Manfred, a dramatic poem

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 28th, 2012

I just finished editing a reading of Manfred by Lord Byron. It was fun and the plot raises some interesting points on morality, responsibility and punishment. It is also featured on a (non-philosophical) website, tvtropes. It is interesting to see how the story relates to other works of fiction and how it contrasts with Faust.

Near the end, a demon comes to take Manfred to hell in a similar manner to Faust, but things take a rather different course:

SPIRIT. But thy many crimes
Have made thee–

MANFRED. What are they to such as thee?
Must crimes be punish’d but by other crimes,
And greater criminals?– Back to thy hell!

Anti Citizen One

Moral Decisions Are Not Hard

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 19th, 2011

Let us be on our guard against thinking that moral decisions are hard. It is true we cannot deterministically determine what course of action is moral, but we cannot pretend that that moral decisions are simply the result of logically thinking through the issue. We can think we have found a solution but then realise it has unacceptable consequences and we have this as a reason to reject that course of action. But how do we determine, systematically, what is relevant to a moral decision and what is not? Of course, there is no logical basis for this criteria. We just use a hybrid of logic and instinct and social pressure and so on – although the use of logic is usually restricted to creating an ad-hoc justification of our conclusion.

If there is anything hard about moral decisions, it is because we have different impulses and priorities that play out in our minds. I would not be surprised if this mostly happens subconsciously. But when our subconscious cannot come to a firm conclusions, it is referred to our conscious mind and we need to make a decisions – but the parameters for the decision have largely been determined already in our minds. We then have a war of priorities and logical thought is allowed to have a role, along side our instinct. This is when we experience that wavering before deciding on the moral action. When a particular decision has the upper hand in our conscious mind, we should not forget it has only the upper hand in the landscape of our subconscious. The hard part of decisions is only us suffering under the uncertainty of reality as these tendencies resolve themselves.

Anti Citizen One

All history is the experimental refutation of the theory of the so-called moral order of things


Utilitarianism by J S Mill

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 26th, 2010

I finished Utilitarianism and I was pleasantly surprised. His approach for arguing for utilitarianism is fairly open and well argued. He doesn’t underestimate the challenge and he covers most of the main objections against his position. Most books that argue for a moral code don’t go as far as Mill, although I am not a fan of utilitarianism myself.

Many of the objections against utilitarianism, he rightly points out are really objections against any moral code. Other arguments he rebuts as straw men. This is often the way in debates, from my own experience: detractors try to steer the discussion into irrelevance. One chapter worrying is titled “Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility”. I find it worrying because I analyse such claims through an existential point of view, and all previous attempts at finding an “ultimate sanction” have so far failed. But this chapter is surprisingly good, as he avoids this trap of is-ought and claims that utilitarianism is also a descriptive model of human action. Moral codes are adopted more by human habit and social pressure than abstract philosophical argument.

The main issue I have with utilitarianism is it assumes that happiness and suffering are mutually exclusive, and are opposite ends of some scale. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tie in with human psychology. Many activities are considered worthwhile but have either intrinsic pain or the risk of pain. To eliminate that risk is like trying to “abolish bad weather” as Nietzsche would say. Mill’s ideas work fairly well in terms of human belief in what is good but, as Mill points out, belief doesn’t always lead to the corresponding action. Humans, as Dostoevsky observes, are often doing actions that contradict any possible system, including self destruction. I also have concerns that utilitarianism, in trying to compare different forms of happiness and suffering, is trying to compare apples with oranges – but that is for another time (possibly every moral action is unique, “there is no requital”).

I believe that these sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact: that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility.

So obvious does this appear to me, that I expect it will hardly be disputed […]

Always suspect a philosopher when they say something is obvious. If he had tried to argue against his own position here, it would have been more philosophical.

Anti Citizen One

PS I have since been reading Dostoevsky’s Demons for the first time:

There are also lovers of such anguish who prise it more than its most radical gratification, if such indeed where even possible.

This is really not the time to pretend we have morals

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 8th, 2010

This is really not the time to pretend we have morals
A quote that probably was not originally intended as existential…


Reaction to The Open Society and Its Enemies, Part 1

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 9th, 2010

I thought I would write a few random thoughts on The Open Society and Its Enemies by Popper. First off: it is excellent. It is a defence of democracy though an analysis of Plato’s The Republic. At times, it seems rather supportive of Socrates and mentions many occasions in which he was liabled by Plato. I am very suspicious of both because they are both philosophical idealists. Popper connects idealism to totalitarianism when applied to political problems (if I understand his point). He also restates the basis of humanitarianism because it was straw manned by Plato. Plato claims that egalitarianism is itself injustice as it treats naturally unequal things as equal – leading to social problems. I was very happy when Popper avoids this and avoids the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy to say that it is individual demands that give the state legitimacy. Popper defines an open society if the government can be changed without recourse to violence. If the individual is forgotten by the state, it ceases to have a claim to justice. The analysis is very critical of Essentialism, Radicalism, Utopianism and supportive of gradual, piecemeal and empirical social change. The ultimate moral responsibility rests on individuals within the state – which is almost an existential basis for a state (strange but true). This interpretation is subtle – when the state is formed to reduce suffering, it is not because the ultimate judgement we make on the world is it is a suffering place. Nietzsche here would warm us of making judgements of that sort! (Fellow suffering is the “deepest abyss”.) But we can take measures as individuals, with our judgement being the “first motion” of ethics, and the judgement that we should help the suffering is contingent (and may change in time). This effect puts the doctors choice to be doctors as the basis of health care. Since their choice lead them to that vocation, it might be expected they have the self motivation to do a good job. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. This is the antithesis of our customer and victim centred culture, of course!

I wonder what part 2 will be like? I love the title, also. I love emphasising the second part “… and its ENEMIES….”.

Anti Citizen One

Is-Ought Addendum

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 30th, 2010

Just some quick notes that I want to brain dump on the is-ought problem. The conclusion of the problem is that prescriptive statements cannot be derived from purely descriptive statements. One way to avoid this issue is to use prescriptive statements as axioms (e.g. you should be good). But this might allow us to posit a axiom “you should be bad” and we would have no a-priori way to prefer one over the other. We might also remember many cultures have the concept of evil spirits and they probably should not be obeyed. So having a divine nature does not necessarily imply human obedience.

A pragmatic approach might be that prescriptive statements are based on psychology and not on rational argument. This would probably be compatible with neuroscience which seems to suggest we confabulate justifications for almost any action. This would not be acceptable to mainstream theists since we need free will and choice to enable “sinners” to be enable them to be held accountable. I only recently heard that some groups believe in a judging God but without people having free will – I have dropped my expectations of them making any sense, naturally.

Anyway, have fun!

Anti Citizen One

Babe Ruth’s Wager

Posted by on March 25th, 2010

Whilst staring at the stars the other day I entered into a reflection about Pascal’s Wager.

The wager in brief posits that reason is insufficient to prove the existence of God and thus provides no rational justification for belief, but this is a problem about the limits of reason, and not a negation of God. In the absence of reason then Pascal suggests that living one’s life as though God exists is possibly infinetely more rewarding (if said God does turn out to exist) as opposed to infinite recriminations if one lived life as though God didn’t exist only to discover that one is wrong.

There is a plethora of criticism attached to Pascal’s Wager from almost every philosophical position regarding God.

I personally think the Wager is often misunderstood or misinterpreted for specific philosophical ends. However the Wager is by its simplicity open to such attacks.

What is the wager? Well it certainly isn’t an attempt to prove the existence of God. God is merely a probability.

It is however two other things (other than an exercise in probability); firstly it is a proto-existential work (and is increasingly identified as such) for it attacks certainty and celebrates choice, secondly it is an ethical proposition, for if we expand the idea of ‘living as though God exists’ then we are making statements about what type of life ‘God’ wants us to live.

The first element is frequently neglected by Pascal’s critics (more of which in a moment). The second element is the main focus of such criticism.

Without going into any great detail the ethical element of the Wager leaves different people (theist and atheist alike) with a bad taste in their mouths. For even though Pascal was rejecting certainty and the role of reason in proving the existence of God, and even though God was reduced to a conceptual possibility, the promise of reward and its inverse the threat of punishment (the main ethical theme of the wager) is de facto heavily loaded with Judaeo-Christian assumptions about the nature and intention of God. However in his rejection of reason there is no attempt to validate or justify these assumptions.

One attempt may be suggested, an ontomystical justification. i.e. revelation. One may say that the assumptions that one has about God are based on revealed messages either personally recieved or generally read in scripture. This justification however collapses under the weight of cultural relativism, why should one revelation (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) be any more valid or acceptable than another (i.e. Hindu)?

The answer of course is that other than through cultural conditioning, there is no reason why one set of revelations should be more relevant than another.

This reflects another criticism of the Wager, that religious belief is not explicitly a conscious choice.

Yet this does not seem to me to completely kill the wager off. All it does is reflect the limitations of it. It is if you like a closed wager, it only works and its conclusions are only valid if one accepts the various underlying assumptions contained within it and just as importantly if one aspires to achieve the most desirable end result.

This last bit, the desire to achieve the most desirable end result smells a lot like utilitarianism and the felicific calculus. (1.How strong is the pleasure? 2. How long will it last? 3. How likely or unlikely will it occur? 4. How soon? 5. How often? 6. Or not. 7. How many will benefit?)

Dawkins in the God Delusion posited an anti-Pascal wager, which goes as follows “Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.”

It does alas bore me, only because it says nothing that Pascal hadnt actually considered himself. Also the anti-wager again is a closed system, its conclusions work best when one accepts certain assumptions, and its most desirable end result (a better fuller life). Needless to say the latter, the most desirable end result relies upon the assumptions being acceptable in order to be desirable. In Dawkin’s case (without doing a deep analysis) one of the assumptive areas is that God-probability is minimal therefore maximal Godcentric-activity is a disproportionate use/waste of time.

I’m not however an enemy of the anti-wager. The anti-wager works just as well as the wager, as does any number of variations on the God-theme. In fact the wager can probably be rewritten and reformulated in any number of ways if one plays around with the necessary assumptions.

And this diversity is rather good. It reflects the existential character of it that is so often ignored.

It was the Utilitarian character of it that struck me most in my early reflections, or rather its Utilitarian and Hedonistic applications. If one rejects Pascal’s necessary assumptions his wager simply doesnt work (nor is it desirable). And it is quite possible a la Dawkins to formulate a different wager that is based upon a different set of ethical values and assumptions and desirable outcomes.

Whatever way it has no bearing upon the existence or non-existence of God (who remains in the wager game simply a probability). It does however belong to the field of ethics and existentialism and as such is probably worth a lot more attention than it gets.

I was originally going to call this post “Bentham’s Wager” to reflect the Hedonistic alternatives (life’s too short, live life to the full; eat, drink and be merry for tommorow we die; be prepared for you do not know when the hour will come, etc.) But I settled upon calling it Babe Ruth’s wager after the bachannalian and iconic Baseball player, who once when asked to expound upon his philosophy of life, and sport, declared:

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”


Posted by on December 20th, 2009

For a while now I have been working on a meta-ethical theory that revolves around the role of language as a signifier for language games/interest groups. It is by its nature a descriptive theory rather than a prescriptive one and is concerned with the way in which specific groups label and identify themselves and by definition their binary opposites using specifically value-laden coded language that signifies concepts such as them/us, right/wrong, good/evil, etc.

So I was delighted and slightly peturbed (the similarities to my own work is annoying) to find that American comedian George Carlin wrote/performed a piece on this matter.

I post an extract here from “Euphemisms: Political-Interest Groups – Choosing Sides”

It’s impossible to mention the word choice without thinking of the language that has come out of the abortion wars. Back when those battles were first being joined, the religious fanatics realized that antiabortion sounded negative and lacked emotional power. So they decided to call themselves pro-life, Pro-life not only made them appear virtuous, it had the additional advantage of suggesting their opponents were anti-life, and, therefore, pro-death. They also came up with a lovely variation designed to get you all warm inside: pro-family.
Well, the left wing didn’t want to be seen as either anti-life or pro-death, and they knew pro-abortion wasn’t what they needed, so they decided on pro-choice. That completed the name game and gave the world the now classic struggle: pro-choice vs. pro-life. The interesting part is that the words life and choice are not even opposites. But there they are, hangin’ out together, bigger than life.

George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

News Round-up

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 23rd, 2009

Human rights lawyers reviewed computer games with a war setting.

The group chose games, rather than films, because of their interactivity.

“Thus,” said the report, “the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield.” BBC

This key assumption, that actions in games are morally equivalent to actions outside the game is laughably untrue. We don’t see people getting post traumatic stress disorder from computer games. Playing games is nothing like being in a war. Other studies show that gamers are not desensitised to actual war violence (stated later in the article). Therefore, the choices are not the same as those posed outside games. Games are more or less works of fiction and the choices posed to the player are almost forced outcome moral choices, since the player is not acting as “himself”, but as the character created by the game’s script writer.

I was recently hearing about the Australian Prime Minister apologising for the treatment of child migrants. This apology was presumably done on behalf of the institution that he represents i.e. the state. But the state does not feel “regret” since it is merely a concept. Even if the people comprising “the state” feel the actions were wrong, it is the individuals themselves that are responsible, not the state itself – which cannot act or think independently! Unless the individuals themselves were responsible, guilt does not even apply. Although it may cheer the victims of injustice, I am concerned that if we shunt the responsibility (and “guilt”) for wrong actions onto institutions, it diminishes the personal responsibility that each individual bears and transfers in onto a mere concept. In the extreme case, it may lead to the bystander effect, were everyone does nothing to correct injustice because it is “the state’s” responsibility. So I distrust all institutional apologies and think of them as political tools.

In agreement with our favourite existential thinkers, a new study has linked suffering with religiosity:

Gray and Wegner created a state-by-state “suffering index” and found a positive correlation between a state’s relative misery (compared to the rest of the country) and its population’s belief in God. Sciam

That’s all the news that’s fit to print.

Anti Citizen One

My Genes Made Me Do It

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 9th, 2009

Like something from a Dostoevsky novel, a man found to have a gene linked to aggression has used that fact to get a reduced sentence for murder. This of course is justified if the primary role of criminal justice is to punish the guilty, who make evil choices using free will. But how could we know if we have free will?

On the basis of the genetic tests, Judge Reinotti docked a further year off the defendant’s sentence, arguing that the defendant’s genes “would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations”. Giving his verdict, Reinotti said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling. Nature