Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Plato and the Ladder of Love

My intro philosophy class is entirely graded by in class essays. The following is peripherally related to the discussion about moral relativism, as it delves a little bit into the semantic argument that makes up most of the discussion that will come into part three. I am getting to that post - indeed, most of it is written, but I felt it necessary to interject a bit about the nature of reality and the tools with which we perceive and understand it. This essay, a discussion of Plato's ladder of love and beauty, ties into that - a nice segue into the post that will introduce part three.

Please keep in mind this was a response to the essay question provided about forty minutes before I finished writing it. For those who might be less familiar with me...I do not believe in editing... Not usually, anyways.

Plato's ladder of love describes the ascendance of one's love for beauty, starting with a narrow view of physical beauty, to a view of the beauty of everything physical, to the beauty of minds, the beauty of institutions and laws and on to the beauty of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Plato continues this progression to an absolute abstraction, that of the beauty of beauty itself, but that is where I diverge - which I will get to in a moment. First, let's explore the earlier stages just a little.

While the implication is that we are talking about the beauty of other people, I think this can easily be extrapolated to everything in the world around us and ultimately makes more sense if we do. Thus the first rung, the narrow focused perception of beauty - what Plato refers to as "a beautiful body," can be extended to things that the individual finds overtly and easily aesthetically pleasing. A very simplified notion of beauty that is sharply limited to the obvious. It is an immature perception that is uncomplicated by the perception that there is ultimately a subtle beauty to things that are less overtly attractive. It is the beauty of roses, clear skin and comely features, the ocean on a lightly cloudy, sunny day. It is the beauty of the very basic.

When one begins to perceive the hidden beauty of the world - beauty that is less overt and obvious, one has transcended that first rung and moved to the second. This is where they perceive the beauty that is hidden in decay, faces etched with the lines and wear of time, falling down barns or the infrastructure of electrical and plumbing in a home. It is the beauty of molds and chipped paint. It is what is not as obviously aesthetically pleasing, yet nonetheless is inundated with the beauty inherent to all matter.

Next, there is recognition of the "beauty of souls," as Plato puts it - or the beauty of the abstract. The less than obvious. It is not just the beauty of the mind, but the beauty of how the mind perceives the world and the universe around it. It is nothing less than transcending one's base nature and understanding the world and the universe as something more than that which we can touch and smell and interact with physically. It is ultimately this point, at which one begins to understand beauty as more than just something that the senses express to our minds. It is also here that we become truly empathetic - where we learn to love without conditions and wish to care for and help others, because they are there and need us.

Then we come to perceive the "beauty of institutions and laws," or our culture and traditions. It is here that one becomes aware not just that there are these institutions in which we engage, but that these institutions are something beautiful - a wonderful, enriching aspect of who and what we are. It is where one begins to seek to understand not just the what, of how one lives, but the why. And it is here that one can not only perceive the beauty of these institutions as they are, but as they could be. From there, changes can be fostered - though fostering those changes is only possible when one ascends to the next rung.

The "beauty of knowledge." It is here that one becomes aware of the beauty in knowing and understanding the world. Where rote learning turns into absorbing, extrapolating and applying knowledge to one's life and to the world around them. It is from here that people are able to change their world - both in small part, closer into themselves and in larger part, rippling outward and changing large swathes of their world. It is here too, that one can begin to grasp the abstractions that largely speak to our humanity - our sentience, for what they are - abstractions. And that leads directly up to the next rung..."The beauty of beauty."

As I said, this is where I diverge completely from Plato. Where he would have us believe that this is the penultimate and something that transcends human experience, I would argue that this is both the top and ultimately the actual bottom of the ladder. It is the point at which one begins to understand enough that they can begin anew, with a fresh perspective - driven by an understanding of the abstract. It is here that many people perceive the supernatural - gods and magic. It is here that we try to transcend the world and delve into something beyond human perception - it is here that we lay the seeds for disappointment. Because we use this abstraction that is language and most of us ultimately accept that as a human construct, like all human constructs, it is flawed, we too often make the mistake of assuming that there is something greater than our flawed human existence.

This is not to say it is certain there is not, merely that there is absolutely no reason to assume there is. When all of our tools are flawed, how can we couch the world in absolutes? When nothing is perfect - nothing is absolute, why assume that anything is? Why assume that simply because we cannot perceive it, it must therefore exist at all? It might. There may be gods and magic of wondrous beauty and grace. But it is equally probable that indeed there is not.

Bottom line, why assume that beauty itself, the fundamental of Plato's realm of the forms, is anything more than an abstraction? It does not exist within the realm of the physical. We cannot "see" geometry in the natural world - perfect geometric forms cannot even exist in our minds. I can take a piece of paper and draw a rough sketch of a piece of plywood I need to cut to fit a space that needs decking. It is not the right size, nor is it proportional. It is just the outline of what I am going to cut, with measurements written on the sides. I can then take those measurements and translate them to the plywood, cut the plywood and it will fit the space. At no point were true measurements taken, nor were even the imperfect measurements translated - nowhere - not even in my mind, did the actual, perfect shape and measurements ever exist. The drawing I used to guide me wasn't even close to what it actually represented. Yet what I cut out of the plywood works.

Could it not be that language and even Plato's realm of the forms, which I perceive to be language itself, not be just another imperfect tool - flawed, but correct enough that it works?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Much as I Love Sagan...

...I am not sure how excited I am that PZ posted this one.

Kind of disturbing when you come down to it...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Privilege and The Importance of Discomfort

There are certain discussions that make me really uncomfortable. Not always, but often enough. I am really uncomfortable, for example, when race/gender/sexuality/ethnicity - pretty much any identity discussions hit on something that I should feel kind of guilty about. I also get very uncomfortable when discussions about behaviors and choices start to force me to think about behaviors and choices that I am not happy about in my own life - when the discussion hits close enough to the mark that I start making associations. Sometimes it gets really uncomfortable - like lose sleep over it, feel like shit about it uncomfortable.

That's the best time, because the worse it feels, the more you are growing and making positive, fundamental changes.

We don't change our thinking or behaviors when we are all cozy and comfy. We don't have any impetus when things seem rosy, so we get complacent. It isn't until we are uncomfortable that changes we need to make can happen. The problem with this, is that all too often we decide to just blame what or whoever exposed us to the discomfort and attempt to banish them or at least get them to shut up and stop making us uncomfortable. Like we really want our token brown/gay/trans/ethnic minority friend around to make us feel hip and progressive - we just wish they would talk and act more like us and quit trying to make us understand their perspective. It is sooo uncomfortable when they do that...

The problem is, by and large they do. They want to - you know - work and have friends and all that, so they do shut up and just pretend it's ok. They often actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt! I want you to think about that for a moment - one of the many things that privilege means, is that minorities actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt, so we don't have to be uncomfortable enough to do something about it. Talk about fucking privilege - we make them feel guilty about our guilt that wells up when they talk about their discomfort. Here's a tip - the feelings of the disenfranchised are valid. They have a right to feel that way, even if you didn't intend something you said that was offensive to be offensive.

I have been trying to write this post for sometime now, but keep getting blocked by my anger about one of the most egregious points of contention; I have the privilege of writing this post without much concern for retribution. I don't really need to worry overmuch about how people who will have an impact on my career - my future might feel about me for saying this. I am not going to get labeled an angry brown/gay/trans person for saying this. Sure, some folks may argue with me about this, but in the end I sport beige skin and rather than a uterus, I have a cock - and I am engaged in a heteronormative relationship.

So it's all good, because I am in baby!!! I'm part of the club.

But if, for example, my totally brilliant and super hot girlfriend decided to write openly about this under her real name, it could well have an adverse affect on her future. Folks might decide that they really don't want to hire an angry brown women. At the very least, she will be told that her feelings aren't valid. Hell, that whole thread is chocked full of people who just can't believe that people who really don't like to be referred to as "the brown person" have valid feelings on the matter.

The message I am getting there is; "Your discussion about things that make you uncomfortable is making me uncomfortable - I sometimes say things like that and hearing how it makes you feel is making me feel vaguely uneasy and bad about myself. And of course, my feelings are far more valid than yours, so please just shut the fuck up and let me get on with feeling good about being a decent person."

Shut the fuck up, you whiny little asshole. Seriously. Shut the fuck up and consider why you feel uncomfortable. Hell, just think about that discomfort and consider that rather than shutting people down for making you feel that way, you can actually change your behavior and respect the feelings of others. Because the last time I checked, my GF can't change the color of her skin (and I would be really bummed if she could and did - she is totally hot). Isis can't change the experience she had growing up. That token queer friend of yours can't do anything to change how he internalized all the times he was separated out by his sexuality.

You however, can accept and embrace your discomfort, allow it to foster change in your life so you can quit being a fucking asshole and making others feel bad about things that they cannot change.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Please, If You're Going to Blog, Blog the way *I* Like...

I happen to rather adore Scicurious and one of the reasons I adore Sci so much, is because she refers to herself in the first person (err, DuWayne meant third person, thanks LM). It certainly isn't the only reason I like to pop over there now and then, but it is part of her voice - her style - and I rather like her voice and style. But apparently some people don't - people who don't believe they were rude to mention as much in the comments of a review she wrote.

These commenters were rather shocked, when their "polite" critiques of Sci's style weren't particularly appreciated. Well, what would you think if you were entertaining some guests and explaining something, when one of them explained that they really don't like the way you express yourself? Personally, I am the kind of asshole who would mock their dumbass, as I booted them out the door. More reasonable people than I, would probably just be mortified at being insulted like that in their own home - however else they reacted.

Someone with the handle "The Blind Watcher" felt that the reactions to these jackasses was way too rude. He made a couple of comments, the last of which I had responded to a couple of weeks ago and then came back with this:
I don't quite understand how you've arrived at the point in which criticism must stop? What am I missing? If someone reviews a book of, say Richard Dawkins, the style will be a major part of it. It might even be lambasted for it. Why should that be so obviously "out of bounds" here?

If I understand this situation, we need a warning "Please don't criticize writing style in our blogs, it's rude and unacceptable and we'll reply with nasty, condescending comments specifically tailored not just insult you but to express at length your lack of intelligence and insignificance in the world"

This blog is part of ScienceBlogs, I expect a thick skin and a basic level of professionalism from all blog authors. If you can't hack it, then get the fuck off this Blog roll - I can't be bothered filtering you out.
Apparently, Sci should not be a Seed Scienceblogger - because some fucking asshole who seems to lack any understanding of what blogging is about, can't be bothered to filter her out. I responded over there, but wanted to take a moment to respond to it here - especially as I occasionally get emails about my own blogging.

This isn't a book or some column in the paper - it's a fucking blog. More to the point, this one is mine - just as Neurotopia is Sci's. I am here to express myself and mostly, to have a conversation - not to win journalism awards or sell books. Sometimes I just write things here, that I can refer to later - such as my posts on moral relativism. And I occasionally post papers I write for class, mostly because I loathe the notion of wasting hours of writing on an audience of one - I figure it is better to reach at least a dozen or so folks for my effort.

And you DO NOT HAVE TO READ blogs you don't like. Don't complain to the blogger that you would prefer they express themselves differently - just find blogs by people who express themselves in ways you appreciate. Don't presume to think that any blogger actually gives a fuck what you think about their style or, worse, what they write about.

The thing that I get emails about on occasion, is my sometimes gratuitous use of the word fuck. Invariably they start off with how much they appreciate what I have to say a lot of the time, but are really turned off by my strong language. If you feel that way, I am honestly sorry that your narrow mind can't get past a little profanity and appreciate the substance. I respect your feelings - I really do. But who the fuck are you to tell me how to talk? This is a conversation, not a formal journalism venue or a formal venue for anything. This is a place where people are pretty much free to say what they will about the topics I write about (as long as they actually use a handle of some sort and don't spam me with tons of bullshit) - regardless of how they talk or what their opinion happens to be.

Most importantly, this is a place where I can express myself and say what I think - talk about how I feel. I am not writing for YOU, I am mostly writing for ME. And I am writing for my friends. I honestly and truly don't care how you feel about the way that I write or what I write about. I write about what I feel like writing about and occasionally take requests - though you need to understand that I am not always able to write those requests. I am not really concerned that you don't like a particular topic I decide to write about. And I while I actually do care if I make you uncomfortable when I write about certain topics (such as identity issues), I only care because making people a bit uncomfortable is the goal.

No one is forcing you to read my blog or Sci's - or anyfuckingone else's. And if you are incapable of filtering out bloggers who annoy you - that is your problem, not theirs. Don't like a Seed science blogger - don't feel it is appropriate for them to be blogging under that collective - complain to the folks at Seed, not to the bloggers they invited to blog there. Just keep in mind that it is unlikely to have the desired result - Seed invited them to blog there, not you. They might be a little more polite about it than I am, but I wouldn't count on them being very nice and they will say essentially the same thing - go fuck yourself.

Or, perversely, you could just Get Your Own Motherfucking Blog Asshole!!!11!!1!1!1!!!!

Monday, September 14, 2009

BDSM, Discomfort and Learning

Stephanie points to a post at Vagina Dentata that in turn points to a post at another blog I rather like (though rarely make it over to read), Spanked, not Silenced. I am not really going to discuss the post at SnS, which you should really go read anyways. Suffice to say that I am appalled and would like to encourage any of my readers who is a gamer to avoid EA games and to possibly write them and tell them why you think they fucking suck ass. I have done so, but as a total non-gamer, it is a rather pointless gesture...

What I would love to get into here, is Naomi's very interesting reaction to Pandora's post. You would do well to stop now, open her post in another tab and comeback after you read what she has to say about it.

Now I’ve read a couple of blogs by sexually submissive feminists (such as the very good Girl With a One Track Mind) and it’s something I’m really trying to get my head around. It seems counter-intuitive to me because my instinct is to encourage women to be powerful and assertive against a historical backdrop of oppression. But this blogger dresses up in chool uniforms and other costumes, and is spanked, dominated, tied-up and sexually submissive.

Assuming you have read her post, you will understand that she addresses her discomfort - a discomfort that I would argue is really quite healthy. I think we need to be uncomfortable when we are challenged. Not because it is fun, but because working through that discomfort is always a good teacher.

What I don't think that Naomi really addresses to a strong degree, is that women being powerful and assertive while also being sexually submissive are not mutually exclusive. First of all, submissive does not equal powerless. To the contrary, subs have very strict control over their situation (there are extremists who forgo safeties, but they are exceptional in BDSM and usually are men). They have an equal say in the rules before the fact and they have absolute control over the situation. I would even go as far as to say that subs actually have rather more control than your average sexual partner. The rules are generally very firmly established beforehand in a way that few casual couplings would even think about and in a way that few enough established couples ever really discuss. For most couples the preferences of their partners are learned as they go and often enough there are things that never really get established.

What is definitely unfeminist, is a feminist telling another woman how to have sex and what she can and can’t get her kicks out of. I want my feminism to include, for example, those women who have a gendered analysis of the world, they campaign for women’s rights, they challenge people’s everyday sexism and yet they're also down with consensual arse-slapping.

Sexuality is way too easy a target for some people. Growing up in U.S. culture makes it really easy for folks to have a visceral reaction to kink that doesn't happen to be their kink. The thing that a thoughtful person has to keep in mind, is that one's sexuality is not generally reflective of their identity outside the context of sex. I have all sorts of fetishes - though I am pretty vanilla for the most part. The thing is, my kink really isn't relevant outside the context of my sex life and sometimes discussions about sex. That someone might happen to like to be spanked, smacked around, disparaged horribly or otherwise abused, does not make them somehow less of a man or women. It just happens to be something that gets them off and probably also has some psychotherapeutic value.

If you are still having some difficulty wrapping your head around the idea that women who are sexually submissive, can also be strong feminist voices, consider the following questions. Would you ever even think about questioning the right of a women to call herself a feminist, simply because she is a heterosexual? Or because she prefers other women? How about because is just totally nuts over her sex toy collection? Can she be a feminist if she just really doesn't like sex at all, alone or with a partner? How about if she really likes sex in the great outdoors? I think that there are very few people indeed, who would argue that anything on that list could preclude a women from being a feminist and those who would are fringe loons. So why then would you consider it unfeminist for a women to have a sexual preference for being dominated?

The counter argument is: these women are perpetuating rape myths, they’re playing out their own internalised misogyny and they are making it harder for other women who are fighting against patriarchy. I simply do not think that this is true.

In this specific context, I cannot give a large enough and resounding enough call of BullShit! Not to Naomi's response, but to the expressed sentiment. What makes it harder for other women is paternalistic maternalistic busybodies, who want to tell everyone what to do and how to act. How exactly is this any different than any other misogynist telling women how they should be acting and where their place is? How is this any different than the extra scrutiny that still happens in many workplaces, because the work is being produced by a women? This is an example of becoming the object of contention, to fight the object of contention. "We'll never get anywhere, if we act like that" just puts us right back where we started.

Moreover, this is a major sticky issue with identity politics across the board. Blaming a member of the out group, for being a bad representative of that group. Or even worse, being a member of the outgroup and judging every single thing you do, in terms of the implications as a representative of that group. This is not to say there may not be contexts in which this position is valid. But it is absolutely absurd to act like any one person can be held responsible for how they make that group look. I'm a caucasian male. Is anybody going to seriously claim that when I was a rather extreme substance abuser, that my substance abuse reflected poorly on white dudes? Is anybody going to say with a straight face, that my rather extreme philandering when I was a tad younger makes beige guys look bad?

Oh wait, there are very similar pressures exerted on men too. There are people who would claim that I have reflected poorly on other men - maybe not because of the philandering, that is after all, an archetypal masculine ideal. And I am sure that the substance abuse wouldn't be a problem - at least if I would just shut the fuck up about my addiction issues already. But I have committed some cardinal sins of man. I have questioned and probed into social conceptions of gender. I have no problem whatever, telling my male friends that I love them, if the situation call for such intimate validations. I am not the least squicked out about homosexuality - I have even experimented myself. And I have been known to wear clothes that usually only women wear - like skirts and stuff.

There are several other flavors of folks who would judge men, in relation to my personal actions. Or who would just be horrified that I do things that reflect poorly on them. I think I will just wander to the other end of the spectrum. Guys who are horrified that I would be the least bit critical of women - especially self styled feminists. It is, after all, none of my fucking business. Men who are horrified by the idea that I regularly hold doors for women (and other men often enough) or that I quite often will open the passenger door for my lovely girlfriend. Men who whimper at the notion that I have on occasion, been a bit of a pugilist. How could I be such an insensitive and brutish bastard?

So fuck all, I guess that it actually does count if you're a white male. Just not quite the same way it does if you happen to be sporting a uterus. And not even close to the same way it does if you are the member of an out group, say non-beige, queer, a damned foreigner...

Naomi has a lot more to talk about, so if you haven't stopped over there, do it NOW!!!!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moral Relativism and Responsibility Part Two: Culture and the Ind

In the last post we briefly explored the relativistic nature of morality in the context of time and space. In this post we will explore it in the context of culture and the individual.

It can be difficult to separate space and culture in relation to moral relativism, because the context of space always includes culture. So I am going to use an example that includes only culture, making the context of space pretty much irrelevant. For this next foray, we will discuss the general social mores of gang culture. I think this is a reasonable example because it is a culture that exists within larger cultural contexts, yet remains relatively consistent in and of itself. Specifically we will explore U.S. urban gang culture.

For anyone who has lived in areas with high levels of gang activity, it is easy to simply dismiss gang bangers as immoral, unethical criminal thugs. Indeed I would be hard pressed to disagree, as my own moral framework precludes many of the activities that are common within gang banger culture. From the perspective of our generalized cultural mores, gang bangers are a pretty nasty bunch who, in their blatant disregard for people who aren't involved in their stupid, deadly games are very bad people - immoral people. But that does not mean they are not operating within the confines of any moral frame. Indeed, given the illicit nature of many of their activities, their general social mores are considerably more restrictive than those of the larger cultural contexts in which they live and act. And the social consequences for acting outside that framework are brutal. Rather than simply being marginalized by their peers, becoming an object of disdain, a gang banger is more likely to be severely beaten, possibly killed. And it doesn't necessarily stop there. Their family and/or close friends may also be at risk for retaliation.

There is some overlap of course. From my own perspective, I think it is blatantly immoral for someone who gets busted with a bag of cannabis to tell the police where they got it. My own reaction is not to kill the person or beat them, but at the same time, I am not going to be terribly upset if they get their ass kicked. I firmly believe that one should take ownership of their own choices and that it is immoral to push their consequences off onto someone else. But gang bangers tend to take that concept much further - it doesn't matter what the crime is, or even who committed it. You simply cannot talk to the police about it. Doesn't matter if it was your worst enemy, doesn't matter if the crime was raping someone and beating them to death - you cannot tell the authorities. If it is bad enough - offensive enough, then you deal with the perpetrator yourself or with some help from your fellow gang members. It is simply unacceptable to narc. The only possible exception would be something that is too egregious to ignore and too much to deal with, such as terrorism. But the exceptions would be rare and extreme. In general, the consequences of talking out of turn are severe and often permanent.

There is also a strong emphasis placed on taking care of your own. Another concept that is quite conducive to my own moral framework. The difference is the extreme it is taken to. I am not inclined to kick the crap out of somebody or shoot them, because they talked shit about my best friend. Gang bangers take this basic concept to a dangerous and from my perspective immoral extreme. They aren't inclined to worry about collateral damage when it comes to settling scores. What must take precedence at all cost, is vengeance and protecting their space - if there is some random innocent person in the way, too bad they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The key though, is that from their perspective they are operating from the context of their general cultural mores. And the individuals within that cultural context generally mold their moral framework to function within that context. While from our perspective, it would be perfectly reasonable to call the police and give a statement if we had the misfortune to witness a murder, from theirs it is immoral to do so. To them, any situation that would require they talk to the police about a crime would be a serious and significant moral dilemma.

With that, we come to the individual. By this point you may have noticed a pattern - that culture encompasses space, which in turn encompasses time. So it shouldn't be surprising that the individual encompasses all of these. Coming to the individual, we come to the most finite context of all - though even that can be broken down further by time, space and culture. The individual is not static. We mature as we move through time and if we are even the tiniest bit introspective, our moral framework evolves as we age. And many people change their space, moving to a different environment that will have an impact on their moral frame. Likewise, some of us also change our cultural context to some degree or another. A good example of this is my ability to relate to the notion of not talking to the cops about certain things - this was not the result of the culture in which I was raised, to any strong degree. This was the result of my having spent many years in a subculture that found certain types of illicit behavior acceptable - mostly in regards to illicit drugs. It actually contradicts to some degree my upbringing, which would not discourage one from reporting illicit activities. Though there was a supporting moral premise that one should accept responsibility for their choices, so that is not an absolute.

An example that I used in the thread over at Dispatches, is the death penalty. I like this one because I think it very nicely breaks through the surface agreement that two individuals respective moral frames might have and delves into the moral reasoning that produces the same outcome. Like many people I know, I am morally opposed to the death penalty. I am not apposed to it for the same reason that a lot of people I know are. I have a great many friends who believe that the state should never take the life of a criminal, under any circumstances. I rather fervently disagree with the moral calculus they use to oppose the death penalty. I don't believe that it is the least bit immoral for the state to execute people who are guilty of certain crimes. There are crimes that I fervently believe are reprehensible enough to warrant the execution of the guilty party. The moral calculus that brings me to so voraciously oppose the death penalty, is the risk that people who are not guilty of a capital offense might be executed for one. I simply cannot accept that any perceived benefit of capital punishment is worth the risk.

So the outcome of the calculus is exactly the same - both my friends who believe absolutely nothing could excuse state sanctioned execution and I come to the same conclusion. But there is more than a little bit of difference in how we get there. It is not a simple matter of nuance. We have a full fledged and extreme difference of opinion that is only made irrelevant by the fact that a strong enough certainty of guilt to satisfy my moral sensibility is virtually impossible and rare enough that I don't think it is worth executing those few and having the capital option on the table at all. If it were hypothetically possible to determine absolutely, the guilt or innocence of everyone convicted of certain crimes, I would have absolutely no qualms about the state executing them.

This very naturally leads to the question of the imposition of any person's moral framework on society as a whole. If there are no universal objective moral truths, then how can anyone justify imposing their moral frames on anyone else - even if a lot of people take very similar moral positions? The short answer is that we simply can't. There is never a reasonable justification for imposing one's moral frame on anyone else, with the possible exception of parents imposing their moral frame on their children. But even that is not an entirely reasonable proposition. The most important and to some degree the only purpose of morality, is as a governor of an individuals own behavior. Morality transcends law, social conventions, the environment in which one is raised and all cultural considerations, when it comes to any person's daily decision making processes. It is the single most profound control of our behaviors, our innate sense of what is right and wrong.

That is not to say that laws, social conventions, the environment in which we were raised and cultural considerations don't also play a part in our decision making - indeed all of those things provide a profound influence on the development of our moral frames. It is just that none of those things can have the absolute impact on our decisions, that our moral frame has. Our moral frame is why we choose to do what is right, even if we are quite certain we could get away with doing something we believe is wrong. It is why, for example, I couldn't just walk into a book store and slip that copy of The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome into my briefcase, even if no one is looking. It is not the fear of consequences - I am pretty sure that if I actually tried, I could get away with it. It is my moral belief that it is inexcusable to steal something that I can live without that stops me.

So where then do - or should laws come from, if not from some universal or simply objective moral truth? In point of fact, they should come from what is determined to be the best way for people to behave within a society, for making that society a reasonable place for everyone who lives within it. We don't need morality to tell us that a society that allows people to gun each other down in the street, is not going to be a very reasonable one to live in. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing rape will make a society untenable for most of those who make up that society. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing people to steal from others is going to make society rather chaotic and unpleasant. We can debate the definitions of murder and manslaughter. I don't believe, for example, that shooting someone who has invaded your home with clearly nefarious intent is the least bit immoral - yet there are plenty of situations in many states where doing so is illegal. There are gray areas when it comes to rape as well - is it rape when a man (or women) applies a great deal of verbal pressure, until the other person acquiesces? I don't happen to think so (though I could see contexts in which it would) but there are those who feel that no should be the end of it and any questioning or pressure after that - no matter what, constitutes rape if the other person gives in. And while I am not one to countenance theft or suggest that it should be legal, I do believe that the context of a theft determines it's morality and legally speaking should be taken into account. I am not inclined to think that someone who steals food in a desperate attempt to feed his or her family is being immoral.

I do however, tend to perceive many aspects of my moral frame as objectively true. This is not to be confused with believing that any aspect of my moral frame is a universal objective truth. There may be aspects of my moral frame for which I have a hard time conceiving of a context that would make them moral or at least not immoral. There are many aspects of my moral frame that I believe are absolute within my cultural context. But this is my opinion, nothing more and nothing left. This is my opinion, which forms the core of that which arbitrates my conception of right and wrong. It is that which prevents me from beating or killing someone, merely because they made me so very intensely angry - even if I was certain I could avoid legal repercussions. While there are a lot of people within my culture who have very similar moral positions on many of the things that I do, they are still nothing more than our opinions. What stretches beyond out relative opinions on issues such as equality, slavery, murder, rape and theft are laws. Unfortunately, sometimes laws are produced that are based on morality, rather than on the basis that they make for a better society for more of the population. It is almost inevitable that when laws are made that reflect morality, rather than a reasoned attempt to make society function more smoothly, they are going to unreasonably restrict the rights of some people.

In part three, I will discuss further the differentiation of perceiving one's morality objectively and universal objective moral truths, because that was tripping someone up on Ed's blog, so I imagine that I need to be especially clear on that point. The person who was seeing a contradiction there, Fortuna, is probably a pretty bright person, so I can only assume that this is going to confuse a lot of people - probably because of a failure on my part. So I will definitely explore this in somewhat greater detail. And I will wrap it up with a discussion about what I see as the responsibilities of the moral relativist - and indeed anyone - to constantly reexamine their moral frame and their motivations, their moral calculus.

And I promise, if there is anyone left reading this at this point, that I will do my best to make it as interesting as possible.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Moral Relativism and Responsibility Part One: Time and Space

As I mentioned in my last, I got into a hot and heavy discussion about morality over at my brother's blog. I already dealt with the pedantic asshats, so this will be a post devoted to addressing a couple of issues that came up there, as well as addressing another consideration that has come up outside the blogs. There were a couple of people arguing rather strenuously for the notion that there are certain universal moral truths, which, while I find it patently absurd, is far from an unreasonable position. Then there was Fortuna, a commenter who was more interested in probing what he perceives as inconsistencies in my position. Finally, I am going to discuss the apparent contradiction in the notion of the responsibility of the moral relativist to be a constant seeker of the absolute moral truths - more accurately, absolute personal truths.

There are several factors to consider, when it comes to moral relativism. The first thing I think must be done, is to provide an operational definition for moral relativism, because there is often some confusion about what it actually means and I would like to avoid confusion. This post in particular, will actually address pretty much all of the propositions that can be attributed to moral relativism. Put simply, moral relativism is the values neutral assertion that morality is relative to one or all of the following; time, culture, space and the individual. It holds that there are no universal objective moral truths. To reiterate the previous post, moral relativism is not the prospect that morality is only relative to culture. Neither is it the proposition that one must simply accept the moral frames of others as valid - all that it does is recognize that there are no universal objective moral truths.

I will begin with the broadest relative position, that of time. General cultural mores have been in a constant state of evolution since the advent of sentience. While it is patently absurd to assume that our earliest sentient ancestors were capable of considering an abstraction as complex as morality, that does not mean we cannot consider them in that context. Indeed, if there were any universal objective moral truths, they would by definition apply to all sentient beings, regardless of context. Very few of us would consider any person alive today as being somehow outside the purview of moral judgments, regardless of whether they understand the concept of morality or not. Yet most of us would probably accept that our earliest sentient ancestors can't really be judged by any of our individual moral frames. Most of us would accept that our earliest sentient ancestors were pretty much amoral, having only rudimentary conceptions of right and wrong. But by accepting that, we are complicating the abstraction that is morality. Because if we accept that we simply cannot judge our earliest sentient ancestors by our own moral frames or generalized cultural mores, at what point in history can we?

If we fast forward from the dawn of sentience, to the Magdalenian period of the development of culture we find that humans have managed to achieve enough leisure time to produce artwork that had no obvious functional purpose. With that leisure time it is likely they had the breathing room for intellectual considerations. And given that they were producing objects for their aesthetic value, they were obviously capable of abstract considerations. So can we judge the Magdalenians by our own moral frames? While I am sure that there are some people who might argue that we can, I suspect most of us are going to take into account the context of Magdalenian culture and still have to refrain from judging them by our own moral frames.

For fairness sake, why don't we move forward to a mere twenty five hundred years ago and the birth of western philosophy. We now see people actually formally studying the concept of morality - surely at this point we can begin to judge people by our own moral frames. Or can we? The world was a very different place. The environment that people lived in at the time was considerably different than our own. Even if we forward another five hundred years, to the point when the Romans have pretty well spread a great deal of what the Greeks had to offer, including the concept of philosophy, over much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, we are still dealing with very different contexts. And this doesn't even take into account the largely separate Eastern world of the time. The East was just as foreign a context to the Roman world of the time, as the Roman world of the time is to us. Even further forward into the dark ages, it is completely unreasonable to consider the cultures of the time in the context of our own moral frames. The context in which most people of the time lived completely precludes consideration of our own moral frames.

This is just one aspect of the argument for moral relativism. We could continue to move forward in time, but I think the point has been made. The context of history precludes the consideration of people throughout history by any of our conceptions of morality. And while we can consider space throughout history, we will just move forward to the present day (or rather very recent history) for our next foray, morality relative to space. While space overlaps with culture to some extent, it should be recognized that culture doesn't always overlap with space. In many places there are multiple cultures and cultural contexts to consider. In the context of moral relativism space is also in many ways synonymous with environment. That environment can include the actual planetary environment, which in some places creates relatively unique moral considerations. It also includes the social situation in a given location, whether it be the interface of multiple cultures in the same space, or the primary type (or types) of subsistence in a given area.

A few years ago, Kristoff of the NYTs wrote a piece about his experience in Darfur early on in the genocide. After reading it, I was literally ill for a few days, especially as I considered a particular incident. This incident was a major influence on my views about morality. As Kristoff was traveling through the region, he came upon a rather young girl gathering water at a well. Both concerned for her safety and because of her size, he decided help her carry the water. He was somewhat shocked when they came to the treeline and he discovered the child's father waiting in hiding. Put short, the father explained that this daughter was the most expendable of his children. That is was certain death for him if he was caught by the Janjiweed militia, while it was possible that his daughter might not be raped and killed if she were caught. That he needed to survive, because he had other children to care for.

As I said, reading that article tore me up. Not because I made a moral judgment about the father's actions, but because I realized that I couldn't. In the context of my own moral frame, it is simply inconceivable that I could even wittingly put my own child (or any child) in harms way. It just isn't possible for me. And within our western cultural context, I would consider any person who would to be reprehensibly vile, much less immoral. Yet here I was presented with a context in which is was not only not immoral for a parent to do just that, it would have been arguably immoral for him not to. So much for universal objective moral truths, even in the context of our current period of time.

I am going to wrap this part up right here and continue with culture and the individual in part two. I am going to try to also fit the responsibility of the moral relativist and the conclusion into that post, but I can't promise anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pedantic Asshats Who Piss People Off

So I am rather heavily involved in the total derailment of a thread over at Ed's, about gay marriage in MA. Early on there were some comments about the nature of morality and the next thing you know there are exponentially more comments discussing the nature of morality, than there are about gay marriage. I am going to write a more detailed post about morality a little later, but wanted to point out a couple of comments that were both unnecessary and blatantly wrong.

abb3w tries to tell us that morality is not about how people behave, when every definition of morality contradicts that assertion. There are definitions that transcend human behavior, but the claim that morality has nothing to do with human behavior is patently absurd. Even more absurd is the notion that because ethics covers very similar ground, this somehow precludes morality from the equation. Ironic, because ethics is the philosophical branch that basically discusses applied morality. That is a oversimplification, but basically accurate.

And then GD comes
to explain that us moral relativists are completely ignorant of morality theory. He explains that moral relativity is only defined as the prospect that the majority moral framework within a given culture is the correct one and that anyone within that culture who doesn't subscribe is wrong. His implication is that those who embrace moral relativism, are embracing the view that other moral frames are just as valid as ones own, in the context of their cultural paradigm. Now setting aside for a moment that this is only one accepted definition of moral relativism, it is also wrong.

In the context of a given culture and the generalized moral frame of that culture, moral relativism merely recognizes that different cultures have different generalized moral frames. It is value neutral in that it doesn't suggest we should or should not accept those other moral frames as legitimate or valid. It merely recognizes that there are no universal moral axioms and in this context, uses the fact that different cultures operate under different moral frames as evidence of this.

But that is not the whole of the concept of moral relativism. I have been using it just as validly, when I have been using it in the context of individual moral frames. I didn't always use the term to describe my position, that morality is not only relative to a given culture, but also to the individual. I didn't think that the term cultural relativism was the accurate term to use, until a friend suggested that I check out Sartre and his position on morality. He is generally considered a moral relativist and guess what? His position on morality is pretty much the same as mine. So from then on, I stopped referring to my position as relative morality and adopted the proper term.

Shorter DuWayne to pedantic asshats...

Fuck you morons.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The problem of puppies...


I am here for my first day of the new semester, a semester that is seeing more than a fifteen percent increase in enrollment over last year. It shows...

There a fucking puppies everywhere and a great many of them are complete fucking morons, absorbed so thoroughly in their own little bullshit that they simply can't be bothered by a semblance of common courtesy. I am looking forward to the next couple of weeks, wherein a substantial percentage of them will be getting the hell out of here and out of everyone elses way.

There are simply to many of them, for one thing. They are milling about, bewildered and confused - talking on cell phones while trying to find their next class - stopping abruptly midstream when they realize that their classroom was five doors or so back. And having the gall to be grumpy when the hapless victim of their stupidity right behind them walks into their dumbass.

Speaking of cell phones - bad enough are the fucking assholes who didn't turn their ringer off before class. We actually had a fucking jackass in my intro philosophy who answered the damned thing. Seriously... It is irritating enough that people feel the need to whisper to each other in class (though that was thankfully not much of an issue this morning) - is it too much to ask that you turn the fucking phone off? Is it unreasonable to consider yanking the fucking phone out of the moron's hand and throw it out a window?

Is it unreasonable to just walk right through the next fucking moron on their phone who stops abruptly in front of me, because they can't be bothered to, you know - pay fucking attention to where they are going?

Other than that, good day so far...

Update: And then, when I am leaving...

There is a HUGE stream of traffic and because of the way that things are laid out, it is not easy to move that much traffic out of there. Going towards the main entrance is extremely slow going. That and the fact that the back entrance is actually on the street I take home, is why I don't use it. So I was trying to get out of my aisle and go the opposite direction to everyone else - unfortunately, this means taking a left turn out of the aisle.

The people who were already on the strip heading out, were mostly being very reasonable. With few exceptions, everyone was letting one person out before they passed. Then I got to the end myself - with my left turn signal on, making sure they all know that I am not even trying to get in the same stream they are in. The person who was next on the strip got seriously pissed off when I cut in front of her to make my turn. Mind you, the traffic on that strip is going very slowly. The only place she could actually go, was in front of me, blocking me from getting out. And she would be sitting there for several moments before the line edged up again.

But I am a horrible fucking driver, because I insisted on making my left turn BEFORE she blocked the fucking aisle.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My Experience With Universal Healthcare

I have been without health insurance for most of my adult life. The time I actually had insurance, it was the really shitty, rather expensive kind that blue collar workers tend to get - high deductibles, high premiums that are hard to manage and a hell of a lot of exclusions.

Without insurance, I have been relegated to having the stoned hippie who lived with me at one point, stitch the hole in my arm left by an ex-lover (who it turned out was married) and my 22 pistol. Without insurance, I have learned to give myself stitches and (as the lovely Juniper discovered) have become a very good hand with butterfly insta-sutures - even one handed, because the wound is on my other arm. Without insurance, I once bought cocaine on the street as a numbing agent, so a friend could drill a cavity that I packed myself - thankfully another friend is a solid hand with a needle in the gums. Without insurance, I have a small chunk of my left elbow bone floating about under the skin - thankfully it only hurts when I bang it just right. Without insurance, I have learned to manage sprains and minor fractures - I learned from the best as a rather "active" child, to manage splints and immobilizing bandages. Without insurance, I became pretty adept with herbal medicine - I can make tinctures, extracts and even a few isolates, all day long. Lets hear it for medicine as it was practiced 150 years ago.

But there have been plenty of times when I was afflicted with something or another, that simply couldn't be left to home healthcare. For those, I had to turn to the U.S. version of universal health care - the emergency room. Let me just take this moment to thank those of you who have been paying for or who have expensive insurance paying for the programs that cut thousands off of the hospital bills - not because I asked them to, but because they wouldn't treat me if I didn't sign the papers that allow them to cover the cost out of special funds that many hospitals have for people who can't pay. They have to pay the staff somehow - and that is the how. It comes out of funds that everyone who can pay, is paying into. The best you can do, is make donations later, to that fund - because you don't even get the bill. Which is to say that you get billed, but that is for the actual bed cost and sometimes for tests they have to run.

I have been in ERs a lot. I have been there when I was injured or seriously ill on my own. I have been there when I have been injured on the job. I have been there when my eldest had a temp of 104.3 and rising when he managed to get the damned thermometer out of his mouth (at eleven thirty pm - almost two am). I have been there when he gashed his head - I wasn't home when he gashed his leg. Something I have noted - the ER is pretty much always crowded - though thankfully, when we were there in the middle of the night with a high fever, we were in a children's ER waiting area that was quiet. And they aren't full with people who have serious emergencies, few enough with even urgent care needs. They are full with people who are sick or injured, who if they had a doctor, if they had insurance, could see their primary care provider. But they don't have those things and are thus relegated to the only provider they can get - the ER.

And most of them are in one of two positions - they make little enough, that they qualify for one of those programs I was talking about, or they make a little too much and just won't be able to pay for any of it. I have been in both categories and I have sometimes been able to pay some - mostly I have come to accept that for the time being, I am going to have horrible credit. But that is besides the point - the bottom line is that those who can afford to pay, are paying for those visits. Taxpayers are also paying for those visits. And to make this a really big "what the fuck?!?!" Many of those people have fucking health insurance - they just don't have enough - don't have enough to cover five hundred dollar annual deductibles. Don't have enough to cover half the cost of the primary care physician visit. Don't have enough to cover the cost of the script the doc will write them and know the hospital pharmacy will fill it for free.

I am that strange sort of introvert - the kind who is capable of sitting down and having a conversation with a whole lot of different sorts of people - as long as the conversation is only with one or two other people...I have talked to a lot of people in ERs and there are all sorts there. Including people like Beatrix, from a couple of posts ago - people with preexisting conditions, who simply can't buy insurance, can't, because no one will sell them any, at any cost. Some of them can pay their bills - at least over time, many of them can't - many of them are just giving up and going on disability, because that is the only way they can actually get healthcare. It's not that they flat out can't work - it's that if they do, they lose their medicaid. So they end up living in poverty, at taxpayer expense - when they could actually work, if someone would let them and not take away their healthcare.

Our current government is about as disgusting as can be. Unlike the other republicrats, they were hired in part, because Americans want publicly funded healthcare options. 60% of republicans polled, want UHC. Substantially more democrats want UHC. And we have a democrat majority - virtually a supermajority. So what the fuck is going on? As Stephanie mentions, the only motherfuckers who don't want public options, are the insurance lobby, the corporate media and the fucking assholes we hired to bring us fucking healthcare...

Never Go For The Lowball

I am currently busy with the roof of the matriarch of one of my closest friend's family. It was roofed less than five fucking years ago and has had problems ever since - problems that have gotten increasingly worse. I have finally gotten around to taking it apart - days before my fall semester starts - and what I have found is verging on fucking criminal. These assholes made mistakes on this roof that were obvious enough, that I doubt a single reader of this blog would not have recognized them as major fuckups.

If you get a bid for work on your home - especially the roof, electric or plumbing, that is more than fifteen to twenty percent lower than the next lowest bid (assuming the next was from a yellow pages, licensed contractor - most states require the license number on any adverts) don't go there. Do not get excited at the notion of saving big money, because when you have to hire someone else to come along and fix everything that got fucked up (or in the case of electric, burned up) you are going to lose those savings and some. It is expensive to get that shit taken care of later - so just don't fucking do it.

At the very least, someone working for that much less is not carrying insurance. There is simply no way that someone can actually charge that little and be covering necessary overhead. In some states an exception might be a licensed handyperson, but if you are talking about a relatively large job, that work won't be covered by the handyperson's insurance - though again, there are some exceptions. But, even as someone who used to work as a handyperson, it is just not worth the risk. I hate to say it, because I was perfectly capable of jobs that I took on - I did what my clients wanted and at a reasonable price. But in that, I was exceptional. For every one of the people like me out there, there are a few dozen who are just going to fuck your shit up...

Sorry it has to be like that, but that is reality.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I haven't said anything about health care for a reason...

If I were to express my feelings, the language use would be offensive even to my fucking standards. Thankfully, there are others who are able to express their feelings about this better than I would. And here is just one of the many people denied health insurance for preexisting conditions. Here is one of those "irresponsible" people who many would have you believe just doesn't deserve access to health care.

(Stephanie has an especial lot of posts and links)

As Greg puts it, makes me want to go out and slug the first motherfucker who goes on a tare about universal health care.