mean what he says? What kind of world do animals inhabit? Is he just dead wrong or is there something profound lurking in the words of the zen master? Let's face it, whatever is going on in the Tractatus is very odd and the definition of "world" is queer to say the least, but the book holds such endless fascination that even such opaque pronouncements are set to torture the unwitting reader for years to come. Damn book, I wish that philosophy didn't have the capacity to give a person nightmares even once the reading matter has been laid down many years ago and lost somewhere in one's room! Yet isn't that the fun of it?