Evil, evils, Ethics

Apropos of Levinas’s comment I posted the other day:

Evil is Being in excess, Being that has lost its measure.  However, Being has no measure, except where there is an ethical point of view to delimit it, to endow it with its proper measure, to relate violence and destruction to those who produce and distribute them and to those who undergo them.

Evil is a storm of meaninglessness, formless violence that precedes ethical values and in fact endows them with their proper task: to let a certain aspect of Evil appear only in order to conceal the overwhelming excess that constitutes it. Ethics may thus be described as an appropriation and forgetfulness of Evil.

Adi Ophir, “Evil, Evils and the question of Ethics.”

Justice and Metaphysics.

Nick comments on the last thread: 

If I have a commitment to a certain conception of justice, is this practically any different from someone who has an elaborate metaphysical system that tries to justify this same principle?

I think this is a somewhat different conversation, I hope, at least that’s how I would see it, yet it is related to our whole conversation about realism because, if anyone remembers, it started with a simple of question of the nature of normativity – to simplify it significantly, I think I was asking a question not unlike this one: If a realist is someone who thinks that is a knowable world out there and all our philosophical efforts should be directed at getting to know it better, then this attitude seems to lack a dimension of “ought” and is found primarily in the dimension of “is” which is to say, it does not seem to be concerned with the way the world should be but only with a way the world is. Many objections were raised, the discussion veered off into Kantian ethics and so on, but still I thought that the only way “ought” would enter a realist world view is through a kind of fiat: there are ideas of justice and peaceful coexistence, we don’t know where they are coming from, but we have them now so there. Continue reading

Metaphysics and Its Ethical Consequences.

UPDATE: While I was writing the post below, Levi posted his own take, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so if some issues are already addressed, I apologize.

While clarifying what Kantian ethics is really about is a noble task, I would like to point out some things that might have been unclear from my initial post on realism’s possible ethical stance as i cited Kant’s third Critique (§76). I think that Levi’s questions concerning the connection between metaphysics and ethics are legitimate, but are directly addressed in Kant’s corpus – I would even say that Kant is extremely concerned with ethical outcome of any sort of metaphysical exercise and this concern is found throughout his writings. In §76 Kant is basically imagining a different kind of human cognition, the one that lacks the distinction between intuition and understanding/reason, a kind of cognition that would have an immediate knowledge of the actual (things-in-themselves), if I am reading it correctly. Kant’s argument is simple, I think, and consists of very simple steps: human cognition distinguishes between appearance and things-in-themselves as it has knowledge of the former and only posits the latter, if we imagine a cognition that distinguishes between the two yet knows both, the very distinction is then shown to be unnecessary, now we are talking about a thought experiment, only God’s cognition would fit a hypothetical scenario, yet if we take realism and its claim that there is a world out there and (important “and” I think) we have a direct access to it and can know it as it is in itself, then we know things-in-themselves via a sort of “intellectual intuition,” i.e. Kant’s point about heterogeneity of intuition and understanding can be disregarded. I then go on to ask a question: what would the world of things-in-themselves look like if indeed we have direct knowledge of it? Kant states, and again we may or may not agree with his argument, that in such a world things would simply be, simply exists – I thought of such a world as a sort of a nightmare precisely because without space/time (form of intuition, of course) and without potential/actual distinction (being a form of causality, causality being part of mind’s work, not something found in things themselves) life would be a nightmare.

Ok, let’s throw all that Kantian jargon and Kantian arguments out of the window – there’s a lot, I know, so I’m going to give you some time… Continue reading

Sarah Palin’s Choice of No Choice.

I am getting sick of the idiotic argument/testimonial from the GOP folks and right-wing pundits vis-a-vis Palin’s decision to keep a Downs syndrome baby and her daughter’s decision to keep her baby. I mean I realize that this might be too much thinking for some of the Salin supporters, but you cannot praise her choice to keep the baby if you believe that abortion is a mortal sin and a murder. Let’s take the murder argument: if life begins with conception and Palin found out she was pregnant and does not believe in abortion, then this is it, period, end of story, as in – she is not choosing to keep the child, she is having a child, whether she likes it or not, she has no choice, because abortion is not an option, so the child lives because it is already there. If I believe that shooting a store clerk who offended me is a premeditated murder, then my decision not to murder him/her is not really a decision, because, in my case, murder is never an option – I do not choose not to kill, I simply walk away. Technically, I do have an option to go to the store, buy a gun and come back for some sweet revenge, but if then at the last moment I lower my gun and choose not to kill the clerk, am I a hero? Did Palin contemplate aborting her Downs syndrome baby and then decided against it? And if not, then she did not make a choice, she was forced into the situation by her pregnancy and thus we can praise her for dealing with it bravely or in any other way, but not for her decision. If Palin believes that abortion is murder and is thus out of consideration, then what were her options when she was deciding to keep the baby

Ok, let’s look at it this way: Continue reading

Thinking About Morality

Here’s an interesting article in the Scientific American by Adina Roskies and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Cognitive science and moral philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but in the past decade they have become partners. In a recent issue of Cognition, the Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene and colleagues extend this trend. Their experiment utilizes conventional behavioral methods, but it was designed to test a hypothesis stemming from previous fMRI investigations into the neural bases of moral judgments (see here and here).

In their study Greene et al. give subjects difficult moral dilemmas in which one alternative leads to better consequences (such as more lives saved) but also violates an intuitive moral restriction (it requires a person to directly or intentionally cause harm to someone else). For example, in the “crying baby” dilemma subjects must judge whether it is wrong to smother their own baby in order to save a large group of people that includes the baby. In this scenario, which was also used by the television show M.A.S.H., enemy soldiers will hear the baby cry unless it is smothered. Sixty percent of people choose to smother the baby in order to save more lives. A judgment that it is appropriate to save the most lives, even if it requires you to suffocate a child, is labeled “utilitarian” by Greene et al., whereas a judgment that it is not appropriate is called “deontological.” These names pay homage to traditional moral philosophies.

The rest is here.

The Skin Turned Out: Levinas and Passivity

Wildly Parenthetical has some interesting musings on the Levinas of Totality and Infinity and the Levinas of Otherwise than Being:

…the characterisation of the relationship with the other changes quite dramatically from TI to OB, and this shift is quite interesting given that I’m reading it with eyes focussed on suffering. In TI, the relationship with the other is astonishing, world-giving, world-devastating, but in a joyous rather than an horrific way. Levinas seems to sing throughout this book, waxing lyrical, writing what is almost a love letter to the other. Heady and excited, it evokes the absolute generosity of those early moments in a relationship, when similarities feel homey and difference offers ecstasy.

But if this is so, in OB, the lover has jilted him, but he’s still bound. The relationship with the other is abruptly not one of possibility and generosity (or at any rate, it is not purely or even mostly that). Rather, one suffers the effect of the other. The other takes from me my self-certainty, and suddenly it seems that Levinas assumes my self-certainty, my self-sufficiency, my introspective enjoyment of myself was the sole source of my joy before the other dispossessed me of it. Whilst in some sense this echoes what he says in TI, there’s more violence here: the other’s violence to me which I have no choice but to accept and continue to respond to. It evokes the slow, weary resignation of the lover neglected, ignored, abused. It evokes a state of being destitute of joyfulness, duty-bound, cautious, limited. The other’s limitations of my power no longer feels like it offers the possibility of recognising, of deploying those powers, but rather, as if the other takes those powers from me. If TI marked the boon of the other, OB marks my loss.

It is certainly true, that in a certain sense, OTB surpasses TI. There are clear differences, as Wildly Parenthetical nicely points out, between the tone of each. Read improperly, TI comes off as a hopelessly Pollyana slogan “Let’s be friends.” Yet, while I see the point WP is getting at, I don’t really understand Levinas as ever presenting the exposure to the other as particularly joyous, perhaps the writing in TI seems that way, but it still seems rather violent to me. Continue reading