Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’?

Most readers will probably have by now that Switzerland has passed a referendum to ban the building of minarets anywhere in the country. This has prompted many musings, in particular on the relationship between democracy and liberty.

This looks, after all, like an example of an illiberal but democratic measure. This prompts Chris to say

“We have, therefore, a simple conflict of fundamental values, a vindication of Isaiah Berlin: …Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

By contrast, Left Outside tries to harmonise the two (and hence judge this decision undemocratic) by saying

“I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum. There are some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda…equality before the law is essential, as is…freedom of conscience”

Dave argues for a similar sort of conclusion along different lines:

“If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then [this ban is democratic], but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state…

[D]emocracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work.”

All of these are valid points, but I’m not sure they would convince Chrisiah Berlin (a composite personality insisting that ‘some among the great goods cannot live together’). Isn’t this just a redefining of the word ‘democracy’ to include various more substantive notions of freedom?

If we define ‘schmemocracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, regardless of whether that will is well-informed, or cohesive, or correct, then have we just replaced an apparent conflict between liberty and democracy with one between ‘democracy’ and ‘schmemocracy’?

To my mind, though, there’s a more basic argument for thinking that this event doesn’t show us a conflict between liberty and democracy/schmemocracy. Namely, that even if we define ‘democracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, this definition is still technically ill-formed.

Because what is meant by ‘the majority’? After all, the number of people who voted ‘yes’ in this referendum is a few million, which is less than 0.1% of human beings. That’s not a majority.

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The Philosophy of Cute

Poll: is this baby bat cute?

I posted a few things a while back on analysing disgust philosophically. Some emotions have got plenty of attention like this from philosophers, especially love. But something that I’ve never seen discussed in the literature is cuteness – what is the content and the meaning of our perceiving things as cute? A google search brings up nothing but people naming their cats Socrates and Nietzsche. So I’m going to have a go.

The obvious thing people say when analysing cuteness is that it’s an evolutionary adaptation to facilitate care for infants. This is quite true, but it doesn’t answer the question. What is a mouse or a bear or a human actually conscious of when they perceive their young in this way? They can’t really be conscious ‘that the infant is theirs and is very young’, because they probably don’t have enough sense of self-identity, or of time, to understand such concepts. Besides, how young is young? It’s a different space of time for different species. So merely knowing why this reaction came about doesn’t tell us what its content is.

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Some Stuff, which is Random

There’s stuff everywhere.

Stuff that is a cruel joke:

The 5th International! has been declared at long last by…Hugo Chavez. This will unite the forces of revolutionary socialism world-wide. In Chavez’s view, of course, the forces of revolutionary socialism include…Mugabe. And Ahmadinejad. And the Chinese Communist Party. And…wait, what?

Thing is, I could sort of understand these sort of vile endorsements before – though I’m not too motivated to insist on a charitable reading of Chavez’s words, such a reading was available: he’s kissing ass because he wants/needs international allies. He wants a bit more security against threats from the US and its allies. It’s not what you’d expect of an ‘internationalist’ in the genuine sense but then, why would we expect such things from Chavez? The point is, it’s entirely standard and expected from a government. It’s exactly what every other government does.

But actually proclaiming a Socialist International, and then sending your people to receive ideological training in China, is…well, a cruel joke.

Stuff that is also a cruel joke:

Pardoning turkeys. So there’s a special day on which millions of turkeys are to be killed and ritually eaten. You get one or two of these turkeys and, with great publicity, and great fanfare, decline to kill them. This provokes hearty laughter. After all, you can’t spell slaughter, without laughter!

Stuff that is hardly even funny anymore:

In Nepal, there has been a grand religious festival of death, in which a few hundred thousand animals of various sorts have been killed by pious God-fearing folks from all over the country and beyond.

Quote: “I slaughtered around 20 buffalo in 2004. This time I managed to behead about 70. I wish the sacrifice has not ended.”

And: “I do it for spiritual satisfaction.”

Note: roughly the same number of animals have been slaughtered in the world for food since you started reading this post. With the precision of ‘roughly’ tied to how fast a reader you are.

Question: is it more disturbing that people do this sort of thing for spiritual satisfaction, or that they do it with complete casual indifference?

More Cruel Jokes:

You remember the world’s biggest war? Yeah, still going on. Currently some people are expressing concern that the peace-keepers are actually keeping war, and troops sent to protect civilians are actually protecting people who are massacring civilians. The Congolese government has said “That’s really what we can call an exaggeration”. Well then. Thanks for that.

In fact, it looks suspiciously like the actual international response is largely a series of actions to prop up and support the government, and take no action against the companies funding violence for resource access, surrounded by high-pitched humanitarian trills and whistles.

And Thanksgiving, which itself is a somewhat cruel joke. We exterminated you, but there was a brief period of amiability early on! Let’s celebrate that!

What lesson can we draw from all this? From the jovial celebrations, ironic mercy, grand revolutionary pronouncements, grand humanitarian pronouncements, and perhaps most of all from the ‘spiritual satisfaction’ – what they seem to illustrate is that humans have a striking ability to take violence and cruelty and destruction and give it pretty much every positive emotional spin you can think of.

What would a Vegan Society look like? Part 2: Species and Cultures

I sort of feel like the ‘what would a vegan world look like?‘ topic deserves a couple more posts, although this one continues to duck the central and thorny (and sticky – like a thornbush covered in treacle) questions, and instead deals with certain concerns that often come up in this sort of context.

One recurrent question goes as follows:

“If we all became vegatarian/vegan what would happen to all the existing domestic cows, sheep and pigs etc? Would a truly vegan society mean the extinction of domestic cattle and sheep and pigs?  What happens while they all die off?”

The other question is:

“What about places where there are ‘indigionous’ people such as Inuit who  do not have the weather to grow sufficient vegatables?  How much will we have to ride roughshod over peoples’ culture to do this?”

Now, I think in both these cases, there is a reasonable and very difficult question of means, and relatively simple question of ends.

The question of ends in the first case is – do we aim at the extinction of the domesticated cattle, pig, etc. sub-species? And to this I think the question is fairly straightforwardly ‘yes’ – we don’t aim at that for its own sake but if, as is quite possible, it would be the consequence of veganism, we’re fine with that. Sub-species in themselves aren’t particularly important, and don’t have moral rights that way that individuals like you do.

And similarly, in the second case, there is the question – are we happy to cause an irrevocable and radical change in hunter-gatherers’ cultures, essentially amounting to the disappearance of the older cultures? Again, I would say ‘yes’, because cultures are not in themselves morally significant things.

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What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble

Reader Mute Fox, from withwhatartthoudiscontented, said a while back:

“I am merely curious to know how you envision a free human society…interacting on equal terms with other species, all the time. I am not saying it couldn’t be done…I just wonder what you think that would look like.”

After a perhaps-unconscionable delay I figured I should try to say something about this. It’s hard to know where to start, especially because so much of the answer to this question is bound up with environmental questions about our relationship to the overall biosphere. There’s also the equally tricky question of which animals we’re talking about, and how they differ – to avoid that I’m talking primarily about mammals here.

But I think the best way I can think of the come at the question is from the idea of paradigms. By ‘paradigm’ I mean a sort of guiding thought that informs and determines how we relate to a particular thing – less specific or rigid than a rule, and one step more practical than a philosophical truth.

For example, at the moment, the primary paradigm by which human societies relate to animals (strictly, ‘nonhuman animals’ but I’m going to go for brevity here) is that animals are property. This is related to the philosophical claim that animals possess only ‘extrinsic’ or ‘instrumental’ value – that is, whereas humans are morally valuable and important intrinsically, animals are valuable insofar as they are valuable to someone else.

As I said, the paradigm is one step more practical, more concrete and specific, than this principle. It’s that claim – that animals have only extrinsic value – refracted into various sorts of definite relationships: animals which are positively valuable will become a resource to be owned, increased, and consumed, as food or clothing or work or information, while animals which are negatively valued will become pests, vermin, or ‘beasts’, and the target of extermination attempts, just like the dirt on our floor.

Obviously, part of my goal would be to do away with this paradigm. But what to replace it with? That will at least be the first step from a philosophical principle like ‘animals have rights’ to a concrete social vision.

One obviously inappropriate paradigm is something like ‘citizen’ or ‘fellow’, which is (in theory) how we’re meant to morally relate to other adult humans. The reason this isn’t appropriate is, in essence, that we can’t communicate with animals in the appropriate way – they can’t speak up in our discussions, they can’t understand and accept the rights and responsibilities that society might bestow on them, etc. Of course, nobody has ever suggested that we should apply a paradigm like that to animals, and I mention because sometimes people arguing against animal rights talk as if that were the only alternative.

I think there are at least two other alternatives, that we already apply to a certain extent when dealing with humans, and that I think would be the right ones to apply with different groups of animals.

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Is Empathy True?

Third post of fairly heavy philosophy. Will try to balance it soon with some political polemic and possibly a post on the philosophy of cuteness.

In my last post, I tried to explain why I think that empathetic ways of thinking of other conscious persons, and their conscious lives, is not just a different feeling or motive added on to non-empathetic ways of thinking, but is cognitively different, i.e. a completely different sort of belief.

I’m really not sure how far I managed to do that, since thinking about how we think, and especially thinking about how we think about thinking, is hard. But in summary: in non-empathetic thinking, the object of our thought in the other person, while in empathetic thought, our object is actually the object of their thought.

E.g. if person X is frightened of thing Y, then my coming to believe this involves a thought directed onto Y, not onto X. Just as ‘I’ am present in the thought, but not as an object, so X is not present as an object, but as a viewpoint, a perspective on the world.

Anyway, rather than spilling any more words I’m going to assume that if people still have no idea what I’m talking about they’ll tell me.

What I want to talk about now is why, given that empathy and all the forms of non-empathy are different cognitions, one is true and one is false. None of these arguments is entirely knock-down, because the whole debate is so loose you’ll always have room to dodge any point. But to me they make a lot of sense.

(I’m going to call the non-empathy umbrella ‘objectification’ because it involves a mental object, and because the word has conveniently negative connotations, and because I think it’s obviously a prerequisite for the sort of things usually called ‘objectification’.)

(I like the idea of a non-empathy umbrella too – empathy for other people is like rain, i.e. messy and inconvenient but also pervasive and vital for life).

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Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds

In my last post I tried to lay out the ground for my approach to meta-ethics, that is to investigating what is involved in moral claims being true or false. Today I’m going to try to put flesh on those bones by developing an account of how it is that we think about other people and their experiences, on which empathy is rationally required, and people who behave like psychopaths are rationally defective – victims, so to speak, of a delusion, just as much as any other psychotic.

So I should with some setting-up. Firstly, I want to say what I think the intuitive assumption is, the picture that I want to argue against (or at least provide an alternative to). The view can be summed up I think in two theses:

1) Thoughts about other people’s experiences have separate cognitive, affective, and motivational components, and;

2) People with different affective and motivational components can still share the same cognitive components.

That is, if malicious person A and compassionate person B both observe person C in distress, they can share the exact same cognition – namely, awareness of the fact ‘that person C is in distress’. They differ simply in that A adds to this a layer of enjoyment and a motivation to keep watching that distress, while B adds a different affective component (they are distressed themselves) and a different motivation (to relieve C’s distress).

What this picture implies is that at the level of cognition, there is no difference between A and B – and so neither can be called right or wrong. They differ only in the further steps they take after becoming aware of this fact. What I want to argue is that for these affective and motivational components to differ as they do, A and B must also have different cognitions, i.e. they believe different facts.

How does this work? My essential claim is this: that A is thinking of a certain object, which they understand and predict by running through a series of thoughts, treated as fantasy-thoughts, while B is thinking of a viewpoint embedded in a body, from which the world appears a certain way.

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What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?)

Last post I mentioned being away for the period around the weekend – I was at a philosophy conference and got back yesterday. The paper I was presenting was on meta-ethics, and in particular the topic of how moral claims might be objectively valid.

I won’t paste the whole thing up here, and I may not even put a whole summary up here (though if not I’ll try to complete it in other posts). But since it’s a topic I find abidingly interesting, and that has on occasion come up in discussions, I did want to open up some sense of what I’m about.

My starting assumption is that the content of any correct moral system is, boiled down, caring for others in the same way we naturally (though not inevitably) care for ourselves. The basic idea is to look out for the intersts of others as we do for our own, and in particular to refrain from harming them, just as we would try to avoid harm to ourselves.

I certainly don’t think all moral systems ever have fitted this pattern – many have substantial alien parts (purity, obedience, and group loyalty are three prominent values that seem opposed) – though it’s rare to see one that doesn’t incorporate this element among others. But that’s fine – they’re just wrong!

Now, what’s striking is that this sort of care-for-another isn’t restricted to what we would call ‘morality’ – it’s also something that often occurs spontaneously, when we simply learn about or consider other people, and of course something that occurs much more reliably in many sorts of inter-personal relationships.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know that someone is being hurt by our actions, and just don’t care. Sometimes, moreover, we perform that action because it hurts someone, because we are motivated to see them unhappy.

How do these phenomena differ from the moral? One difference is that they usually have more of a ‘feel’ to them – we empathise in a way that makes us cry or smile and which generally seems ’emotional’. But this isn’t actually always the case. Often in relationships, we act to care for someone but don’t ‘feel like it’. We can act as though we empathised, but without actually going through the experience of empathy – not necessarily out of ‘duty’ (in the sense of something ‘moral’) but becaue we value the relationship – we value it, and this motivates us in a constant way, regardless of the temporary variations in our emotions.

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Off Somewhere Else

Ok, so I’m sorry I’ve not been able to blog the last few days, especially since telling a commenter I would answer their question in a post. Especially because I will now almost certainly not be able to post until next Wednesday or Thursday, being away on an adventure with other cleromancers, tossing bones and practicing our readings.

Until then, strive to emulate the gopher tortoise:

Remembrance Day: What exactly do we remember?

This is a lazy post, in fact a year-old repost from before I started this blog, that I thought readers might find interesting. It’s explictly a moralistic sort of piece, not a political analysis (no war but the class war! etc).

To listen to most endorsements of remembrance day, and to most poppy-related appeals for money, one would be forgiven for thinking that the job of a soldier was to die. It is not: the job of a soldier is to kill people. Those people fall into approximately two categories: firstly, civilians, and secondly, other soldiers. The number of dictators, politicians, generals, etc. who are killed by soldiers is negligible.

It’s true that courage was not uncommon among the armed forces, and that many (though probably well under half) of the last century’s fallen soldiers were fighting for something better than what they were fighting against; it’s also true that most responsibility the blame for the horrors of war lies with high-level decision-makers – and the average soldier is usually in a situation of very limited freedom. But people are always free and people who kill are responsible for deaths, even if others bear equal or greater responsibility. Consequently it seems ridiculous to look on soldiers with an attitude only of praise, and not utter a word of blame or condemnation. That condemnation should be limited by the very limited perspective, the limited power, the limited opportunities, of average soldiers – but it cannot be simply dropped altogether.

Of course there is huge variation among individual soldiers, ranging from the truly discriminate soldier who shoots only those shooting them, and fights only for good causes, down to those who participate in irregular massacres – to deny this variation would remove the whole point of speaking of freedom. What is wrong is to ignore the whole issue, for this imputes to them a uniform purity.

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