Sunday Mammalfest, Episode 4


Pangolins, I have to say, are quite awesome. Let’s go through why.

1) They decided to have scales. People told them – you can’t do that! You’re a mammal, mammals don’t have scales, only reptiles and fish do that. But the pangolins said: fuck you! I’m a scaly anteater!

2) These scales not only protect them, especially when they roll up into a ball, but are really sharp and will cut you up. Like a hardcore football covered in razor blades. With a big flicky tail. Covered in razor blades.

3) They decided they were so hardcore, they didn’t need teeth. Instead, they would create a mouth-system as powerful and complex as this new laser. You have a tongue attached to your mouth and throat? Fuck that. Pangolins have tongues attached to their hips. You have saliva glands in your mouth? Pangolins have basically a swimming pool in their chest to coat their enormous tongues with saliva when they shoot it out like a long, thin, sticky bullet.

4) But then, they decided that instead of the teeth they were doing without, they would get enormous claws for tearing up buildings*. These claws are so hardcore on their front feet, that when walking, they have to curl their hands up to avoid killing the ground.

That’s what pangolins are like.

*Buildings made by ants.

‘Moral Relativism’ is Equivocal

In yesterday’s post I suggested that there are two quite distinct sources for ‘moral’ judgements: value-egalitarianism (whatever matters to one person matters to everyone) and value-authoritarianism (a judgement made intuitively by one person is invested with the force to overrule all competing judgements).

In a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political right and with religious or traditional systems, the two are blurred together; in a form of ‘morality’ mainly associated with the political left and with modern-era rationalism, value-egalitarianism is maintained on its own, in ‘pure form’.

Now having these two quite different things both being called ‘morality’ is tricky, especially when it comes to the idea of ‘moral relativism’. I’ve experienced this personally in that I know a lot of people with whom I agree on most things, but who identify as ‘moral relativists’; I very much don’t, and yet in discussing it I often feel that we’re arguing at cross purposes.

(I should warn readers, this post makes a lot of distinctions of meaning, and weird terminology abounds. Hopefully it is all adequately explained.)

So the idea I’m going for here is that ‘moral relativism’ can mean either the rejection of value-authoritarianism (a reasonable and sensible position, which fits very neatly with the acceptance of value-egalitarianism), or the rejection of value-egalitarianism as well (a chaotic position that makes a lot of discussions very difficult to have).

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‘Morality’ is Equivocal

It’s a truism that people disagree about what actions are morally right, good, bad, or wrong, and this fact is often expressed by saying that they have different ‘meanings’ or ‘definitions’ of morality, a turn of phrase which is close enough to the truth but somewhat misleading (the disagreements are over content, not what the word is to mean – it’s precisely because people mean the same thing that their different opinions are in conflict).

But I think that a stronger claim can be made, which would be properly expressed by talking about different ‘meanings’ of the word ‘morality’: that is, it may be that there are in fact two or more distinct things that the word ‘morality’ confusingly refers to. The term ‘morality’, that is, may be ‘equivocal’ – like the term ‘trunk’, which refers both to an elephant’s nose, a car’s boot, and a human’s torso, with no single meaning applying to all.

An interesting consequence, which I’ll explore in the next post, is that ‘moral relativism’, or even ‘nihilism’, may be similarly equivocal.

I’m prompted to this thought by this interesting site, essentially a collection of questionnaires aiming, among other things, to measure statistical differences in the reasoning of different political groups (which I was put onto by Rumblegumption [top link]). The particular questionnaire I wanted to talk about was called ‘moral foundations’, and worked on the basis of ‘moral foundations theory’ (more info here).

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Hegel on Property

Short Version: Hegel said some stuff about how private property is socially important. I criticise it, and conclude that while he is onto something, it still implies that communism is a good idea.

What Hegel says: ‘property is the mark of personality.’ Through owning things, that is, you realise your freedom and your personhood.

Now Hegel draws two critical conclusions from this. Firstly, he uses it to argue against a certain sort of ‘communism’, for him symbolised by Plato’s ‘philosopher-republic’, where things like personal families, private property, and the right to make poetry, are all abolished in the name of promoting the ‘greater good’ as divined by the self-selecting caste of ‘philosopher-kings’.

He also, however, uses this view of property as a criticisim of bourgeois society, prefiguring a neat line in the Communist Manifesto: the the necessary condition for private property for capitalists is the lack of property for proletarians. If, therefore, property is a mark of personhood, then those who are deprived of property are not only made, in material terms, worse off, they are also de-personalised, de-humanised. The problem of poverty is one that haunted Hegel throughout his life but to which he could never offer a coherent solution.

Now this all sounds rather fishy though. Is property actually a precondition for personhood? I think there is in fact something of importance here. We can see it better if we bring in an idea which was important both for Hegel and for Marx: ‘alienation’.

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Nationalism, Class Compromise, and Globalisation

The European Union and the BNP are in the news a lot right now. And many lefties are worried that the left is ‘losing the battle of ideas‘, or in general stumbling around with its pants around its ankles. In the spirit of contributing to that confusion, I wanted to offer some comments on, um, well I guess the three things in the title really.

In the middle-section of the 20th century there was in many countries a kind of grand class compromise. In the UK it was the welfare state, the NHS, and the various other measures of the Attlee government: in the US it was the ‘new deal’ under FDR. For the next few decades, Keynesian state regulation, nationalisation, and various forms of left-reformist measures and ideas were comparatively widespread and popular across the world (including, of course, in the USSR and its imitators).

Two things have undermined this compromise. One is the active class fightback waged by capital in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In the UK this was led by Thatcher, in the US, and globally, by Reagan. It involved the final folding of the USSR, with all its ambiguities. That’s a familiar story, so I won’t focus on it.

The other thing is globalisation. The old class compromises operated at a national level; the economy increasing functions globally. This in itself does not give an advantage to any side – it simply undermines the previous compromise. As a matter of contingent fact, however, capital has reaped the political benefits from globalisation, because it is organised globally.

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More Rape Culture

What do feminists mean when they say we live in a ‘rape culture’? For one thing, a culture where rape and intense happiness can be referred to by a single word.

So let’s go to wordnet and look up ‘ravishment’. It has two definitions:

“a feeling of delight at being filled with wonder and enchantment”


“the crime of forcing a woman to submit to sexual intercourse against her will”

Look ‘ravish’ up somewhere else, say, wiktionary. Here again we find:

“to seize and carry away by violence; to snatch by force”

“to transport with joy or delight; to delight to ecstasy”

“to rape”

So when the Martian documentary-maker arrives tomorrow, how am I supposed to explain this?

Peace and Anarchy

I was at a discussion today on the prospects for world government and world peace. It’s an interesting topic, and I intend to tell you all what I think about it, without making that much of an effort to justify it.

So first off, what does world government mean? Is there a sense we can extract from it while dispensing with the ‘government’ bit?  Taking a relatively weak interpretation, it would mean standing and established procedures for making decisions and resolving disputes, all the way from the individual level to the world level. At the moment we have established procedures for making decisions up to the national level in many cases, but above that level chance, power, and the looming threat of megaviolence start to take over.

That doesn’t specify what those procedures are, except that they are such as can be part of a well-designed system, not orgies of senseless violence. It is consistent both with world government, extending the coercive and elite nature of current national procedures, and with an ‘anarchic’ world-wide federation. We might lump both together as ‘world order’.

Now in the abstract, I think there’s quite a compelling case that world order is a desirable thing. It’s main difference from the status qup would be to remove the possibility and threat of war international war, and to enable easier global economic planning, which is a necessity for environmental reasons if nothing else.

Now it might be thought that in practice, world government is more likely than world anarchy. But I think actually it’s the other way around. World government is extremely unlikely, because of how states work.

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The State is Incapable of Submissiveness

A topic of abiding interest to me is the analogy between the individual person and society, and its limits. We habitually speak of collectives, especially states, as acting, perceiving, desiring, etc, in the same sort of language that we speak of human individuals as doing. Clearly there is some practical use and validity in such a turn of phrase – but equally clearly, we cannot expect a state to precisely mirror an individual. What then, are the precise and detailed differences?

I’ve argued before that one difference is that states are liable to be megalomanic (i.e. pathologically concerned with power) in proportion as they are hierarchical, since the desires of the more powerful will exert a greater influence on collective decision-making (in its most extreme form, a theoretical absolute and total autocracy would act out the particular psychology and desires of its autocrat), and those who have won themselves most power tend to be those with most interest in power.

But I now want to offer up a related observation: states are incapable of submissive desires.

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Hegel, the Family, the Market, and the State

I’ve been reading a lot recently about Hegel’s political thought, and one aspect in particular provoked me to comment, namely his division of social life into three ‘moments’: the family, the market, and the state.

(‘Moment’ is a quasi-technical term in Hegel drawn from its usage in physics. The moments of something are the constituent elements which compose it but which, unlike mere ‘parts’ cannot be separated from each other except by a simplifying abstraction but rather determine what each other are)

The three sorts of social life could be roughly characterised as ‘particular altruism’ (I care about my family members for their own sake, but this applies only to a contingent few people, not to all people), ‘universal egoism’ (in a market, although I respect the rights of each other person, I use them simply as means to my own satisfaction), and ‘universal altruism’ (in considering a state policy I concern myself with the common good of all other citizens, for its own sake).

Why is this worth remarking on? Isn’t it just an obvious little list? But what Hegel wants to say with this three-fold distinction is that the three are all different and all equally basic – none can be derived from or understood in terms of the others.

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Sunday Mammalfest, Episode 3

Typically when one thinks of Cthulhu, or some other mysterious horror beyond human understanding, one has images of octopuses, fish, eels and snakes – various cold-blood creatures. But mammals can be creepy as hell too. So this week’s mammalfest is an exhibition of those mammals which may be in league with the elder gods in their plan to bring pre-human madness and devastation to the world.

Star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata

Star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata

Our first example is the star-nosed mole, the fastest eater in the world. By using the incredibly sensitive tentacles on its snout, it can decide by touch whether or not to eat something in a mere 8 miliseconds, and then bringing that object into the mouth to swallow in only 120 miliseconds. Be glad that object is not you or those you love.

A similar adaptation is found in the fringe-lipped bat, which uses its complex array of bumps and protrusions to identify from a frog’s skin whether it will be poisonous. Against this menace from beyond sanity, not even turning into a frog will save you.

Fringe-lipped bat, Trachops cirrhosus

Fringe-lipped bat, Trachops cirrhosus

Completing the mind-melting trinity is the naked mole rat, a mouse with the soul of an ant. They live underground in their vast colonies, all unswervingly loyal to their mighty queen. What are they doing down there? What are they planning? Why do they look like penises with legs? We know only three things: they feed their young on feces, they cannot feel pain in their skin, and when they emerge from their underground fortresses in the deserts of Somalia, humanity will be in mortal danger.

Naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber

Naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber