Saturday, June 26, 2010

Suqraati Ethics (part 2): Conditions of freedom and criticisms.

Morality and Freedom:

The idea of personal freedom seems to be essential to morality because it is closely connected with moral praise and blame. We know that Anna deliberately chooses to manipulate Veslovsky and so we blame her for her actions. We say that she is responsible for her behaviour. However, normally we do not praise or blame people and hold them responsible for their actions if we find that they were not free to act as they did- if they were forced to do so by some physical power (like a truth serum that compels me to give up national secrets to a terrorist group) or by some psychological compulsion (like the individual sufffering from paranoid delusions who attacks an innocent stranger that they imagine, is trying to kill them).

What kind of freedom is involved in the moral life? We can distinguish the following:
1) Physical freedom: freedom from physical constraints;
2) Psychological freedom: freedom from internal constraints such as compulsions and delusions;
3) Social freedom: freedom from social (especially legal) constraints;
4) Moral freedom: freedom to choose what is right by oneself and others or to wrong oneself or others;
5) Freedom to do as one pleases: voluntary action with no physical, psychological, social or moral constraints.

Moral freedom normally requires physical freedom- though sometimes, if we are courageous enough, we can resist the evil that others may be trying to force us to do. However, moral freedom always requires some measure of psychological freedom- psychological compulsions like kleptomania may hinder ones capability to make the moral choice. This means that a lack of psychological freedom may destroy moral freedom and moral responsibility.

The notion of moral freedom implies that we can choose otherwise- that the cause of my choosing this course of action is simply my deciding to do so. This view suggests that human beings are the creative originators of their actions. 

Some Criticisms and Discontents of Moral freedom/Socratic ethics: 

Some philosophers - called Determinists - deny that we have the kind of freechoice morality seems to assume. Determinism is the philosophical theory that all choices and actions are caused by environmental and/or inherited factors- that whatever we decide to do is determined by such factors and hence we could not choose otherwise. Human freedom in this view simply means acting without physical constraint. However, one key problem for determinists is this: are we free to accept or reject the determinist view on the basis of arguments for and against it?

Many religious people including Jews, Christians and Muslims, claim that what is morally right and good is what God commands and what is morally wrong and evil is what God forbids. This is called the divine command theory of ethics. The problem with this theory was pointed out by Aflatun (plato). If what is moral is what God commands, this seems to make morality arbitrary- did God's commanding Abraham to kill his most cherished son, make it right? If, on the other hand if God only commands certain action, like honouring parents, then this seems to make morality independant of God. The traditional solution to this problem - known as the Euthyphro Dilemma - is that God only commands what is good because he is perfect goodness in itself. God would never command us to do what is evil because that would contradict his own nature. So there can be no conflict between the Moral Law and God's law- they are one and the same. Whether this makes sense or not is a question in the Philosophy of Religion.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Suqraati Ethics (part 1): Moral Responsibility.

The idea that moral harm is a distinctive kind of harm that we can inflict on others or have inflicted on us, is the key insight into the nature of morality of Socrates and Plato. In moral philosophy or ethics, the point is sometimes put by saying that moral goodness and moral harm are sui generis(a kind of their own). The view of morality that takes this point as its fundamental principle is often called Socratic ethics.

There is an episode in Tolstoys novel, Anna Karenina, where Anna flirts with a vain young man named Veslovsky who is visiting her home. She does this, not because she is attracted to Veslovsky, but because she wants to amuse her bored lover, Vronsky, and to show him that she is still attractive to men.

'He is just a boy,' she says of Veslovsky, 'and like wax in my hands...I can do what I like with him.'

Tolstoys's emphasis in this episode falls on the harm that Anna does to herself in misusing her beauty and intelligence; but he also makes it clear that Anna wrongs Veslovsky. Not that Veslovsky suffers any natural harm- he enjoys the flirtation and never discovers Anna's real attitude towards him. No, the wrong Anna does him is that she cynically treats him as a pawn in her relationship with Vronsky. Veslovsky suffers a moral harm rather than a natural one.

Normally, of course, moral harm also involves some kind of natural harm- violent rape involves terrible physical and mental distress; murder involves death. But sometimes we can recognize a moral harm without any accompanying natural harm- and Anna's treatment of Veslosky seems to be a case in point.
However, if Anna were to ask Veslovsky's forgiveness for manipulating him and exploiting his naivety, she would be extending to him a moral good- the good of her honesty and her remorse- rather than any natural good. In fact, Veslovsky might be angered and distressed by her confession of wrongdoing. Socrates' insight also implies that every human being- even foolish ones like Veslovsky- have a profound value that demands our restecpa(heh). Every human being is my moral equal because every human being can be wronged as I can. What the Socratic view assumes is that I am pained or outraged when an innocent person is blamed or punished and moved when one of that individual's accusers acknowledges her innocence and seeks to make ammends for that false accusation.

Socrates' insight implies that morality is groundless. This means that the practice of judging that someone has suffered a moral harm- like being betrayed or benefited by a moral good- like having another refuse to betray them, is just something we human beings do that requires no further justification. The Socratic view is said to be a non-naturalistic view of the nature of morality. 

By contrast, philosophers like Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas ( I like to call them the "frandshippers") claim that morality is grounded in what is naturally good for human beings and what naturally harms them. They think that betraying a friend is wrong because it damages friendship and friendship is one of the basic goods in human life- one of the things that helps us to mature and flourish as human beings. So, unlike Socrates, they hold a naturalistic view of morality; and their view is often called Natural Law Theory.
Vain talk, slander etc is a moral harm according to Socratic ethics, as the business of the moral life involves refraining from doing evil to others or wronging them; and, more positively, the moral life involves respecting others as our moral equals and responding to them accordingly. This will inevitably involve using the rich vocabulary that we have in our language that enables us to charecterize one another in moral terms. I suppose one can call Socrates an early proponent of political correctness.

Socrates went on to claim that the one thing that is essential to a life that is worthy of a human being is precisely the moral virtue he called justice- respecting others as your moral equals and refusing to do them evil or to wrong them.

"It is better to suffer evil", Socrates famously said, "than to do it". But to live up to this principle may require great courage- the kind of courage Socrates himself displayed when he refused the order of the Thirty Tyrants to bring in Leon of Salamis for summary execution even though he risked execution himself.


Louise J. Pojman, How We Should Live?, Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. (Chapters 3 and 4).

B.Williams 'The Truth in Relativism' in Moral Luck, CUP, Cambridge, 1981. (pg 132 - 143).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Negative cultural reinforcement.

 Culture is a sociological term for learned behavior: behavior that a person does not possess a priori (innately); behavior that one learns anew from the elders of their generation. A lot of cultural beliefs are essential for the progression of a civilization, while others could be without eruditional merit. The relationship between progression and culture is dynamic and with time most norms in a society change or evolve. Stages at which a society risks devolution – when quintessential traditional aspects of a society are at risk of elimination, movements to reinforce those norms come about. Cultural reinforcement can be described as such a movement that aims to restore, but more often instill culture. With the advent of the radio, television, and internet, ideas can be communicated to a larger demographic more rapidly. The instruments of such large scale communication are known individually and collectively as the mass media. The following passages will examine briefly, the medias role in propagating some negative cultural beliefs and the outcome of this activity. Naturally this would entail starting from the beginning, i.e, from whence consumerism was instilled in the public psyche.

The linking of the subconscious to commodities and, the spawning of what Karl Marx described as “commodity fetishism” in the 20th century, can be traced back to one Edward Bernays. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays was responsible for financing some of the earliest translations of Freud into English. During WWI, Edward began work for the Committee on Public Information, a vast propaganda machine commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to sway American support for the war. It should be noted that at this time the U.S had no offensive army and the majority of the population was pacifistic.

 Away from the political sphere Bernays is also known for promoting cigarettes to women. Most notably during a stunt he pulled at the 1929 New york Easter parade; when he spread rumours about how a few debutantes that he had paid were actually suffragettes, that were lighting their “torches of freedom”.
 In 1954, he was largely successful in creating a media atmosphere in which the United Fruit/CIA overthrow of the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala was seen as acceptable.

Guatemala overthrow and the U.S war mindset:
Jacobo Arbenz, was a colonel and a reformist leader that progressed from the army to become a democratically elected president in Guatemala. Much like his predecessor, Juan Jose Arevalo, Arbenz was enthusiastic about tackling a vast array of social and economic problems that plagued Guatemala. Arbenz broadened voting rights, established a minimum wage, promoted literacy, health care programs and above all, distributed land to peasant workers to alleviate their distress. The United States recognized such government initiated measures to spread social and economic equality as “communistic and un-American”. Thus, the C.I.A, with the help of Edward Bernays passed psychological warfare, backed by a naval blockade and air support. These actions resulted in a successful coup’de’tat that toppled the Arbenz government. The justification for this: “Guatemala was on the verge of a proverbial Soviet takeover”, was further supplemented by the “Monroe Doctrine”. A doctrine promulgated by President James Monroe in 1823 as a warning to the European powers of the era, that any expansionist activity within the Americas would be regarded as a direct threat to the United States- extended since, by President Theodore Roosevelt and used several times to justify US interventions in Latin America. Bernays’ role from the public relations perspective was to use the “Red scare” or the communist threat to conquer public support.

The American cultural belief in a divine ordinance to free the world, upholding the countries sacrosanct theosophical belief in “Manifest Destiny” was then upheld in this instance. Historian William E. Weeks describes three key themes touched upon by advocates of Manifest Destiny:
1) The virtue of the American people and their institutions;
2) The mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.;
3) And, the destiny under God to accomplish this work.

The role of the media has been to propagate against the “terrorist threat” in the 21st century: as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being extensively instigated by it. Ironically, however, the scourging and pillaging of third world countries has served the U.S quite well and in many ways, it has been the epitome of that nation’s hegemonic stature. Without the use of cleverly placed rhetoric in the news, movies and other sources of misinformation, this would not have been possible. The mass Medias negative impacts are quite evident from this example given by multi award winning journalist and humanitarian, John Pilger (relating to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that launched the Vietnam war):

The CIA...loaded up a junk, a North Vietnamese junk, with communist weapons - the Agency maintains communist arsenals in the United States and around the world. They floated this junk off the coast of central Vietnam. Then they shot it up and made it look like a fire fight had taken place, and they brought in the American press. Based on this evidence, two Marine landing teams went into Danang and a week after that the American air force began regular bombing of North Vietnam.” An invasion that took three million lives was under way.” (Source)

Pakistani culture:
In Pakistan and previously India, a bearded chap by the name of “Syed Abul A'ala Maududi” is credited with a lot of negative cultural influence- most of which was achieved via the print media. Maududi was the founder of the ultra-right-conservative party known as Jammat-e-Islami which originated in pre partition British India. Before the formation of Pakistan, Maududi was fervently against the establishment of the State that was the secular fantasy of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. After the independence of Pakistan Maududi aptly moved his party head quarters to Lahore. The Jammat-e-Islami then proceeded to push with all its bearded might to promote a clause in the upcoming and maiden constitution of the State of Pakistan: “the objectives resolution”. The passing of this clause lamented the future of this State as an “Islamic” republic; making the 25% non-muslims of East and West Pakistan, second class citizens.
However, Maududi wasn’t quite done with the minorities of Pakistan yet. The cantankerous “saint” that he was, he made it his duty to spread vast propaganda against the Ahmadiyyah sect. Starting with the pamphlet “qadiyani masla (the qadiyani problem)”, Maududi began convincing muslims of other sects to take up arms against what he deemed the despisers of the last prophet of the Quran: the Ahmadiyyah Muslims. Maududi was sentenced to death after the resulting violence that he had instigated during the 1953 Lahore riots (about 2000 Ahmadi’s were killed in these riots). This punishment was commuted and then later pardoned altogether.

Maududi was an admirer of Shariah law and believed that a society could not be Islamic without it. He promoted active Jihad to bring about Shariah governance the world over:

 “- It must now be obvious that the objective of the Islamic jihad is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system, and establish in its place an Islamic system of state rule. Islam does not intend to confine his rule to a single state or a hand full of countries. The aim of Islam is to bring about a universal revolution. Although in the initial stages, it is incumbent upon members of the party of Islam to carry out a revolution in the state system of the countries to which they belong; their ultimate objective is none other than world revolution. Source.

Various commentators have alleged that the intellectual ancestor of “the muslim brotherhood”: Syed Qutb of Egypt (coincidentally another international country where Ahmadis are persecuted as in Pakistan) was radicalized after reading Maududi. This radical and very violent cultural tenet still permeates in Pakistani society today, with the latest of these incidents taking place on the 28th of May 2010, when an Ahmadis worship place was attacked by terrorists (most likely radicalized by the ideas of Maududi). 98 people were killed in the attack.

The Pakistani authorities blamed the Taliban for the attack- when the Jammat-e-Islami is ripe and functioning still in the subcontinent. Every time one see’s images of a protest in Pakistan against Western Imperialism or Israel- you see the Jammat carrying banners with the most bigoted slogans. 

The truth is that the Ahmadiyyah community is still widely viewed by a majority of muslim coalition parties as wajib-ul-qatl (deserving death). Using this sort of propaganda earns politicians competing for election with these parties easy votes; simply because Maududi’s thought is embedded in much of the Pakistani mindset, and he himself, is venerated as a hero. The Pakistani media has however, seldom given the voices against this theocratic mindset any limelight. The status-quo it seems here is to be maintained, and it is most likely that sooner or later; if anything were to try and change this, then they could be dealt with by either the cultural reinforcement of the media or the terrorists that define vice and virtue. However, rest assured that even still, history will see these times through the same lenses that it views the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

So if culture is learned manner, especially via the teachings of ones elders, promoting this mindless ethic that makes anyone deserving of death because of their religious/political beliefs is nothing short of preaching terrorism. Once raised in this manner,  it's already too late for most people that have this belief ingrained in their psyche. However, this is a call to the future generations (parents and children inclusive) of not just Pakistan but the world over to think for themselves and not let some bearded dunce or the telemarketer mold their mindset. Be critical of information until you feel convinced of its infallibility. Do not embrace another persons opinions blindly. Break away from the "heard"!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Breaking away from the he(a)rd.

Most people are too lethargic to break away from the "heard". It isn't just your fellow citizens. Hiding behind customs and opinions is the easier way. Introspective knowledge is always harder to obtain. With modern life being so engaging and hectic, people hardly have time to form opinions away from the media, "hear say" (a.k.a " the heard") and cultural beliefs (a.k.a the herd).

In many cases people have in fact started to "believe in believing" rather than letting the belief convince them. Transubstantiation in Christianity is one such instance that I can think of in the west . It's moral relativism at work really; that is to say that a persons morality is relative to their surrounding. It is rarer that people recognize the nature of morals and come out slightly more informed about why people act like ignoramuses.

A lot of people imagine that it is impossible and impractical to be a relativist- but this is short sighted- it is in fact easier than being a "preference utilitarian"( a moral position that considers all things pleasurable to the self worth cherishing and all else worth diminishing). Relativism is by default our morality. Especially since according to relativism there are no right or wrong morals but simply relative ones; making all other moral beliefs sub-moral.


If you don't know every "thing", then you know nothing about any "thing". For what is a "thing"?

Is everything a thing in itself or, is it a thing made of everything else? Is a white teacup a thing? or is the color white a thing? what then is this combination of things that is the tea cup itself?

Furthermore, is this combination of things (porcelain, white color, atom and subatomic particles etc) enough to make this thing? What about the shape of the tea cup itself- is that an ingredient as well? Does "everything" have a shape as well?

How should I know, I don't know anything. I wish you did.
Although, I do know something about "everything" i.e I can not know everything.