Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins

His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion.

… Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness. He tells us that “the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St. Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.” It is true that the idea of original sin has become one with a morbid preoccupation with sexuality, which has been part of Christianity throughout much of its history. Even so, it is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact. With his myth or metaphor of the death instinct thanatos, Freuda lifelong atheistrecognized that impulses of hatred and cruelty are integral to the human psyche. As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.

Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theoriesone primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.

There is an interesting inconsistency between Dawkins’s dismissal of religion as being little more than a tissue of falsehood and his adherence to an evolutionary account of human behavior. In the later chapters of An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins recounts his work on the behavior of blowflies, and later mice, guppy fish, and crickets. As always, what he describes as his “Darwin-obsessed brain” analyzed these behaviors in terms that were meant to be consistent with Darwinian orthodoxy. His best-selling manifesto The Selfish Gene originated in 1973, when strike action by miners led to a “three-day week” in which there were frequent power-cuts. Dawkins needed electricity for his work on crickets, but he could do without it for writing, which he did on a portable typewriter, so he began to write instead. By 1982, we find him “trying to push Universal Darwinism”the view that genes are not the only replicators in natural selectiona theme he had explored in the last chapter of his best-seller, where he presented his theory of memes. Dawkins’s suggestion is that memes “leap from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” and it is clear that he sees this process at work throughout human culture, including religion.

There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor. The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value. But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning. To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on. But who are “we”? In a passage from The Selfish Gene that Dawkins quotes in this memoir, he writes:

They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, these replicators. Now they come by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science. Science may give us the unvarnished truthor some of itabout our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals. Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it. On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores. 

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions. 

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes wellfluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

Some of them bear re-reading today. One of the subtlest and most penetrating came from the pen of Arthur Balfour, the Conservative statesman, British foreign secretary, and sometime prime minister. Well over a century ago, Balfour identified a problem with the evolutionary thinking that was gaining ascendancy at the time. If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.

Balfour’s contributions to the debate about science and religion are nowadays little knowncompelling testimony to the historical illiteracy of contemporary philosophy. But Balfour also testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism. His attack on religion has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxleydescribed by his contemporaries as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he was so fierce in his defense of evolutionblush scarlet with embarrassment. 

If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance). But as the Victorians well knew, there are many types of atheism, liberal and illiberal, and many versions of atheist ethics. Again, Dawkins imagines an atheist is bound to be an enemy of religion. But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood. More intelligent than their latter-day disciple, the positivists tried to found a new religion of humanityespecially August Comte (1798–1857), who established a secular church in Paris that for a time found converts in many other parts of the world. The new religion was an absurdity, with rituals being practiced that were based on the pseudo-science of phrenologybut at least the positivists understood that atheism cannot banish human needs that only faith can meet.

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignationa stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a kind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted pose of indignant rationality merely laughable. “I am not a good observer,” he writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beingshimself and others.

To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situationbut somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.

In this, Dawkins is surely right. To suppose that science can liberate humankind from ignorance requires considerable credulity. We know how science has been used in the pastnot only to alleviate the human lot, but equally to serve tyranny and oppression. The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faithone as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so. Consider Pascal. One of the founders of modern probability theory and the designer of the world’s first mass-transit system, he was far too intelligent to imagine that human reason could resolve perennial questions. His celebrated wager has always seemed to me a rather bad bet. Since we cannot know what gods there may be (if any), why stake our lives on pleasing one of them? But Pascal’s wager was meant as a pedagogical device rather than a demonstrative argument, and he reached faith himself by way of skeptical doubt. In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.

We must await the second volume of his memoirs to discover how Dawkins envisions his future. But near the end of the present volume, an inadvertent remark hints at what he might want for himself. Darwin was “never Sir Charles,” he writes, “and what an amazing indictment of our honours system that is.” It is hard to resist the thought that the public recognition that in Britain is conferred by a knighthood is Dawkins’s secret dream. A life peerage would be even better. What could be more fitting for this tireless evangelist than to become the country’s officially appointed atheist, seated alongside the bishops in the House of Lords? He may lack their redeeming tolerance and display none of their sense of humor, but there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he belongs in the same profession. 

Read more.

Link: Towards a Philosophy of Depression

The experience of depression has been known since classical times. Yet a deeper understanding still eludes us. Neuroscience might be leading the charge now, but philosophy is still in the race. 

To describe the indescribable: that’s how philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe of Durhum University sees his task. He’s made it a career goal to shine light into bleak corners, and perhaps gift some valuable insights into the treatment of depression.  

It began with Ratcliffe’s sense that the medical model falters with the enormity of the experience.

‘I had been working on philosophy of psychiatry for some time and in this context I started reading first person memoirs of depression,’ he says. ‘Some things struck me: one was that people weren’t just describing feeling less happy than usual, more miserable and more tired, but were relating a radical transformation between themselves and other people. In addition, in almost every memoir you find the complaint that depression is utterly indescribable.’

It’s not as if psychiatry has not given its best efforts to come to terms with the symptoms of depression. The latest iteration of controversial guidebook The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does its best to survey the known boundaries of the experience. For Ratcliffe, however, something of elemental importance is missing: meaningful description of the symptoms.

It’s this lacuna of qualitative data that motivates him to look for clues beyond the clinical setting. Art is fertile terrain; Ratcliffe is ever attentive to the observations of established writers and artists who have fallen into the pit, as often they can describe the experience with excoriating accuracy.

American novelist William Styron is one such craftsman and excerpts of his work crop up in Ratcliffe’s professional papers. In Darkness Visible the renowned American author has penned an unflinching exploration of his despair.

‘The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,’ he writes.

‘My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.

For Ratcliffe, Styron represents the literary tip of a deeply submerged iceberg. His concern is that when you look closely at the detail of the depressed experience, a remarkable range of subtle differences come into view, and they just aren’t captured in the traditional, medical model.

As it stands, he sees our understanding of depression as ‘perilously thin’. Moreover, if depression cannot be identified without appealing to its symptoms, then a diabolical regress is complete: a serious malady remains darkly visible.

‘The inability for others to understand makes it all the more painful,’ laments Ratcliffe. ‘This lack of understanding isn’t really separable from the painfulness of depression and from a sense of isolation already so central to this condition.’

Here, Ratcliffe’s speciality comes into focus: a branch of contemporary philosophy known as phenomenology. In phenomenology, experience matters: the real life human experience of being in the world. Founder Edmund Husserl pioneered an analysis which takes emotions, perceptions and judgements seriously.

Husserl’s hunch was that attending to consciousness and its immersion in the world could unveil some truth or truths about the human condition, and possibly something more precise about the very nature of reality. It’s big stuff, and for Ratcliffe it’s extraordinarily important work when applied to maladaptive conditions such as depression.

Ratcliffe’s interests in philosophy bear the deep influences of this contemporary European movement, as demonstrated by his award winning writing on the importance of touch, in which he follows Aristotle’s lead on a vital but poorly understood human sense. For Ratcliffe, how we inhabit the world is central to philosophical enquiry.

Husserl, Merleau Ponty and Heidegger are three stellar names of the field. They had their disagreements, but they all homed in on this act of being in the world. Ratcliffe recognises this as thoroughly germane to the task of lassoing the ogre.

‘When we reflect on experience there is an important aspect that’s overlooked … the sense of belonging to the world, already finding oneself in the world; the pervasive experiential background that frames all of our experiences and thought. It’s so basic it’s overlooked.  You don’t really glimpse it unless it wobbles.’

It’s when the world gives way under your feet that valuable insights might be released.

‘The world in phenomenology coincides remarkably well with what you might call the world of depression,’ says Ratcliffe. ‘So many people who suffer depression describe living in an utterly alone world divorced from consensus reality.’

‘It’s so utterly unfamiliar that it’s an aspect of experience they wouldn’t have been aware of even unless it had happened to them. It is part of our experience that we do not have an awareness of, and that awareness can be brought about by engaging in phenomenology.’

Related: Les Murray- living with the black dog

So how can Heidegger, that other giant of the field, help? Well, as Ratcliffe wryly quips, the controversial German thinker can’t help directly as his work can be bedevilling; it‘s no self-help manual. Nevertheless, his classic tome Being and Time does offer a way of unfurling the fabric of despair. Through attempting a comprehensive portrait of existence through time, Heidegger displays a bigger cosmic backdrop against which the shreds of individual despair can be read.

Matthew Ratcliffe’s pioneering work has been picked up by Australia doctoral candidate Emily Hughes. She too became concerned with a medical model seemingly closed off to the full extent of the experience.

‘[Depression] is thought of as a dark and harmful sort of suffering, one that happens on the interior psyche of the subject, and I think that it’s restrictive to confine it to that. I started to become concerned that the focus has come down to a disorder of the brain.’

Hughes treads on that ever-so-contested ground of the physical basis of mental disturbance. She knows that the intellectual stakes are high, but feels strongly that it’s worth the fight.

‘How do you answer the question when someone says, “I feel empty inside, I feel lost, I feel like nothing means anything, that nothing matters.” Thinking in terms of the medical model with disease and illness and treatment is not actually answering people’s suffering and engaging with what their suffering actually means to them. I think that’s a real problem that needs to be addressed and I think philosophy is one way we can do that.’

Back to Heidegger: Hughes’ dissertation is steeped in Heidegerrian notions of mood. She follows a similar route to Ratcliffe in attempting to widen the lens on the experience of despair.

‘For Heidegger, moods reflect the fact that we are always in the world, immersed—always thrown into the world. What things show up as meaningful and meaningless, what possibilities and projects seem enticing or frightening, that is all determined by how we are disposed through moods. For Heidegger, moods reflect our thrownness; they come before any conceptual reflection or thinking. They are our fundamental way of being.’

It’s a known, everyday kind of word, but in Heidegger’s hands ‘mood’ becomes a specific tool to prise open this ‘thrown’ existence.

‘Heidegger has a stratified view of moods,’ says Hughes. ‘His classic distinction in Being and Time is between fear and anxiety. Fear is a fallen mood. It’s a mood that is entangled with the world. It’s a response to a specific threat. The example that is often used is of a frightening dog encountered on a walk. The cause is something in the world.  For Heidegger, anxiety, in contrast to fear, is a ground mood.’

Unlike the snarling dog’s obvious intentions, ground moods don’t announce themselves. They just are, like anxiety, or boredom. According to Hughes, they are essential to a fuller understanding of the human experience, especially when it appears to malfunction.

‘What happens with a ground mood like anxiety is that it turns us away from the world… we’re withdrawn from the world into what Heidegger calls the nothing. It’s in that groundlessness that Heidegger says we are confronted by the issue of our existence.  We are forced to confront what it means to be human.’

Hughes’ intricate analysis weaves in Heidegger’s other main preoccupation: time and its place in existence. She sees it as one of the most important ideas to arise from phenomenological work. More importantly, she sees it as a crucial opportunity to put what appears to be inaccessible deep theory into tangible everyday practice.

‘You can open up a dialogue between philosophy and psychiatry through looking at the ways melancholic depression radically modifies time. ‘

Time is often reported to be warped in the experience of depression.  As Hughes observes, often temporal displacement can be exacerbated by medical interventions such as drugs and electroconvulsive therapies. It is here that the cross-disciplinary conversation can get going.

‘We could look at questions around feeling numb, being spaced out, detached or very fatigued, which are all very common experiences of people on psychoactive medicines,’ says Hughes. ‘If we can start reengaging with these questions we can start to think about what depression means and about how we experience our existence, and the breakdown of our situatedness in the world, which is what happens in anxiety, and in profound boredom, and I want to argue also happens in melancholia and despair. ‘

There is no doubt that neuroscience is adding valuable knowledge to our understanding of depression, but philosophy, in the hands of practitioners like Ratcliffe and Hughes, could expand our thinking on a malady so far refusing to reveal its darker secrets.

Link: Cruel and Usual Punishment: Is There a Humane Alternative to Prison?

Link: Philosophy of Captivity

Lori Gruen is a leading feminist philosopher who asks deep questions about the ethics of captivity, ethics, animals and what we’re doing to nature. She thinks that human exceptionalism is a prejudice, that considering marginal cases helpful in seeing why, is skeptical about intuitions about far fetched cases digging up important ethical insights, that two big issues concerning ethics and animals are captivity and industrial animal agriculture, thinks ecotourism is complicated, has problems with holisic approaches to environmental ethics, thinks women have it tough, that the ethics of captivity are both complex and have had little philosophical treatment, that self-direction matters when considering how we treat animals, that ideas of a wild free of human management is unrealistic, and that some captivity is necessary. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

3:AM: A recent book of yours looks at ethics and animals. You begin by looking at the position of human exceptionalism, something that goes back to at least Aristotle. What is the position, and is it a kind of default position for those who just don’t think we should think about animals ethically?

LG: Human exceptionalism is a prejudice that not only sees humans as different from other animals but that also sees humans as better than other animals. Of course humans are unique in a variety of ways, although those differences are often articulated based on naïve views about other animals. In Ethics and Animals, I explore some of the claims that have been made to differentiate humans from other animals (that we are the only beings that use tools or that use language or that have a theory of mind) and show that they do not establish that humans are unique in the ways postulated. But I also discuss the ways that other animals are indeed different from us and different from each other. These differences are important for understanding them and for promoting, or at least not negatively impacting, their well being. 

Human exceptionalism also underlies skepticism about including other animals in the sphere of moral concern. It is related to two other views that are discussed more often in the literature about moral considerability – speciesism and anthropocentrism. Speciesism is the view that I only owe moral consideration to members of my own species. Although this view is usually thought to be focused on humans, it seems consistent with the view that only Vulcans matter to members of that species, or only orangutans matter to that species. Anthopocentrism is the view that humans are at the center of everything and that everything is understood through our human interpretive lenses. Of course we humans experience everything as humans, so in some sense humans are necessarily the center of our own perceptions, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to try to understand or care about non-humans. There is a sense in which we are inevitable anthropocentrists, but we needn’t be human exceptionalists. 

Human exceptionalism sees humans as the only beings worthy of moral concern. Normative exceptionalist arguments generally fail in one of two ways—they pick out a supposedly unique characteristic or property upon which moral worth is supposed to supervene but it turns out that either not all humans have that property or that humans aren’t the only ones that have it. 

3:AM: Are marginal cases relevant?

LG: And this is why marginal cases are relevant. If there are some humans who do not have the morally valuable traits that the human exceptionalist prize, but they are nonetheless included in the group of those who do have the traits, then this suggests that it isn’t that trait that is morally important, but species membership. But membership in a species isn’t morally interesting and assigning moral significance to membership in a species amounts to a prejudice in favor of those thought to be in one’s group. I myself am uncomfortable with the “marginal” cases terminology, but it is a remnant of the human exceptionalist view that promotes the idea that all humans fit neatly into a category based on morally worthy properties that only humans share, when there are no such properties.

3:AM: Why is the ethical case about animals so important? If you want to stop people being nasty to animals then aren’t there things other than morals you could or should appeal to? Couldn’t taste do the job ie we ought squash bugs because it’s disgusting? Or it’s unfashionable now, so nineteenth century etc?

LG: The magnitude of the harms done to animals is almost incomprehensible — 60 billion suffer before they are slaughtered for food in global industrial agricultural production annually and that contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, which in turn is wreaking havoc on animal habitats on land and in the sea. When we also consider the additional threats that other animals face from human activities, it becomes clearer that the problems are structural and remedies cannot solely rely on individual tastes. But there are some really hard philosophical questions about what, if anything, individuals can do to help curtail these harms. 

Consider what sometimes gets called the “impotence problem.” When one goes out to eat and orders bbq chicken rather than a veggie burger, the chicken isn’t slaughtered-to-order, so buying the veggie burger doesn’t save any particular chicken’s life. It seems that whatever one orders, it doesn’t really have an effect either way on whether chickens suffer and die in food production. But surely individual actions must have some impact since if everybody abstained from eating chickens that would make a very large difference to very large number of chickens. This is one sort of problem Derek Parfit discusses in Reasons and Persons and Shelley Kagan and others have taken up by considering the impacts of our choices on other animals. Though I won’t rehearse some of the proposed solutions to the problem here, what I want to mention is that when we are exploring the bad consequences of complex systems, ethical and political analyses are crucial.

In saying that, I don’t want to completely dismiss the role that taste and disgust can play in perhaps making people aware of an ethical problem and motivating and sustaining people to stop harming others. But to my mind, taste and disgust, which are themselves shaped by cultural and social norms as well as idiosyncratic personal histories, are not particularly reliable and in the face of mass harms and injustice, are not always helpful.

3:AM: How important is it for people arguing for animals to be treated ethically to know what is happening to them? Your book is really full of information about this – is there a sense that you feel people who resist the ethical stance are ignorant of current problems?

LG: I’ve always been puzzled by the way that some moral philosophers create extraordinarily far fetched examples and then ask us to see what sorts of intuitions we have about these cases. I am skeptical that any intuitions we might dig up contain important ethical insights. But I’m also puzzled by those who argue from abstract general principles, for example, about the unethical treatment of causing other animals to suffer or fail to flourish, without knowing many details about particular animals and what might constitute their well-being. Having specific details are crucial for making ethical judgments. So, I think we should try to engage in some version of the process Rawls’ called reflective equilibrium in which we consider the details as we understand them (and we should also be reflective about what we see as details to start with), our intuitions, and our more general ethical and political commitments. 

Having details about the general treatment of other animals combined with particular cases promotes the reflective process. But there is more needed than just knowing what is happening to them. I think an under theorized part of our ethical lives relationships – what relationships are we in, what is the nature and quality of those relationships, and what obligations those relationships generate? Once we see that we are in relationships with specific animal others and come to understand how our actions impact individuals and their conspecifics, we can view our responsibility or complicity differently. Nobody wants to be in a bad relationship, so part of what I do in my work is include descriptions of these relationships in ways that allow for re-consideration.

One of the central ideas that I have been developing is what I call “entangled empathy” which is a type of moral perception directed at attending to the well-being of others. Very briefly, the “entanglement” part of the idea is based on a recognition that we are in all sorts of inextricable relationships with one another. The “empathy” part is not the standard form of moral emotion often discussed in the literature, but rather it refers to a perceptive skill that involves affect and cognition. Entangled empathy is developed by having a fuller picture of what is happening to others, coming to discern what the interests of others may be, imagining how those interests are experienced, and figuring out how our actions directly and indirectly impact another’s well-being. 

3:AM: So what are some of the key contemporary issues that help mobilise ethical arguments towards animals?

LG: There are two current issues – captivity and industrial animal agriculture — that have generated a lot of attention to animals of late and that have lead to questions about our obligations to them, to ourselves, and to the rest of nature. The issue of keeping animals captive in zoos and aquaria has become a pressing topic again. The movie Blackfish that looks behind the scenes at Sea World, the plight of elephants and polar bears suffering in unnatural conditions in zoos, and the practice of publicly killing animals at zoos in Europe have lead to renewed discussion of questions about liberty, conservation, individual well-being vs. species protection, and reproductive freedom. (see my oup blog and Ethics of Captivity).

In addition, as concerns about climate change become more pressing, awareness of the destructive contribution from industrialized food production has lead many people to reevaluate what they eat. The United Nations conservatively estimates that roughly 18% of the total greenhouse gases emitted come from industrialized livestock production, more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportion—planes, trains, and cars—combined. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made an explicit call urging individuals to “Please eat less meat—meat is a very carbon intensive commodity… .”
More people are giving up animal products once they recognize that personal taste can’t justify harms to other animals, the environment, and future generations. Of course, as human populations grow and wealth accumulates, more animals then ever before are being threatened and killed. Ethical arguments that convince individuals only go so far and there is a dire need for ethical engagement that can impact policy.

3:AM: You take a nuanced approach to ecotourism? Why not condemn it outright?

LG: Ecotourism is a complicated issue. On the one hand there are places where ecotourism has raised awareness of the complex ethical issues that arise in contexts in which animal well-being, environmental protection, and human flourishing come into direct conflict and ecotourism provides one mechanism for minimizing these conflicts. It also often motivates the “tourists” to work on behalf of protecting wild animals and their habitats. Coming face to face (so to speak) with an animal in her natural environment can deepen one’s sense of responsibility. On the other hand, ecotourism has the potential to further instrumentalize other animals and perpetuate problematic arrogant attitudes about human relationships with the more than human world. I don’t think a sound ethical judgment can be made about ecotourism unless the context is fully explored.

3:AM: You are unhappy with holistic approaches to environmental ethics. First of all, can you say what you mean by ‘holistic’ in this context, and who are the main proponents?

LG: Holism in environmental ethics is the view that value lies in whole systems rather than individual parts of the system or particular members of the community.  Aldo Leopold, a holist who developed “the land ethic,” argued that an action is right when it preserves and protects “the integrity, stability, and beauty” of an ecological community because integrity, stability, and beauty are the locus of value. In Ethics and Animals, I explore the complicated issue of anthropogenic extinctions through the lens of holism in the hopes that it might provide an answer to the question of why species are valuable. Holists view extinctions as, what one prominent holist, Holmes Rolston III, calls superkillings. Holists find that the value of species is more than the sum of the welfare of individual members of the species. The holist view allows that the death of individual members of a species would be justified if those deaths led to the betterment of the species as a whole and, by extension, the preservation of the species. 

3:AM: So what is the problem?

LG: There are a number of problems with holism of this sort. But my main worry is that they have a limited view of how to value nature. Holists tend to think we either value nature instrumentally, which for them amounts to not valuing nature at all, or intrinsically, where value attaches either to individuals or to collectives. But nature can be valued in a variety of ways; we can value both collectives and individuals; we can value things as means to ends (like money); we can value things as ultimate ends (much as we value our companions, partners, or children); and we can value things as neither ultimate ends nor mere means, but rather as constitutive of other things that we value (perhaps, freedom of choice and privacy are such things.). Some values lie between means values and ends values and, while it makes ethical analysis tricky, that may be the most sensible way to address tricky conflicts.

We could argue that species have value that doesn’t reduce simply to the cumulative well being of each individual member of the species, but that value doesn’t transcend the members either. There is value in the relations that the existence of the collective allows to be realized. For example, the well-being of most animals, particularly social animals, relies centrally on their ability to develop relations with others of their kind, to learn species-typical behaviors, to develop specific cultures, to communicate, to hunt, to play. Individual flourishing, in humans and other animals, crucially depends on a sustaining and sustainable context much larger than the individual, and thus valuing the individual necessitates valuing the whole within which the individual makes her life meaningful. Of course, that meaningful life is of value too.

3:AM: Things are particularly toxic for women across the globe at the moment. What are contemporary feminisms arguing to combat this situation?

LG: I don’t think things are any worse now than they have always been, sadly, I just think with social media and 24/7 news we are hearing more about various manifestations of gender oppression and violence. Women and other marginal groups are being impacted in different ways now — for example, climate change and food scarcity will affect women and children first and harder than it will affect men initially. The arguments that feminists have long been making for equality and respect are rooted in an analysis of the indefensibility of exercises of unearned privilege, e.g. male privilege, white privilege, class privilege. Feminist philosophers and theorists continue to draw attention to the social construction of social categories that have been naturalized. We try to reveal the logic of domination that allows members of one group to create social structures that favor themselves while at the same time creating or perpetuating social structures that disadvantage “others.” One of the strengths of contemporary feminist thinking about privilege and domination comes from increased attention to intersecting oppressions – the complex ways in which gender, gender non-conformity, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and I would suggest species as well, interact to generate very specific forms of injustice. Attention to intersecting oppressions complicates thinking about how we might achieve more just social arrangements and it has the potential to bring together groups that those with power have worked to keep apart and at odds.

3:AM: And in philosophy departments also there are big issues. There have been a few high profile cases recently. As a philosopher what is like from the inside, what do you think the reason is for academic philosophy being so poor in this respect and are there things that should be done? 

LG: The high profile cases within philosophy departments are focused on sexual harassment and sexual predation. It is so important that women who are being harassed are speaking out. For too long that wasn’t the case and I think part of the reason women are speaking out now is because there are many philosophers of all genders who are working to make changes in the profession so victims of sexual harassment feel they will be supported. I do worry a bit that the focus on sexual harassment in the profession has obscured the more day in and day out sexism that exists in philosophy.

I think the fact that the situation is so bad for women and minorities in the profession is, in some sense, over-determined. Old stereotypical views about women and scholars of color are still prevalent, if not as overt as they once were, and stereotype threat still operates. I have heard from more than a few students and colleagues that they have to spend energy battling the idea that they are “imposters” or “aren’t smart enough.” There is very little philosophical work by women or minority philosophers taught in most philosophy classes so for women students and students of color to pursue philosophy they have to have a deep passion as well as courage, we usually don’t just “fall into” philosophy. One of the things I love about philosophy but I know drives non-philosophers a bit crazy is how we have a habit of trying to understand and explain things in great detail. Given this habit and that the majority of faculty are men in almost all philosophy departments, the phenomena popularly referred to as “mansplaining” is thus rather common and can subtly shape the climate.

There is a lot going on to try to remedy these problems. Changing what is taught in undergraduate courses; working to avoid conferences or edited volumes that only include men (see the gendered conference campaign); and talking more openly about what positive changes can be made to create more inclusive environments in individual departments and philosophy as a whole all are promising developments. But these changes will take time and require vigilance. As a profession, we have a long way to go.

3:AM: In your new book on captivity – which looks at both human and non-human captivity and the issues that arise – there are some examples that might strike some as strange, such as the inclusion of pets. Some might thinks that including pets in discussions about captivity takes us away from crucial examples, such as prisons and zoos? Do pets raise interesting issues at the margins that help bring into sharper focus what the issues are around captivity?

LG: The ethical issues around captivity are remarkably complex and it is surprising how little philosophical attention has been paid to them. You are right to think that prisons and zoos raise the most obvious issues –the individuals that are held captive in these environments are there against their wills, they endure a wide variety of restrictions on their liberty, and they are under the control of their captors. But when we describe captivity as a condition in which a competent adult is confined and controlled and is reliant on those in control to satisfy her basic needs, it becomes clearer that there are many captive environments beyond prisons and zoos, environments that are not ordinarily thought of in those terms.

When we start thinking about pets or “companion animals” as captives then we may start reflecting in new ways on how we treat them. Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe wrote a provocative chapter in the book that questions the received wisdom that routinely confining cats indoors promotes their well-being. Cats may be happy with our affections and their lives may be longer if we keep them safe indoors, but there is a loss here, to their freedom to go where they want and interact with and shape their larger environment. 

In captive contexts, the trade-offs, between safety and freedom, protection and choice, are often obscured. For example, in the US, over 2 million people are incarcerated and not only are they denied freedom but their families and communities are impoverished in the name of social “safety” which is often illusory. Within prisons too, as two of the chapters in the book vividly illustrate, autonomy and basic respect are sacrificed in the name of safety and security. Comparing various kinds of captive institutions provides an opportunity to analyze the language of “safety” and reveals its strategic use in obscuring the loss of other valuable things. 

Seeing pets as captives, I think, does bring some of the complexities of captivity into sharper focus.

3:AM: At first it seems obvious that conditions of captivity are really important – but then again, even a well looked after slave is still a slave – and no one is going to use the conditions as a justification in that kind of case are they? So where do you stand on this – how far should we be interested in conditions of captivity?

LG: One justification for keeping individuals captive has been that captivity is better for them. In the context of companion animals and zoo animals, for example, one often hears that they will live longer lives and they won’t have to worry about injury or predation or hunger. The sense is that they are better off having lost their freedom. The same sorts of justifications were also heard in the case of slaves. Captors wanted to believe that slaves were better off, became more civilized, more human, because of their captivity. Of course, this is odious in the case of human beings, and there are some who argue that this attitude is equally objectionable in the case of other animals.

Comparing captivity to a type of slavery, some animal advocates are opposed to all forms of captivity, even keeping pets. They take the label “abolitionist” as a way of linking their views to earlier abolitionist struggles to end slavery.

But I think our relationships with other animals (of course humans, but also nonhumans) are a central part of what makes lives meaningful. Rather than thinking we must end all captivity and thus all our relationships with other animals, we’d do better working to improve those relationships by being more perceptive of and more responsive to others’ needs and interests and sensibilities. Since we are already, inevitably, in relationships, rather than ending them we might try to figure out how to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Importantly, by recognizing that we are inevitably in relationships to other animals, replete with vulnerability, dependency, and even some instrumentalization, and working to understand and improve these relationships, I’m not condoning exploitation. Acknowledging that we are in relationships doesn’t mean that all relationships are equally defensible or should stay as they are. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change.

And this is where an exploration of conditions of captivity and the complexity of the individual captives’ interests comes in. Some animals, like whales and elephants, cannot thrive in captive conditions. As much as we might want to have closer relationships with them, it isn’t good for them. Others, like dogs and chimpanzees, can live meaningful lives in captivity but only if the conditions they are captive in are conducive to their flourishing and they are respected. Part of the problem with captivity is the relationship of domination that it tends to maintain. By re-evaluating captivity (and for many in our non-ideal situation, there is no real alternative) we can start to ask questions about whether and how captive conditions can, while denying certain freedoms, still promote the dignity of the captives.

3:AM: Putting a wasp in a jar seems less bad than putting a chimp in a cage. Does this intuition track anything ethical?

LG: The loss of freedom has different implications for different individuals within the same species and for members of other species. Usually, denying individuals their liberty negatively impacts the quality of their lives, but this can happen in two ways. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are important because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated can’t follow their desires. Putting the wasp in a jar and putting a chimpanzee in a cage denies them both freedom of movement and the freedom to get what they want.
But perhaps what underlies the intuition that it is worse to make a chimpanzee captive than to confine a wasp is the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the chimpanzee who values her freedom, not just instrumentally because of what it gets her, but because it is constitutive of her well-being. This may sound odd, but I think from what is now known about chimpanzee cognition, the boredom and frustration that accompanies captivity and the documented need for environmental, emotional, social, and intellectual enrichment suggests that chimpanzees do value their freedom. The process of satisfying one’s own interests and correcting one’s self when she changes her mind or makes bad choices are part of what makes a life a good life for beings who have these sorts of cognitive capacities. I believe chimpanzees can do these things, so it makes sense to think that they, like us, value their freedom more than just instrumentally.

And its not just chimpanzees. Many other animals are self-directed, adapt to changing circumstances, make choices and resist changes, and improve their environments, often through collective action. Other animals learn from conspecifics and modify what they learn to suit themselves and their needs. Not all animals in a social group do exactly the same things, eat exactly the same things, or spend time with the same individuals. They are making independent choices. There are species-typical behavioral repertoires that constrain an individual’s absolute expression of this their autonomy, but none of us is ever completely free of constraints. So I think there are a lot of other animals for whom captivity is ethically problematic because it violates their autonomy, but probably not wasps.
But, maybe I just don’t know enough about wasps.

3:AM: Some animals wouldn’t exist if they weren’t in captivity. How do we decide whether species death or life is morally justified?

LG: There is a long-standing debate about the conservationist justification for keeping animals captive rather than let them go extinct. Some have argued that we shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of the one for the good of the many. But I confess, I’m vexed by the hard questions of extinction and also worry about whether “we” can make much useful difference.

In Ethics and Animals I recount the story of the dwindling existence of rhinoceros. I wrote about the death of one of the rarest large mammals on the planet, the Javan rhinoceros who was found shot dead in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park. The rhino was shot by poachers so they could to take the horn. At the time, conservation authorities said there are only three to five Javan rhinos left in Vietnam. In 2013, they were declared extinct. Also last year, the Western Black rhino was declared extinct. Elephants, orangutans, tigers, and a host of other less “charismatic” animals will not be around (outside of zoos and preserves) for much longer.

If there were a way to hold some individuals in ideal captive conditions in the hopes of reintroducing them to the wild in order to avoid extinction that might justify captivity. But that is no longer realistic. In fact, the very idea that there is a “wild” free of human management is itself unrealistic. One of the new ways of thinking about what used to be considered a choice between individuals in captivity and wild populations free of human interference, is to recognize that all endangered or threatened animals are in some sense already in captivity – not in zoos, but rather in conditions in which they have their freedom managed and controlled.

3:AM: There are lots of reasons for captivity that aren’t ethical – practical, aesthetic, taste, politics, emotive and so on – so do you think the ethical reason must always override these other possible reasons?

LG: This question bumps up against discussions about the scope and nature of ethical reasoning. I have sympathies with broadly consequentialist answers to this sort of question — the divisions between types of reasons can be helpful for a variety of purposes, but basically whatever divisions one makes, we can evaluate reasons in ethical terms. So if I have a taste for hamburgers, the production of which causes intense suffering, my aesthetic desire for burgers can be evaluated on ethical grounds. It may be politically expedient to disproportionately stop and frisk black youth, but the implications of acting on reasons of expedience can be evaluated ethically. 

Captivity is the same way. In fact, in many instances, the only thing to do is keep some individuals captive. My own interest in the ethics of captivity arose in my working with captive chimpanzees almost a decade ago. I felt truly conflicted about the fact that these incredibly smart, sociable, often charming, always complicated, individuals had to spend their lives (some live to be 50-60) in captivity. Many of the chimpanzees I know are 5th or 6th generation captives. Chimpanzee habitats are being decimated and the fastest growing populations of captive chimpanzees are in Africa, in native range countries for chimpanzees, where they are orphaned due to bush meat hunting and forest destruction. So even if it was possible to teach individuals who have only known captivity to survive outside of captivity, there really isn’t a safe place to release them. This raised a genuine moral dilemma – any thing we do, release them or hold them captive, can be considered wrong. So that lead me to thinking about whether and how we could minimize the ethical costs of captivity. 

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM are there five books (other than your own) you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

LG: I know many of those you interview have a hard time coming up with only five books and I’m having a hard time too. There are so many important books in practical ethics and social and political philosophy, but here are five books that have been important to my current thinking –Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger, Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat, edited by Cheshire Calhoun.

Link: How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,”Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation“let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Link: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty's Strange Looping Trick

(This is a modified excerpt from the epilogue of my book, Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything, a book which is itself intended to be one big looping trick.)

Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, and dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.

The Loop and Wittgenstein’s Ladder

In my first year of college, I started reading Douglass Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In this book, Hofstadter explores the paradoxical notion of a “strange loop” a sort of geometric structure and abstract concept illustrated by the art of M.C. Escher. What is a strange loop? Hofstadter describes it thusly:

The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.

Famously, it can be seen in the ever-ascending staircases drawn by Escher.

Here, my concern is philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but somewhat surprisingly, there are quite a few of these sorts of philosophers in the philosophical tradition, and they are rather interesting.

When one says “unsystematic philosopher,” there is one person that pops into most philosophers’ minds: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Largely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein thought there should be no philosophical theories. Such theories, he thought, only arose because of conceptual confusions. Ironically, however (an irony he well realized), Wittgenstein could not express this anti-philosophical thought without doing philosophy, and so his philosophy on his philosophy ended up coming out quite loopy. One of the best explicit explanations of loopy philosophy comes from Wittgenstein.

If the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place that I have to get to is a place I must already be at now.

Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.

Now, of course, if the place he is trying to get to is where he already is, then any of the positive steps forward he takes must undo themselves. And thus, one of the concluding remarks of his first great philosophical work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, is the following:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

But where has he climbed? Well, just like the people climbing Escher’s self-connecting staircase, he has climbed right to the place where he began! Strangely, that’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who thinks that no philosophical theses should be advanced. Where would we expect to go? In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aim, at least in his early work, we might say is to loop philosophy, fitting it all into his system, then showing why his system is nonsense, thus showing why all of it is nonsense. The aim here, many commentators argue, is to inspire a sort of philosophical quietism. That is, to get us to all stop spewing philosophical nonsense and just shut up already.

Though the Early Wittgenstein is, in a strong sense, philosophically loopy, he is not an existentiallyloopy philosopher. That is, he doesn’t wrap himself and his personal ambitions up in the loop as well (at least not explicitly).  The next three thinkers I’ll talk about, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty, do just that.


Nāgārjuna is arguably the most important Buddhist thinker after the Buddha himself. His philosophy is called the philosophy of the “middle way.” In his central philosophical text, theMūlamadhyamakakārikā (I’m not going to even pretend like I know how to pronounce that, but it means “The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”), he entertains what he takes to be all the possible philosophical views, rejects them all, and then rejects the philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views. This last part is quite important.

First, let’s take a look at this verse:

To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism,
To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism:
Being and non-being,
The wise cling not to either.

Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place. Consider this verse:

Everything is real, or not real,
Or real and not real
Or neither real nor not real;
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

I might add a bit, just for fun: Or neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real …  or neither neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real nor neither real nor not real andreal and not real. And we could do this on and on, ad infinitum, but I think you get the point. In short, there is absolutely no philosophical claim about how things actually are being put forward here, since there is always an equally legitimate meta-claim, the negation of that claim, that could be put forward as well. And thus, Nāgārjuna arrives at the view of “emptiness,” the view that one can’t hold as a view. If you hold it as a view, you miss the whole point. Nāgārjuna writes,

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

To this, you want to say, “But you just said a whole bunch of stuff about how emptiness is the rightview!” And then it hits you: if emptiness is the right view, it can’t be the right view. It’s one giant paradox! Of course, this would be a problem for any view that was proposing itself as the truth of the matter, but Nāgārjuna isn’t proposing his philosophy as a system which captures the “truth of the matter,” even though it might seem that way. His philosophical position isn’t really a position at all. Rather, it’s a sort of philosophical act aimed at catapulting the reader into liberation.

What’s most interesting in reading Nāgārjuna isn’t really the particular philosophical views that he goes about rejecting, but the general strategy of having an all-encompassing philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views and then rejects itself. What Nāgārjuna is trying to do here is toloop the reader into enlightenment. In the Wittgenstein passage I mentioned earlier, he attempts to loop the reader into philosophical quietism. Nāgārjuna’s goal is a bit loftier, but, like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna does not provide the reader with any new philosophical theory. He rejects all views, but, without putting any opposing view in place, he leaves the reader right where they started.

This notion ended up becoming a common feature of much of Buddhist thought. We can see it arising again in the Zen Master Ch’ing-Yuan’s famous aphorism,

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

Philosophically, we’ve gone in a circle. Everything was undone, just for that undoing to be undone itself. The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.


Now let’s fast forward a millennium and a half, and move one continent westward. Our next thinker, Nietzsche, is a bit more of an unsettled soul than Nāgārjuna. Looking at Nietzsche will allow us to get some serious existential context for the loopiness just described.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical metaphors which comes from his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, is that of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysius and their distinct forms of life. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the Sun god, the god of light and reason. Above all, Apollomakes things clear and gives things form. On the other hand, we have Dionysius, the god of wine and ritual madness. For Dionysius, the world is a drunken blur, a primordial dance-party of sorts. The Apollonian and Dionysian each embody a tightly connected personal and metaphysical outlook on things, and we can see these distinct outlooks come out in some seemingly at-odds passages in Nietzsche’s work.

Consider first, Nietzsche’s notion of Giving Style, a sort of self-art that is “practiced by those who survey everything in their nature offers in the way of strengths and weakness, and then fit them all into an artistic plan.” Giving style is something that Apollo would do. It’s a way of making sense, artistic sense, of oneself. But here, we have a problem. In making oneself into a work of art, there is a sense in which one has created himself, but there is also a sense in which one has lost himself. One is always outside of their present self—an artistic projection. The downfall of the Apollonian is the realization that his whole world is an illusion, a mere dream.

Now consider the opposing notion of Amor Fati, the Latin phrase for “love of fate.” Endorsing this state, Nietzsche says, “I do not want to wage any war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers.” In this state, one has lost himself in a different sense. There is nothing to distinguish oneself from others. One has merged into the formless “Primordial Oneness” of reality. Now, this isn’t a problem for someone if they are perfectly content to blend into the primordial oneness, but the artistically inclined will be discontent here. There is no form, just flow, and, in that flow, anything distinctive about who one is completely disappears.

We might understand Amor Fati, as “dancing with the music” and Giving Style as a way of fighting against being overcome by the music in an attempt to make something of oneself. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, the flow of this music is all that there is to reality. It’s what Nietzsche called “becoming.” However, it’s in our very nature to fight against this flow, this eternal Dionysian becoming. We are the sort of beings that try to get a grip on things, including ourselves.

What are we to do once we realize this? Here’s the answer Nietzsche provides: “You shall become who you are.” When you think about it for a moment, you realize the peculiarity of this sentence. The idea of becoming implies a change, a going somewhere. And yet, the destination is right where one started because one always is what one is. Here, once again, we have stumbled into loopiness. Like Escher’s staircase on which one can walk endlessly upward and go nowhere, there is a strange circle of action in which one is both moving and staying put. This, it seems, might be the true state of becoming ourselves. It is a mesh between making something of oneself and flowing with the music. We see that struggling to make something of oneself is precisely the way in which one flows, and vice versa.

So that’s what we are? Not so fast. Here’s where the true loopiness of Nietzsche’s philosophy unveils itself: Let’s suppose that we try to identify ourselves as part of this Dionysian becoming, since that’s what Nietzsche says is really real. To do this would be to try to get a grip on ourselves, and this action is precisely the Apollonian form that we are rejecting by identifying ourselves in this flowing Dionysian sense. We’ve run into a paradox. The nature of reality is such that, in even trying to say what this nature is, we’ve already made a mistake. And so, even this statement, which is ultimately still a statement about the nature of reality, is a mistake as well.

Though the language is somewhat different, I tend to think that this is the same paradox that Nāgārjuna encounters. If we’re feeling particularly deep, we might call it the fundamental paradox of reality, or something really epic like that. This is not to say that reality is essentially paradoxical, as that would be to naively fall right into it. Rather, it is to say that the way in which we are forced to understand ultimate reality, if we do in fact try to understand it, ultimately leaves us with paradox.

However, even though they encounter the same paradox, Nāgārjuna and Nietzsche end up in radically different places. Nāgārjuna, after all, is a religious philosopher, a Buddhist, and Nietzsche is pretty deeply opposed to religious thought altogether. So why the difference? Well, it boils down to a difference in aims. Nāgārjuna’s whole point of theorizing in the first place, following the goal of the Buddha, is to alleviate suffering. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embracesthis suffering! He regards himself as a “tragic philosopher,” and tragedy, in Nietzsche’s view, is the greatest form of art. As such, Nietzsche’s philosophy is a thoroughly worldly philosophy.

But how do we resolve their metaphysical differences? The answer is that we don’t. This is because, like it or not, there isn’t really anything to resolve. Neither one of them is actually interested in taking some stand on the ultimate nature of reality. Sure, they seem to be taking a metaphysical stands of this sort, but we have to interpret this act instrumentally. Whether it is Nāgārjuna’s view of “emptiness” or Nietzsche’s view of “becoming,” the overarching metaphysical view that appears to be put forward by these two thinkers is not an end in itself, but part of an act. And what is this act? Well, it’s the greatest thing that can be done at that moment, whatever that is. For Nāgārjuna, in line with his Buddhist orientation, this is the act liberation from suffering. For Nietzsche, it is dramatic tragedy. Both Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna perform a strange looping trick in which everything comes together in its falling apart making way for the light of the unconceptualizable thing beyond.

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Link: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the Critique of Pop Culture

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Link: Saying no! to Jack Bauer: Mainstreaming Torture

Rebecca Gordon is the bad-ass philosopher who argues that Jack Bauer is wrong to use torture. She is an applied ethicist who is engaged all the time with forging a dialectical relationship to the rest of the world, with current political realities, with torture as a government supported institution hidden in plain sight, with torture and Alisdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, with torture as a practice, about what Obama should do, about ‘enhanced interrogation’, why Jack Bauer is wrong, why Anscombe thinks certain thought experiments can erode ethical thinking, about whether her approach is universal, about rival approaches and whether there are reasons for optimism around this depressing reality. Come gather round people…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Rebecca Gordon: It was an accident. I’d spent the previous 30-odd years as an activist in a variety of political movements, supporting myself as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 2000, it seemed that many of the movements I’d worked in (for women’s liberation, for LGBT in solidarity with people in Central America, against apartheid in South Africa and for racial justice in the United States) had reached a kind of stasis. A long phase of my personal life was also drawing to a close; my partner and I had been caring for my mother for some years; now she was dying. It seemed like a good moment to do something new. Naturally, I thought, “I’ll go back to school.”

Next question: What to study? Mathematics? History? Small particle physics? I decided I might as well do something that encompasses the whole shebang and study theology. So I wandered over to the Graduate Theological Union, where I thought I’d spend a couple of years and emerge with an M.Div. from Starr King School for Religious Leadership. Once you’re enrolled at GTU, you can take classes at any of the nine schools, and U.C. Berkeley. So I did. And, against all my expectations, I fell in love with scholarship.

The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California gave me a full ride for the first two years of a doctoral program in Ethics and Social Theory. As I worked on the dissertation, I began teaching in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Now I had something entirely new to learn about: how to teach. For the last nine years I’ve had the privilege of talking with an economically, racially, and nationally diverse group of young people about their own deepest values — at the time in their lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be in the world.

The work that became Mainstreaming Torture began as my dissertation at the GTU.

3:AM: You say that the world of philosophical ethics is divided into two very distinct segments – theoretical and applied ethics and that in the academy the theoretical is more esteemed. But you are an applied ethicist – so are you out to change the world – and do you think the academy should be too?

RG: I would never presume to seek to “change the world” as an individual actor. That is a project for many people thinking, deciding, and working together in organized ways. My goal for the students in my classes is that they emerge thinking of themselves as citizens – not necessarily, or only, of a single nation, but of the world. Do I think the academy should be out to change the world? I think that much of its work inevitably does change the world, and not always for the better. I think that those of us located in the academy have a responsibility to recognize that our institutions are embedded in a larger society, and that, as is true for any institution, we exist in dialectical relationship to the rest of the world.

3:AM: You’ve recently engaged with the highly topical issue of torture. Was the motivation political awareness of what’s happening recently?

RG: Yes, and no. Yes in that I began thinking and writing about state torture within two months of the terrible attacks of 9/11. And no, in the sense that I had long known that my own government supported torture regimes in many places, including Greece, the Philippines, and large parts of Latin America.

In 1984 I spent six months in the war zones of Nicaragua. There I met survivors of torture at the hands of the counter-revolutionary force the Reagan administration was (at that time illegally) training, arming, and supporting, known as the contra. The contra had an intentional strategy of terrorizing civilians in rural areas, torturing them to death and leaving mutilated bodies to be discovered by others. I met at least one torturer as well.

A few years later, I served as interpreter for a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, just a few weeks before the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroaméricana in San Salvador. At that time, the Salvadoran government enjoyed military and political support from United States. During our two weeks in El Salvador, one of our key contacts in the labor movement there was arrested. We were able to visit him in prison, where he described how he had been tortured. Not for information, but as a matter of course.

Within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear to anyone who wanted to know that one result was that people were going to be tortured. Of course this wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has been involved with torture, but September 11 did mark a real change. Almost overnight, a question that many people believed had been resolved – whether or not torture is wrong – was reopened. In November of 2011, Jonathan Alter, a mainstream liberal columnist, wrote in Newsweek, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture.” He wondered whether it might be a good plan to deport the Muslims living in the United States whom the FBI had rounded up to “Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings.” Americans who weren’t thinking about new methods to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history” had failed to recognize that they lived in a transformed world. “Some people still argue,” wrote Alter, “that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.”

The people the FBI had rounded up turned out to have nothing to do with 9/11, but some of them were held for more than half a year in cells in Brooklyn, NY, where they were subjected to treatment that has since become very familiar: 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight.

The more I think about institutionalized torture, the more I realize that it is hidden in plain sight all around us – in U.S. jails an prisons, and even in institutions for people with disabilities. So yes, it is topical. And it has been going on for a long time.

3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?

RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.

The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on 24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.

Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.

The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.

So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits. (I’ll say more about how MacIntyre’s approach in answer to a later question.) The “cardinal” virtues have been around in “western” philosophy since Plato and Aristotle (although the latter’s catalogue of virtues was more varied and variable.) These virtues are courage, justice, temperance or moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming, I describe ways that each of these is distorted by the practice of torture. ‘

Courage becomes not the ability to withstand fear and pain, but the ability to overcome instinctive squeamishness and inflict it.

Justice is tricky to define, but one thing is clear, which is that torture subverts the usual temporal order of legal justice. Ordinarily, trial precedes punishment. In torture, the order is reversed, and in many cases, no trial ever occurs.

Temperance can be thought of as a properly measured response to the joys and pleasures of life. In torture, what is prized is moderation in enjoyment of causing suffering. That is, interviews with torturers suggest that they have little respect for peers who torture because they like doing it. Thomas Aquinas includes the subsidiary virtue of humility within the category of temperance. Torture belies the humility that allows us to recognize that no human being can know the contents of another person’s mind. We cannot identify with certainty the “really bad guys,” who may in fact turn out to be unlucky men scooped up and sold on an Afghan battlefield.

The wisdom I am concerned with is practical wisdom, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and Thomas prudence, right reason about things to be done. It is the intellectual virtue, that allows us to think properly about moral questions. In Mainstreaming, I said,

“In commenting on the perpetrators of great evil, including torturers [Hannah Arendt] observed that the one thing they appeared to have in common was “something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Elsewhere she writes, “Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what happened.” The inability to think about what is happening around one, or to make a moral judgment about it, is a dangerous habit indeed.

The practice of institutionalized state torture requires precisely this “quite authentic inability to think” both in people directly involved, and in a public that learns not to think too hard about what is being done in our name for our supposed protection. I sometimes think it’s useful to talk about “culpable ignorance,” the failure to acknowledge something we could know if we chose to. Not that we haven’t had help getting there. I’ve argued that in the case of the “war on terror” the government’s “rhetoric of denial, the theater of fear with its manipulation of threat levels and [what William Cavanaugh calls] the ‘striptease of power,’ the apologias for torture by present and former government officials: All these serve to diminish ordinary citizens’ capacity to think clearly about moral questions.

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Link: After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?

Abstract: Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.


Severe abnormalities of the fetus and risks for the physical and/or psychological health of the woman are often cited as valid reasons for abortion. Sometimes the two reasons are connected, such as when a woman claims that a disabled child would represent a risk to her mental health. However, having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus. This could happen in the case of a woman who loses her partner after she finds out that she is pregnant and therefore feels she will not be able to take care of the possible child by herself.

A serious philosophical problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth. In such cases, we need to assess facts in order to decide whether the same arguments that apply to killing a human fetus can also be consistently applied to killing a newborn human.

Such an issue arises, for example, when an abnormality has not been detected during pregnancy or occurs during delivery. Perinatal asphyxia, for instance, may cause severe brain damage and result in severe mental and/or physical impairments comparable with those for which a woman could request an abortion. Moreover, abnormalities are not always, or cannot always be, diagnosed through prenatal screening even if they have a genetic origin. This is more likely to happen when the disease is not hereditary but is the result of genetic mutations occurring in the gametes of a healthy parent. One example is the case of Treacher-Collins syndrome (TCS), a condition that affects 1 in every 10000 births causing facial deformity and related physiological failures, in particular potentially life-threatening respiratory problems. Usually those affected by TCS are not mentally impaired and they are therefore fully aware of their condition, of being different from other people and of all the problems their pathology entails. Many parents would choose to have an abortion if they fi nd out, through genetic prenatal testing, that their fetus is affected by TCS.

However, genetic prenatal tests for TCS are usually taken only if there is a family history of the disease. Sometimes, though, the disease is caused by a gene mutation that intervenes in the gametes of a healthy member of the couple. Moreover, tests for TCS are quite expensive and it takes several weeks to get the result. Considering that it is a very rare pathology, we can understand why women are not usually tested for this disorder. However, such rare and severe pathologies are not the only ones that are likely to remain undetected until delivery; even more common congenital diseases that women are usually tested for could fail to be detected. An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only the 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that, considering only the European areas under examination, about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease had been diagnosed before birth.

Link: Excerpt from William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy"


What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the ques- tion in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

Suppose you can identify your grand goal in living. Suppose, too, that you can explain why this goal is worth attaining. Even then, there is a danger that you will mislive. In particular, if you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it. Thus, the second component of a philos- ophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living. This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.

If we want to take steps to avoid wasting our wealth, we can easily find experts to help us. Looking in the phone book, we will find any number of certified financial planners. These indi- viduals can help us clarify our financial goals: How much, for example, should we be saving for retirement? And having clari- fied these goals, they can advise us on how to achieve them.

Suppose, however, that we want to take steps to avoid wasting not our wealth but our life. We might seek an expert to guide us: a philosopher of life. This individual would help us think about our goals in living and about which of these goals are in fact worth pursuing. She would remind us that because goals can come into conflict, we need to decide which of our goals should take precedence when conflicts arise. She will therefore help us sort through our goals and place them into a hierarchy. The goal at the pinnacle of this hierarchy will be what I have called our grand goal in living: It is the goal that we should be unwilling to sacrifice to attain other goals. And after helping us select this goal, a philosopher of life will help us devise a strategy for attaining it.

The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department of the local university. Visiting the faculty offices there, we will find philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics. We might also find philosophers specializing in the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of feminism, and even the philosophy of philosophy. But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn’t always been this way. Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, not only thought philoso- phies of life were worth contemplating but thought the raison d’être of philosophy was to develop them. These philosophers typically had an interest in other areas of philosophy as well— in logic, for example—but only because they thought pursuing that interest would help them develop a philosophy of life.

Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life. Different schools offered different advice on what people must do in order to have a good life. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, founded the Cynic school of philosophy, which advocated an ascetic lifestyle. Aristippus, another pupil of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school, which advocated a hedonistic lifestyle. In between these extremes, we find, among many other schools, the Epicurean school, the Skeptic school, and, of most interest to us here, the Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium.

The philosophers associated with these schools were unapologetic about their interest in philosophies of life. According to Epicurus, for example, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.” And according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, about whom I will have much to say in this book, “He who studies with a philosopher should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder.”

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow, I focus my attention on a philosophy that I have found useful and that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both mean- ingful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.

In other words, this book offers advice on how people should live. More precisely, I will act as a conduit for the advice offered by Stoic philosophers two thousand years ago. This is something my fellow philosophers are generally loath to do, but then again, their interest in philosophy is primarily “academic”; their research, that is to say, is primarily theoret- ical or historical. My interest in Stoicism, by way of contrast, is resolutely practical: My goal is to put this philosophy to work in my life and to encourage others to put it to work in theirs. The ancient Stoics, I think, would have encouraged both sorts of endeavor, but they also would have insisted that the primary reason to study Stoicism is so we can put it into practice.

Another thing to realize is that although Stoicism is a philos- ophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They therefore became acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at preven- tion failed. Even those readers who are leery of philosophical speculation should take an interest in these techniques. Who among us, after all, would not like to reduce the number of negative emotions experienced in daily living?

Although I have been studying philosophy for all my adult life, I was, until recently, woefully ignorant of Stoicism. My teachers in college and graduate school never asked me to read the Stoics, and although I am an avid reader, I saw no need to read them on my own. More generally, I saw no need to ponder a philosophy of life. I instead felt comfortable with what is, for almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. My philosophy of life, in other words, was what might charitably be called an enlightened form of hedonism.

In my fifth decade of life, though, events conspired to intro- duce me to Stoicism. The first of these was the 1998 publica- tion by the author Tom Wolfe of A Man in Full. In this novel, one character accidentally discovers the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and then starts spouting his philosophy. I found this to be simultaneously intriguing and puzzling.

Two years later I started doing research for a book about desire. As part of this research, I examined the advice that has been given over the millennia on mastering desire. I started out by seeing what religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and Buddhism (and in particular, Zen Buddhism), had to say about desire. I went on to examine the advice on mastering desire offered by philosophers but found that only a relative handful of them had offered such advice. Prominent among those who had were the Hellenistic philoso- phers: the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics.

In conducting my research on desire, I had an ulterior motive. I had long been intrigued by Zen Buddhism and imag- ined that on taking a closer look at it in connection with my research, I would become a full-fledged convert. But what I found, much to my surprise, was that Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it. Furthermore, I came to realize that Stoicism was better suited to my analytical nature than Buddhism was. As a result, I found myself, much to my amazement, toying with the idea of becoming, instead of a practicing Zen Buddhist, a practicing Stoic.

Before I began my research on desire, Stoicism had been, for me, a nonstarter as a philosophy of life, but as I read the Stoics, I discovered that almost everything I thought I knew about them was wrong. To begin with, I knew that the dictionary defines a stoic as “one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaf- fected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.”I therefore expected that the uppercase-S Stoics would be lowercase-s stoical—that they would be emotionally repressed individuals. I discovered, though, that the goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions.

When I read the works of the Stoics, I encountered indi- viduals who were cheerful and optimistic about life (even though they made it a point to spend time thinking about all the bad things that could happen to them) and who were fully capable of enjoying life’s pleasures (while at the same time being careful not to be enslaved by those pleasures). I also encountered, much to my surprise, individuals who valued joy; indeed, according to Seneca, what Stoics seek to discover “is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.” He also asserts that someone who prac- tices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarilybe attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus tells us that if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow.

Rather than being passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice, the Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked hard to make the world a better place. Consider, for example, Cato the Younger. (Although he did not contribute to the liter- ature of Stoicism, Cato was a practicing Stoic; indeed, Seneca refers to him as the perfect Stoic.) His Stoicism did not prevent Cato from fighting bravely to restore the Roman republic. Likewise, Seneca seems to have been remarkably energetic: Besides being a philosopher, he was a successful playwright, an advisor to an emperor, and the first-century equivalent of an investment banker. And Marcus Aurelius, besides being a philosopher, was a Roman emperor—indeed, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. As I read about the Stoics, I found myself filled with admiration for them. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined—traits I would like to possess. They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans—values I happen to share.

In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability. There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. This seemed to be an important insight, but it left open the question of how, exactly, we could accomplish this. The Stoics, I was delighted to discover, had an answer to this question. They developed a fairly simple technique that, if practiced, can make us glad, if only for a time, to be the person we are, living the life we happen to be living, almost regardless of what that life might be.

The more I studied the Stoics, the more I found myself drawn to their philosophy. But when I tried to share with others my newfound enthusiasm for Stoicism, I quickly discov- ered that I had not been alone in misconceiving the philosophy. Friends, relatives, and even my colleagues at the university seemed to think the Stoics were individuals whose goal was to suppress all emotion and who therefore led grim and passive lives. It dawned on me that the Stoics were the victims of a bum rap, one that I myself had only recently helped promote.

This realization alone might have been sufficient to moti- vate me to write a book about the Stoics—a book that would set the record straight—but as it happens, I came to have a second motivation even stronger than this. After learning about Stoicism, I started, in a low-key, experimental fashion, giving it a try as my philosophy of life. The experiment has thus far been sufficiently successful that I feel compelled to report my find- ings to the world at large, in the belief that others might benefit from studying the Stoics and adopting their philosophy of life.

Readers will naturally be curious about what is involved in the practice of Stoicism. In ancient Greece and Rome, a would-be Stoic could have learned how to practice Stoicism by attending a Stoic school, but this is no longer possible. A modern would-be Stoic might, as an alternative, consult the works of the ancient Stoics, but what she will discover on attempting to do so is that many of these works—in particular, those of the Greek Stoics—have been lost. Furthermore, if she reads the works that have survived, she will discover that although they discuss Stoicism at length, they don’t offer a lesson plan, as it were, for novice Stoics. The challenge I faced in writing this book was to construct such a plan from clues scattered throughout Stoic writings.

Although the remainder of this book provides detailed guidelines for would-be Stoics, let me describe here, in a preliminary fashion, some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life.

We will reconsider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire— most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought is not the kind of tranquility that might be brought on by the ingestion of a tranquilizer; it is not, in other words, a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

We will study the various psychological techniques devel- oped by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control. We will also recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore practice Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us.

Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to iden- tify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.

Practicing Stoicism will obviously take effort, but this is true of all genuine philosophies of life. Indeed, even “enlight- ened hedonism” takes effort. The enlightened hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy of life, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. The enlightened hedonist will then devise strate- gies for maximizing the amount of pleasure he experiences. (Unenlightened hedonism, in which a person thoughtlessly seeks short-term gratification, is not, I think, a coherent philos- ophy of life.)

The effort required to practice Stoicism will probably be greater than that required to practice enlightened hedonism but less than that required to practice, say, Zen Buddhism.

A Zen Buddhist will have to meditate, a practice that is both time-consuming and (in some of its forms) physically and mentally challenging. The practice of Stoicism, in contrast, doesn’t require us to set aside blocks of time in which to “do Stoicism.” It does require us periodically to reflect on our life, but these periods of reflection can generally be squeezed into odd moments of the day, such as when we are stuck in traffic or—this was Seneca’s recommendation—when we are lying in bed waiting for sleep to come.

When assessing the “costs” associated with practicing Stoicism or any other philosophy of life, readers should realize that there are costs associated with not having a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned one such cost: the danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.

Some readers might, at this point, wonder whether the practice of Stoicism is compatible with their religious beliefs. In the case of most religions, I think it is. Christians in partic- ular will find that Stoic doctrines resonate with their religious views. They will, for example, share the Stoics’ desire to attain tranquility, although Christians might call it peace. They will appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s injunction to “love mankind.”And when they encounter Epictetus’s observation that some things are up to us and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will focus our energies on the things that are up to us, Christians will be reminded of the “Serenity Prayer,” often attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Having said this, I should add that it is also possible for someone simultaneously to be an agnostic and a practicing Stoic.

The remainder of this book is divided into four parts. In part 1, I describe the birth of philosophy. Although modern philos- ophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordi- nary people live better lives. Stoicism, as we shall see, was one of the most popular and successful of the ancient schools of philosophy.

In parts and 3, I explain what we must do in order to prac- tice Stoicism. I start by describing the psychological techniques the Stoics developed to attain and subsequently maintain tran- quility. I then describe Stoic advice on how best to deal with the stresses of everyday life: How, for example, should we respond when someone insults us? Although much has changed in the past two millennia, human psychology has changed little. This is why those of us living in the twenty-first century can benefit from the advice that philosophers such as Seneca offered to first-century Romans.

Finally, in part of this book, I defend Stoicism against various criticisms, and I reevaluate Stoic psychology in light of modern scientific findings. I end the book by relating the insights I have gained in my own practice of Stoicism.

My fellow academics might have an interest in this book; they might, for example, be curious about my interpretation of various Stoic utterances. The audience I am most interested in reaching, though, is ordinary individuals who worry that they might be misliving. This includes those who have come to the realization that they lack a coherent philosophy of life and as a result are floundering in their daily activities: what they work to accomplish one day only undoes what they accomplished the day before. It also includes those who have a philosophy of life but worry that it is somehow defective.

I wrote this book with the following question in mind: If the ancient Stoics had taken it upon themselves to write a guidebook for twenty-first-century individuals—a book that would tell us how to have a good life—what might that book have looked like? The pages that follow are my answer to this question.

Link: Philosophy of Sex

Sex raises fundamental philosophical questions about topics such as personal identity and well-being, the relationship between emotion and reason, the nature of autonomy and consent, and the dual nature of persons as individuals but also social beings. This article serves as an overview of the philosophy of sex in the English-speaking philosophical tradition and explicates philosophical debate in several specific areas: sexual objectification, rape and consent, sex work, sexual identities and queer theory, the medicalization of sexuality, and polyamory. It situates these topics in a framework of shifting cultural attitudes and argues for the importance of the philosophy of sex. It ends with some suggestions about future research, particularly with regard to the changing nature of pornography and sexual justice in legal theory.


This article is about the ‘sex’ that people have, not the ‘sex’ that they are. Sex is of obvious philosophical significance: around the world, no other personal activity is simultaneously so important to us as individuals, so widely moralized about, and so highly regulated by the state. For reasons of space and specificity, this article discusses philosophy of sex only as it’s been understood in the English-speaking philosophical tradition, focusing just on the associated culture of North America and the UK. In that philosophical tradition, sex is an understudied topic. This is striking, since the questions and issues sex raises are intertwined with the most central topics in philosophy, including those of personal identity and well-being, the relationship between emotion and reason, the nature of autonomy and consent, and the dual nature of persons as individual but also social beings.

Though philosophers of Ancient Greece discussed sex alongside other matters of everyday life, for centuries philosophers in the Western tradition generally had little or nothing to say about sex (though as we will see below, Kant was a notable exception). In the modern period and before the 20th century, cultural attitudes about sexual ethics were framed largely in terms of appropriateness and chastity: sex between a man and woman who were married was appropriate, other sex was not, and chastity meant governing one’s sexual impulses in a way appropriate to those norms. In the wake of the social changes of the 1960s, there was a surge of theorizing about the philosophy of sex, much of which concerned the contrast between views based on traditional norms and newer views dissociating sex from them. In this phase, several topics came to seem particularly salient: the question of ‘perverted’ versus ‘normal’ sex; the ethics of homosexuality, masturbation, abortion and casual sex; problems concerning rape and sexual harassment; and issues surrounding pornography and prostitution (the fourth edition of Alan Soble’s edited collection, Philosophy of Sex, published in 2002 and highly revised from the third, represents this phase of the field well.)

Social and cultural developments since then have led to substantive changes in views about which topics should be taken to be important and how those topics should be understood. First, it has become clearer that outside of a religious context, reasons for necessarily associating sexual ethics with chastity and family life are obscure; the traditional framework has thus receded as a reasonable one in a secular context (for an exception, see Scruton 1986). This recession has had several implications. For many scholars, it is no longer philosophically plausible to say that sexual activity is morally wrong simply in virtue of being homosexual or that some kinds of sex are simply ‘perverted’. While homosexuality and same-sex marriage are controversial cultural and political topics, they are not controversial in philosophical discourse. Masturbation is not thought to raise deep ethical issues simply in virtue of being solitary sex for pleasure. While abortion is more controversial than ever, it is now discussed more in general philosophical terms, as a debate over personhood and our ethical obligations, than as something particularly related to the philosophy of sex.

As the traditional framework has receded, other values and theoretical approaches have gained in importance and salience. The rise of feminism as a cultural phenomenon and theoretical tool has led to increased interest in questions about how sex impacts women’s lives, particularly in understanding the ways that being valued or viewed primarily as sex objects harms them and the ways cultural attitudes affect our judgments about rape, consent, and the law. Sex is increasingly seen as a site of potential conflict between the rights of individuals and the good of communities, for example in the debate over sex work and pornography. The rise of queer culture and post-Foucauldian theory has meant increased attention to questions about the nature of sexual identities, the ways these may be biological, socially constructed, essential or chosen, and the resulting implications for the political struggle for equality and liberation. The rising involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in sexuality means complex cultural and bioethical questions about the medicalization of our sexuality are rapidly becoming pressing. Because sex can result in children, it is widely thought that the state appropriately takes some interest in the sexual lives of citizens, e.g., in its prohibition on adultery, but there is deep disagreement over what form this interest should take and over whether the common romantic model of monogamy in coupledom is right for everyone.

In these topics, there are several common threads. Is it possible, or desirable, to try to distinguish a ‘healthy’ kind of sexuality beyond simply saying that whatever consenting adults choose to do is their own concern? Do certain forms of sexual expression in the media, in sex markets, and in hook-up culture lead to the harm and mistreatment of women and to the commodification of persons more generally? When it comes to non-sexual domains, much of North American and European legal structures and cultural attitudes employ an almost-Millianism: everyone is free to do as they please as long as they are not harming anyone else. But many people fail to apply this attitude to sex. Is there something about sex that indicates a need for differential treatment, or is this a holdover from the traditional view?

In this entry, I discuss in more detail several specific topics of particular interest in the contemporary study of the philosophy of sex. Because the topic of objectification raises broad foundational issues and is connected with many others, I start with a substantial discussion of this. I follow with discussions of three areas that have inspired significant philosophical attention and disagreement: rape and consent, sex work, and sexual identities and queer theory. Toward the end, I give brief overviews of two emerging areas likely to be the subject of much theorizing in the years to come: the medicalization of sexuality and polyamory. I end with a few suggestions about the future.

Sexual Objectification

Over the past few decades, ‘sexual objectification’ has gone from a relatively technical concept deployed by feminist theorists to one frequently used in many disciplines and in everyday discussion (Nussbaum 1995: 249). Though it is used in a wide range of contexts including discussions of media representations and fashion, in the philosophy of sex, it is often appealed to in debates over pornography, sex work, and what I call ‘commodified casual sex’, which is sex undertaken for the explicit purposes of an exchange of sexual pleasure and excitement – without other elements such as love. It is often understood to implicate the way a society harms women by treating them only, or primarily, as objects of actual or potential sexual appeal.

Though the specific terminology of objectification is relatively recent, sex has long been thought to be connected to a problematic using of a person or treating them as an object. In some passages, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) seems to suggest that all sex involves people using others as mere means to their ends: ‘In loving from sexual inclination,’ he says, ‘they make the person into an object of their appetite. As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it (1997: 156).’ Because of the nature of the appetite, this thinking goes, sexual desire drives us to ignore the humanity of our partners and to use them for our own purposes; our drive to do this is so strong that we are willing to be used as objects ourselves in return for the chance to use another. But this reciprocity, Kant thought, could not itself make objectification, and thus sex, moral. Kant’s proposed treatment of this problem of making sex morally permissible rested on the way uniting in legally protected, monogamous marriage could make people permanently and formally committed to caring for one another’s ends (see Herman 1993). Sex outside of marriage would thus be morally wrong; though as Helga Varden (2008) explains, this does not mean it should be made illegal.

Feminist theorists of the 1970s and 80s, such as Andrea Dworkin (1987) and Catherine MacKinnon (1987), approach the problem in a different, gender-focused way: in their view, the problem isn’t sex itself but rather the way our society treats women only as sexual objects, which harms them in profound ways. Pornography, in particular, dangerously reinforces men’s mental habit of regarding women as mere objects for their enjoyment and not as full persons with thoughts, feelings, and desires of their own. Marriage, with its historical connections to gender inequality and female dependence, only exacerbates the problem. Ultimately, this view maintains that the only way to overcome these difficulties is to fight contemporary gender inequality, in part through the eradication of pornography.

More recently, philosophers such as Sandra Bartky (1990) and Susan Bordo (1993) have extended the concept of objectification to analyze sexist pressures for women’s appearances and bodies to conform to societal ideals; Bartky invokes Marx’s idea of a false consciousness to explain women’s felt desire for participation in their own objectification. In contrast, much recent work in this area focuses more squarely on the twin problems of properly characterizing what, exactly, sexual objectification is, and in understanding its complex ethical aspects. Noting that sometimes focusing on one’s sexual partner as an object of sexual pleasure can be a wonderful part of sexuality, philosophers try to tease apart the problematic aspects of objectification from those that we should welcome and enjoy.

For example, Martha Nussbaum’s widely cited (1995) essay ‘Objectification’ distinguishes various kinds of objectification: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity, and argues that these present varying ethical aspects in varying situations. Drawing on literary examples, Nussbaum argues that when it comes to people, some forms of sexual objectification can be joyous and wonderful even while others are obviously immoral. In the work of D. H. Lawrence, for example, she finds people who experience a ‘surrender of autonomy and even of agency and subjectivity’ in sex yet are treating one another with respect because the surrender is mutual and symmetrical and there is a certain kind of caring relationship among the participants. Sinister examples of objectification occur in Story of O, in which female O is a sexually submissive slave to a male master, pornographic depictions of women, and sex that aims to demean or violate. Ultimately, she concludes that instrumentalization – or using a person as a mere means to one’s purposes – is the kind of objectification that is the central moral problem. But as long as it’s in the context of the right kind of mutual and respectful relationship, she says, one can use a lover as a means without using them merely or primarily as means.

Other attempts to avoid a purely negative view of objectification can be found in my own work (Marino 2008) as well as that of Ann Cahill (2011). In my view autonomy, rather than instrumentalization, is the crux of the matter ethically. One can, I claim, choose to be used, and when the choice to do so is fully autonomous, the objectification is unproblematic. Because social and cultural pressures can make autonomous choices impossible – for example, in a world in which women are valued only as sex objects, they have no choice about the matter – social context is essential to determining the ethical aspects of an act of objectification. In her book, Overcoming Objectification (2011), Ann Cahill argues for getting rid of the concept of objectification altogether. The problem with ‘objectification’, she says, is that it is rooted in a narrow Kantian conception of people as rational autonomous agents; this fails to appreciate the way people are embodied, and sex is an essentially bodily activity. The problems we encounter have to do not with objecthood but rather with the way female sexuality is defined in relation to, and as a projection of, male sexuality – this is ‘derivatization’ and is the real difficulty. In derivatization, women are harmed because they are not recognized for the full and complex people that they are.

But the attempt to explicate the concept of objectification in a broad and inclusive way have been criticized on the grounds that divorcing objectification from its negative connotations may weaken the fight against problematic forms, and this would be a bad consequence. For example, Evangelina Papadaki (2010) argues that Nussbaum’s concept of objectification is too broad; if using a person as a means, but not a mere means, is objectifying them, then we are objectifying one another constantly: when we employ people, go to restaurants, and so on. If this is so, how can we make sense of the way that objectifying women in dehumanizing ways is genuinely problematic in virtue of objectifying them? Papadaki says that objectification should be understood as that which fundamentally denies a person’s humanity; objectification is thus always morally problematic.

Rape and Consent

Although rape is generally understood as sexual penetration by force in the absence of consent, there is disagreement about this characterization. What is force? What is consent? Are both necessary to say a sex act was rape? Reflecting the scholarship, most of my discussion in this section focuses on rape of women by men. But in general the theoretical remarks are relevant for other contexts such as same-sex rape.

Traditionally, rape was characterized as sex by force and against a woman’s will (by, e. g., the foundational Commentaries of William Blackstone (1723–1780)). Before the mid-twentieth century, rape laws were structured so that obvious signs of vigorous and even extraordinary physical resistance were required as evidence for prosecution because it was widely assumed that a woman would always offer token resistance and that it was the man’s proper role to overcome this. In many areas, reforms removed these resistance requirements, acknowledging that a woman being threatened should not have to risk serious injury and death to establish that she was raped (see Schulhofer 1992: 37).

But many North American jurisdictions still require evidence of both force and non-consent, and often, ‘force’ is interpreted as physical force. This gives rise to several problems. Here, even a woman’s clearly stated ‘no’ would not suffice to establish that sex was rape, as long as physical force is absent, a result that strikes many people as counterintuitive. Also, forms of coercion and deception beyond physical force often seem relevant. In one US case, a foster father threatened a child in his care with being sent back to a detention home unless she submitted to sex. A Pennsylvania court found she had not been raped because there was no physical force; but isn’t such coercion just as wrong (Schulhofer 1992: 48)? Furthermore, it is often assumed that lack of consent must be manifested, but in many rapes, the victim is silent or passive out of fear. Finally, rape convictions typically require showing mens rea – that the accused intended to rape, and this means making judgments not only about whether the victim consented but also about whether the accused believed she consented – or, more commonly now, had a reasonable belief that she did. This reliance on the reasonableness of a man’s beliefs can be problematic, however, in a culture in which many people still think a woman can ‘ask for it’ merely by dressing or acting provocatively (Schulhofer 1992: 40; see also Pineau 1989).

One model for further reform focuses on ‘“No” means no’. In this model, whenever a woman does not consent, it is rape; force is not required (see, e.g., Estrich 1987). In addition to an intuitive simplicity, this model might seem apt for the very common situation of date-rape, in which rape occurs between people who know one another and are spending time together on purpose. But critics point to several difficulties. First, in many cases, including many date-rape situations, women are silent or passive, out of fear or other mental distress, or their responses are equivocal; the ‘“no” means no’ framework does not address this (Schulhofer 1992; Anderson 2005). Second, there are many ways a ’yes’ can be coerced, as with the foster child mentioned above. Finally, what should we say about a ‘no’ followed by a ‘yes’? Much depends on the intervening activity: there is a difference between badgering and harassment and a fun evening with conversation and laughs; ‘“no” means no’ does not say much about what, exactly, ‘no’ rules out and when (Schulhofer 1992; see also Soble 1997).

Other reform models focus on requiring affirmative consent. In an influential 1989 article, ‘Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis,’ Lois Pineau argues that our common ‘contractual’ model, in which a woman can be interpreted as having ‘asked for it’ through certain behaviors, rests on false myths about male and female sexuality. Pineau proposes a ‘communicative’ version of an affirmative model, in which the burden would be on all participants to have positive reason to believe their partner was enjoying themselves or have reason to believe they were wanting to continue despite not enjoying themselves. (The sexual offense policy of the now-defunct Antioch College specified a verbal yes was required for every new activity on every occasion. For analysis, see Soble 1997).

Stephen Schulhofer criticizes the communicative model for setting itself ‘the difficult and probably undesirable goal of settling by collective decision and legal enforcement the content of “healthy relationships” and “good” sex’ (1992: 70). He argues that a focus on respecting sexual autonomy should ground reforms; coercion and deception are wrong not because they are a kind of ‘force’ but because they violate the victim’s autonomy in unacceptable ways. With respect to the question of consent and silence in particular, Schulhofer says that just as silence would not be treated as consent in, say, surgery, it should not be treated as consent for sexual intercourse; instead only an affirmative ‘crystallized attitude of positive willingness’, should count as consent (1992: 76). But Michelle Anderson argues that Schulhofer’s emphasis on autonomy fails to take into account the utterly dehumanizing effect of rape.

Some philosophical questions about rape concern rape’s particular harms and effects and more broadly the nature of the crime itself. In the 1970s, Susan Brownmiller proposed that rape is fundamentally a crime of violence rather than sex: rape harms a victim much as other assaults do, and through rape, men use violence to exert dominance and control over women. Cahill (2001) and others have challenged the idea that sex is like other assaults, on grounds that rape has specifically sexual meanings and harms (for more on the particular harms of rape, see Brison 2002). In these views, it is partly because rape is special in this way that where it is prevalent it functions to keep women in a state of fear.

Sex Work
Sexual Identities and Queer Theory
Medicalization of Sex and Desire

Link: LRB · Edward Said · Diary: an encounter with J-P Sartre

(Source: infinite-iterations)

Link: The Enchiridion by Epictetus

1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

2. Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

3. With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

4. When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.

5. Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

6. Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.

11. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

12. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

13. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice,” but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.

15. Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.

16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

19. You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

20. Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.

21. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you win never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.

22. If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,.” He is returned to us a philosopher all at once,” and ” Whence this supercilious look?” Now, for your part, don’t have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.

23. If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be contented, then, in everything with being a philosopher; and, if you wish to be thought so likewise by anyone, appear so to yourself, and it will suffice you.

24. Don’t allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours, then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you may be of the greatest consequence? “But my friends will be unassisted.” — What do you mean by unassisted? They will not have money from you, nor will you make them Roman citizens. Who told you, then, that these are among the things in our own control, and not the affair of others? And who can give to another the things which he has not himself? “Well, but get them, then, that we too may have a share.” If I can get them with the preservation of my own honor and fidelity and greatness of mind, show me the way and I will get them; but if you require me to lose my own proper good that you may gain what is not good, consider how inequitable and foolish you are. Besides, which would you rather have, a sum of money, or a friend of fidelity and honor? Rather assist me, then, to gain this character than require me to do those things by which I may lose it. Well, but my country, say you, as far as depends on me, will be unassisted. Here again, what assistance is this you mean? “It will not have porticoes nor baths of your providing.” And what signifies that? Why, neither does a smith provide it with shoes, or a shoemaker with arms. It is enough if everyone fully performs his own proper business. And were you to supply it with another citizen of honor and fidelity, would not he be of use to it? Yes. Therefore neither are you yourself useless to it. “What place, then, say you, will I hold in the state?” Whatever you can hold with the preservation of your fidelity and honor. But if, by desiring to be useful to that, you lose these, of what use can you be to your country when you are become faithless and void of shame.

25. Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

26. The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, “This is a human accident.” but if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is presently, “Alas I how wretched am I!” But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.

27. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

28. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

29. In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war. Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too. Consider first, man, what the matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher? That you can eat and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, don’t come here; don’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.

30. Duties are universally measured by relations. Is anyone a father? If so, it is implied that the children should take care of him, submit to him in everything, patiently listen to his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is you naturally entitled, then, to a good father? No, only to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, keep your own situation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature. For another will not hurt you unless you please. You will then be hurt when you think you are hurt. In this manner, therefore, you will find, from the idea of a neighbor, a citizen, a general, the corresponding duties if you accustom yourself to contemplate the several relations.

31. Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them, as existing “I and as governing the universe with goodness and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is not possible for this to be effected any other way than by withdrawing yourself from things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son, when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children, revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.

32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don’t, therefore, bring either desire or aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you., of whatever sort it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder; then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned. When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the diviner should forewarn you that the victims are unfavorable, this means no more than that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering him.

33. Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

Don’t allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

Avoid public and vulgar entertainments; but, if ever an occasion calls you to them, keep your attention upon the stretch, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners. For be assured that if a person be ever so sound himself, yet, if his companion be infected, he who converses with him will be infected likewise.

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

As far as possible, before marriage, keep yourself pure from familiarities with women, and, if you indulge them, let it be lawfully.” But don’t therefore be troublesome and full of reproofs to those who use these liberties, nor frequently boast that you yourself don’t.

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ” He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

It is not necessary for you to appear often at public spectacles; but if ever there is a proper occasion for you to be there, don’t appear more solicitous for anyone than for yourself; that is, wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from declamations and derision and violent emotions. And when you come away, don’t discourse a great deal on what has passed, and what does not contribute to your own amendment. For it would appear by such discourse that you were immoderately struck with the show.

Go not [of your own accord] to the rehearsals of any
authors , nor appear [at them] readily. But, if you do appear, keepyour gravity and sedateness, and at the same time avoid being morose.

When you are going to confer with anyone, and particularly of those in a superior station, represent to yourself how Socrates or Zeno would behave in such a case, and you will not be at a loss to make a proper use of whatever may occur.

When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you; that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say [to yourself], ” It was not worth so much.” For this is vulgar, and like a man dazed by external things.

In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance. Approaches to indecent discourse are likewise dangerous. Whenever, therefore, anything of this sort happens, if there be a proper opportunity, rebuke him who makes advances that way; or, at least, by silence and blushing and a forbidding look, show yourself to be displeased by such talk.

34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.

35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?

36. As the proposition, “Either it is day or it is night,” is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.

37. If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.

38. When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

39. The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

40. Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of “mistresses” by the men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place ill their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of decent, modest and discreet behavior.

41. It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be long in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally and slightly, and our whole attention be engaged in the care of the understanding.

42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”

43. Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

44. These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don’t say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don’t say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.

46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

47. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small price, don’t pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every occasion, “I drink water.” But first consider how much more sparing and patient of hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don’t grasp statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and spurt it out and tell nobody.

48. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

49. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I don’t understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret them.” So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.

50. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

51. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

“Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”

“I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.”
Euripides, Frag. 965

And this third:

“0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.”
Plato’s Crito and Apology

Link: "Useless Knowledge" by Bertrand Russell

Francis Bacon, a man who rose to eminence by betraying his friends, asserted, no doubt as one of the ripe lessons of experience, that ‘knowledge is power’. But this is not true of all knowledge. Sir Thomas Browne wished to know what song the sirens sang, but if he had ascertained this it would not have enabled him to rise from being a magistrate to being High Sheriff of his county. The sort of knowledge that Bacon had in mind was that which we call scientific. In emphasising the importance of science, he was belatedly carrying on the tradition of the Arabs and the early Middle Ages, according to which knowledge consisted mainly of astrology, alchemy, and pharmacology, all of which were branches of science. A learned man was one who, having mastered these studies, had acquired magical powers. In the early eleventh century, Pope Silvester II, for no reason except that he read books, was universally believed to be a magician in league with the devil. Prospero, who in Shakespeare’s time was a mere phantasy, represented what had been for centuries the generally received conception of a learned man, so far at least as his powers of sorcery were concerned. Bacon believed – rightly, as we now know – that science could provide a more powerful magician’s wand than any that had been dreamed of by the necromancers of former ages.

The renaissance, which was at its height in England at the time of Bacon, involved a revolt against the utilitarian conception of knowledge. The Greeks had acquired a familiarity with Homer, as we do with music hall songs, because they enjoyed him, and without feeling that they were engaged in the pursuit of learning. But the men of the sixteenth century could not begin to understand him without first absorbing a very considerable amount of linguistic erudition. They admired the Greeks, and did not wish to be shut out from their pleasures; they therefore copied them, both in reading the classics and in other less avowable ways. Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making. And this was true not only of literature, but also of sterner studies. Everyone knows the story of Hobbes’s first contact with Euclid: opening the book, by chance, at the theorem of Pythagoras, he exclaimed, ‘By God, this is impossible’, and proceeded to read the proofs backwards until, reaching the axioms, he became convinced. No one can doubt that this was for him a voluptuous moment, unsullied by the thought of the utility of geometry in measuring fields.

It is true that the renaissance found a practical use for the ancient languages in connection witht heology. One of the earliest results of the new feeling for classical Latin was the discrediting of the forged decretals and the donation of Constantine. The inaccuracies which were discovered in the Vulgate and the Septuagint made Greek and Hebrew a necessary part of the controversial equipment of Protestant divines. The republican maxims of Greece and Rome we’re invoked to justify the resistance of Puritans to the Stuarts and of Jesuits to monarchs who had thrown off allegiance to the Pope. But all this was an effect, rather than a cause, of the revival of classical learning which had been in full swing in Italy for nearly a century before Luther.T he main motive for the renaissance was mental delight, the restoration of a certain richness and freedom in art and speculation which had been lost while ignorance and superstition kept the mind’s eye in blinkers.

The Greeks, it was found, had devoted a part of their attention to matters not purely literary or artistic, such as philosophy, geometry, and astronomy. These studies, therefore, were respectable, but other sciences were more open to question. Medicine, it was true, was dignified by the names of Hippocrates and Galen; but in the intervening period it had become almost confined to Arabs and Jews, and inextricably intertwined with magic. Hence the dubious reputation of such men as Paracelsus. Chemistry was in even worse odour, and hardly became respectable until the eighteenth century.

In this way it was brought about that knowledge of Greek and Latin, with a smattering of geometry and perhaps astronomy, came to be considered the intellectual equipment of a gentleman. The Greeks disdained the practical applications of geometry, and it was only in their decadence that they found a use for astronomy in the guise of astrology. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,in the main, studied mathematics with Hellenic disinterestedness, and tended to ignore the sciences which had been degraded by their connection with sorcery. A gradual change towards a wider and more practical conception of knowledge, which was going on throughout the eighteenth century, was suddenly accelerated at the end of that period by the French Revolution and the growth of machinery, of which the former gave a blow to gentlemanly culture while the latter offered new and astonishing scope for the exercise of ungentlemanly skill. Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, men have questioned more and more vigorously the value of ‘useless’ knowledge, and have come increasingly to believe that the only knowledge worth having is that which is applicable to some part of the economic life of the community.

In countries such as France and England, which have a traditional educational system, theu tilitarian view of knowledge has only partially prevailed. There are still, for example, professors of Chinese in the universities who read the Chinese classics but are unacquainted with the works of Sun Yat-sen, which created modern China. There are still men who know ancient history insofar as it was related by authors whose style was pure, that is to say up to Alexander in Greece and Nero in Rome, but refuse to know the much more important later history because of the literary inferiority of the historians who related it. Even in France and England, however, the old tradition is dying, and in more up to date countries, such as Russia and the United States, it is utterly extinct. In America, for example, educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. Basic English, a British invention, goes still further, and reduces the necessary vocabulary to eight hundred words. The conception of speech as something capable of aesthetic value is dying out, and it is coming to be thought that the sole purpose of words is to convey practical information. In Russia the pursuit of practical aims is even more whole-hearted than in America: all that is taught in educational institutions is intended to serve some obvious purpose in education or government. The only escape is afforded by theology: the sacred scriptures must be studied by some in the original German, and a few professors must learn philosophy in order to defend dialectical materialism against the criticism of , bourgeois metaphysicians. But as orthodoxy becomes more firmly established, even this tiny loophole will be closed.

Knowledge, everywhere, is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or as a means of creating a broad and humane outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. This is part of the greater integration of society which has been brought about by scientific technique and military necessity. There is more economic and political interdependence than there was informer times, and therefore there is more social pressure to compel a man to live in a way that his neighbours think useful. Educational establishments, except those for the very rich, or (in England) such as have become invulnerable through antiquity, are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. This is part and parcel of the same movement which has led to compulsory military service, boy scouts, the organisation of political parties, and the dissemination of political passion by the Press. We are all more aware of our fellow-citizens than we used to be, more anxious, if we are virtuous, to do them good, and in any case to make them do us good.We do not like to think of anyone lazily enjoying life, however refined may be the quality of his enjoyment. We feel that everybody ought to be doing something to help on the great cause(whatever it may be), the more so as so many bad men are working against it and ought to be stopped. We have not leisure of mind, therefore, to acquire any knowledge except such as will helpus in the fight for whatever it may happen to be that we think important.

There is much to be said for the narrowly utilitarian view of education. There is not time to learn everything before beginning to make a living, and undoubtedly ‘useful’ knowledge is very useful.It has made the modern world. Without it, we should not have machines or motor-cars or railways or aeroplanes; it should be added that we should not have modern advertising or modern propaganda. Modem knowledge has brought about an immense improvement in average health,and at the same time has discovered how to exterminate large cities by poison gas. Whatever is distinctive of our world as compared with former times, has its source in useful’ knowledge. Nocommunity as yet has enough of it, and undoubtedly education must continue to promote it.

It must also be admitted that a great deal of the traditional cultural education was foolish. Boys spent many years acquiring Latin and Greek grammar, without being, at the end, either capable or desirous (except in a small percentage of cases) of reading a Greek or Latin author. Modern languages and history are preferable, from every point of view, to Latin and Greek. They are not only more useful, but they give much more culture in much less time. For an Italian of the fifteenth century, since practically everything worth reading, if not in his own language, was in Greek or Latin, these languages were the indispensable keys to culture. But since that time great literatures have grown up in various modern languages, and the development of civilisation has been so rapid that knowledge of antiquity has become much less useful in understanding our problems than knowledge of modern nations and their comparatively recent history. The traditional schoolmaster’s point of view, which was admirable at the time of the revival of learning, became gradually unduly narrow, since it ignored what the world has done since the fifteenth century. And not only history and modern languages, but science also, when properly taught, contributes to culture. It is therefore possible to maintain that education should have other aims than direct utility, without defending the traditional curriculum. Utility and culture,when both are conceived broadly, are found to be less incompatible than they appear to the fanatical advocates of either.

Apart, however, from the cases in which culture and direct utility can be combined, there is in direct utility, of various different kinds, in the possession of knowledge which does not contribute to technical efficiency. I think some of the worst features of the modern world could be improved by a greater encouragement of such knowledge and a less ruthless pursuit of mere professional competence.

When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder.The men who directed German policy during the war made mistakes, for example, as regards the submarine campaign which brought America on to the side of the Allies, which any person coming fresh to the subject could have seen to be unwise, but which they could not judge sanely owing to mental concentration and lack of holidays. The same sort of thing may be seen wherever bodies of men attempt tasks which put a prolonged strain upon spontaneous impulses. Japanese imperialists, Russian Communists, and German Nazis all have a kind of tense fanaticism which comes of living too exclusively in the mental world of certain tasks to be accomplished. When the tasks are as important and as feasible as the fanatics suppose, the result may be magnificent; but in most cases narrowness of outlook has caused oblivion of some powerful counteracting force, or has made all such forces seem the work of the devil, to be met by punishment and terror. Men as well as children have need of play, that is to say, of periods of activity having no purpose beyond present enjoyment. But if play is to serve its purpose, it must be possible to find pleasure and interest in matters not connected with work.

The amusements of modern urban populations tend more and more to be passive and collective,and to consist of inactive observation of the skilled activities of others. Undoubtedly such amusements are much better than none, but they are not as good as would be those of a population which had, through education,a wider range of intelligent interests not connected with work.Better economic organization, allowing mankind to benefit by the productivity of machines,should lead to a very great increase of leisure, and much leisure is apt to be tedious except to those who have considerable intelligent activities and interests. If a leisured population is to be happy, it must be an educated population, and must be educated with a view to mental enjoyment as well to the direct usefulness of technical knowledge.

The cultural element in the acquisition of knowledge, when it is successfully assimilated, forms the character of a man’s thoughts and desires, making them concern themselves, in part at least, with large impersonal objects, not only with matters of immediate importance to himself. It has been too readily assumed that, when a man has acquired certain capacities by means of knowledge, he will use them in ways that are socially beneficial. The narrowly utilitarian conception of education ignores the necessity of training a man’s purposes ns well as his skill. There is in untrained human nature a very considerable element of cruelty, which shows itself in many ways, great and small.Boys at school tend to be unkind to a new boy, or to one whose clothes are not quite conventional.Many women (and not a few men) inflict as much pain as they can by means of malicious gossip. The Spaniards enjoy bull-fights; the British enjoy hunting and shooting. The same cruel impulses take more serious forms in the hunting of Jews in Germany and kulaks in Russia. All imperialism affords scope for them, and in war they become sanctified as the highest form of public duty.

Now it must be admitted that highly educated people are sometimes cruel, I think there can be no doubt that they are less often so than people whose minds have lain fallow. The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ringleaders are almost invariably very ignorant men. This is not because mental cultivation produces positive humanitarian feelings, though it may do so; it is rather because it gives other interests than the ill-treatment of neighbours, and other sources of self-respect than the assertion of domination. The two things most universally desired are power and admiration.Ignorant men can, as a rule, only achieve either by brutal means, involving the acquisition of physical mastery. Culture gives a man less harmful forms of power and more deserving ways of making himself admired. Galileo did more than any monarch has done to change the world, and his power immeasurably exceeded that of his persecutors. He had therefore no need to aim at becoming a persecutor in his turn. Perhaps the most important advantage of ‘useless’ knowledge is that it promotes a contemplative habit of mind. There is in the world too much readiness, not only for action without adequate previous reflection, but also for some sort of action on occasions on which wisdom would counsel inaction. People show their bias on this matter in various curious ways. Mephistopheles tells the young student that theory is grey but the tree of life is green, and everyone quotes this as if it were Goethe’s opinion, instead of what he supposes the devil would be likely to say to an undergraduate. Hamlet is held up as an awful warning against thought without action, but no one holds up Othello as a warning against action without thought. Professors such as Bergson, from a kind of snobbery towards the practical man, decry philosophy, and say that life at its best should resemble a cavalry charge. For my part, I think action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion. A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity in misfortune and peace of mind among worries. A life confined to what is personal is likely, sooner or later, to become unbearably painful;it is only by windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos that the more tragic parts of life become endurable.

A contemplative habit of mind has advantages ranging from the most trivial to the most profound. To begin with minor vexations, such as fleas, missing trains, or cantankerous business associates. Such troubles seem hardly worthy to be met by reflections on the excellence of heroism or the transitoriness of all human ills, and yet the irritation to which they give rise destroys many people’s good temper and enjoyment of life. On such occasions, there is much consolation to be found in out of the way bits of knowledge which have some real or fancied connection with the trouble of the moment; or even if they have none, they serve to obliterate the present fromone’s thoughts. When assailed by people who are white with fury, it is pleasant to remember the chapter in Descartes’ Treatise on the Passions entitled ‘Why those who grow pale with rage are more to be feared than those who grow red.’ When one feels impatient over the difficulty of securing international co-operation, one’s impatience is diminished if one happens to think of the sainted King Louis IX, before embarking on his crusade, allying himself with the Old Man of the Mountain, who appears in the Arabian Nights as the dark source of half the wickedness in the world. When the rapacity of capitalists grows oppressive, one may be suddenly consoled by the recollection that Brutus, that exemplar of republican virtue, lent money to acity at 40 per cent, and hired a private army to besiege it when it failed to pay the interest.

Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant. I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin source as the word ‘precocious’, because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

About a hundred years ago, a number of well-meaning philanthropists started societies `for the diffusion of useful knowledge’, with the result that people have ceased to appreciate the delicious savour of ‘useless’ knowledge. Opening Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy at haphazard on a daywhen I was threatened by that mood, I learnt that there is a ‘melancholy matter’, but that, while some think it may be engendered of all four humours, ‘Galen holds that it may be engendered of three alone, excluding phlegm or pituita, whose true assertion Valerius and Menardus stiffly maintain, and so doth Fuscius, Montaltus, Montanus. How (say they) can white become black?’ In spite of this unanswerable argument, Hercules de Saxonia and Cardan, Guianerius and Laurentius, are (so Burton tells us) of the opposite opinion. Soothed by these historical reflections,my melancholy, whether due to three humours or to four, was dissipated. As a cure for too much zeal, I can imagine a few measures more effective thana course of such ancient controversies.

But while the trivial pleasures of culture have their place as a relief from the trivial worries of practical life, the more important merits of contemplation are in relation to the greater evils of life, death and pain and cruelty, and the blind march of nations in to unnecessary disaster. For those to whom dogmatic religion can no longer bring comfort, there is need of some substitute, if life is not to become dusty and harsh and filled with trivial self-assertion. The world at present is full of angry self-centred groups, each incapable of viewing human life as a whole, each willing to destroy civilization rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote. The antidote, in so far as it is a matter of individual psychology, is to be found in history, biology, astronomy, and all those studies which, without destroying self-respect, enable the individual to see himself in his proper perspective. What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such knowledge as inspires a conception of the ends of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos — all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs.

Life, at all times full of pain, is more painful in our time than in the two centuries that preceded it. The attempt to escape from pain drives men to triviality, to self-deception, to the invention of vast collective myths. But these momentary alleviations do but increase the sources of suffering in the long run. Both private and public misfortune can only be mastered by a process in which will and intelligence interact: the part of will is to refuse to shirk the evil or accept an unreal solution,while the part of intelligence is to understand it, to find a cure if it is curable, and, if not, to make it bearable by seeing it in its relations, accepting it as unavoidable, and remembering what lies outside it in other regions, other ages, and the abysses of interstellar space.

Link: About the Intelligence of Bees

The other day, Ken and I had coffee with a couple of philosophers who spend their time thinking about philosophy of the mind.  What is consciousness?  Do non-human organisms have consciousness?  What is intelligence?  How do we make decisions?  What about ants?  These are hard questions to answer, perhaps even unanswerable, but they are fascinating to think about.

Our meeting was occasioned by the recent paper in PNAS about the mental map of bees (“Way-finding in displaced clock-shifted bees proves bees use a cognitive map”, Cheeseman et al.).  Cognitive maps are mental representations of physical places, which mammals use to navigate their surroundings.  Insects clearly have ways to do the same; whether or not they do it with cognitive maps is the question.

The “computational theory of mind” is the predominant theory of how mammals think — the brain is posited to be an information processing system, and thinking is the brain computing, or processing information (though, whether this is ‘truth’ or primarily a reflection of the computer age isn’t clear, at least to us).  In vertebrates some at least of this takes place in the section called the hippocampus, or in non-vertebrates in some neurological  homologs.  But, what do insects do?  

Previous work has shown that captured insects, once released, often fly off in the compass direction in which they were headed when they were caught, even if they were moved during capture and the direction is no longer appropriate.  But, they then can correct themselves, and then have no problem locating their hives. That indicates that they’ve got some kind of an “integrated metric map” of their environment.

Some theories have held that they mark the location of the sun relative to the direction they take and then later calculate ‘home’ based on a computation of time and the motion of the sun.  This by itself would be a lot of sophisticated computing, or thinking….and why not ‘intelligence’?

Cheeseman et al. asked whether instead what they are relying on is a series of snapshots of their environment, which enables them to recognize different landmarks, one after the other as they come into view, rather than a completely integrated mental map.  They experimented with anesthetizing bees and shifting their sense of time, so that they couldn’t rely on the sun to get them home.  It took some flying for the bees to recognize that they were off-course, but they always were able to re-orient themselves and get back to the hive.

Cheeseman et al. conclude that that because bees don’t rely entirely on a sun-compass for their sense of direction, they must have the apian equivalent of a cognitive map.  That is, they collect relevant spatial information from the environment with which they navigate, and use it to make decisions about how to get where they are going. That is, they take and file away snapshots; remember that insect eyes are complex, including two compound eyes and in most species three forehead-located small, simpler ocelli so this is synthesizing a many-camera pixellation and differently sensitive integration of the light-world. Then, they use a sequence of these frames, later, from a different position from that at which the photos were taken so not all landmarks might even be visible, and at a different time, which can affect shadows, colors, and so on.  Then, tiling these lined up in reverse order in mirror left-right flipped order somehow, and adjusting their angles of perspective and so on, also perhaps sound, wind direction, and even perhaps monitoring the olfactory trail (also in reverse relative position) like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, they head home for dinner.

To us, this is a remarkable feat for their small brains!  For some of us, even with a human brain, finding one’s way home without a GPS is no easy task, and deserves a nice cold drink when done successfully.  However, the philosophers we were chatting about this with did not think what Cheeseman et al. believe they discovered about bees should be called a cognitive map because, and we think we’ve got this right, they haven’t got a mental image of the entire lay of the land.  Instead it’s as though they are connecting the dots; they recognize landmarks and go from one mental snapshot with a familiar landmark to the next. So what kind of ‘intelligence’ this is becomes a definitional question perhaps.  Call it mechanical or whatever you want, we would call this ‘intelligent’ behavior.

We don’t know enough about philosophy (or the biology) of the mind to know how significantly these two models differ, or whether ‘consciousness’ is subtly underlying how these judgments about cognition are made, but in any case, that’s not what interested us about the bee story.  What is the experience of being a bee?  Whichever kind of imaging and processing they do to navigate, how do they turn the locational information into action?  It’s one thing to know that your hive is east (or the apian equivalent) of the pine tree, but getting there requires “knowing” that after you’ve collected the nectar, you then want to bring it home, and that means you have to find your way there.  Your mental map, whatever it consists of, must be made operational.  How does thathappen, in a brain the size of a bee’s? Or an ant’s?

Or bird brains?  Crows, corvids, are considered among the smartest of birds.  Their problem solving skills have been documented by a number of researchers, but crows have fascinated many non-scientists as well, including our son, who sent this observation from Lake Thun in Switzerland.

Crow found a little paper cup with some dried out dregs of leftover ketchup in the bottom. This is the sort of little paper condiment cup that would come with some french fries. We watched the crow try a couple of times to scrape some ketchup out with his beak, holding the cup down with his foot. It apparently wasn’t working enough to his satisfaction, so he flew with the cup to the edge of the water (we were at the lake). He wanted to get the ketchup wet to “hydrate” it, to make it easier to scoop out. That was impressive enough, but what he did next was even more. There were little waves lapping on the “shore” (this was actually in a harbour and the shore was concrete) and each time threatening to carry away his cup. So he picked up the cup and carried it along up and down the shore until he found a little crevasse in the concrete that he could secure the cup, and let the water wash over it without taking it away. Clever.

If that’s not intelligence, it’s hard to know what it is, then.

One view of intelligence is that it’s what’s measured by IQ tests.  Or, at least, what humans think ‘thinking’ is all about.  But this is perhaps a very parochial view.  We tend to dismiss the kind of intricate brainwork that is required by nonverbal activities, or by athletes, or artists, or artisans.  We tend to equate intelligence with verbal kinds of skills measured on tests devised by the literate segments of society who are using the results to screen for various kinds of western-culture activities, suitability for school, and the like. There’s no reason to suggest that those aspects of brainware are not relevant to society, but it is our culturally chosen sort of definition.

Philosophers and perhaps most psychologists might not want to credit the crow with ‘intelligence’, or they may use the word but exclude concepts of perceptual consciousness—though whether there are adequate grounds for that that are not entirely based on our own experience as the defining one, isn’t clear (to us, at least).  In any case, wiring and behavior are empirically observable, but experience much less so, and consciousness as a component of brain activity, and perhaps of intelligence, remains elusive because it’s a subjective experience while science is a method for exploring the empirical, and in that sense objective world.

If bees and, indeed, very tiny insects can navigate around searching the environment, having ideas about ‘home’, finding mates, recognizing food and dangers, and they can do it with thousands rather than billions of neurons, at present we haven’t enough understanding of what ‘thinking’ is, much less ‘intelligence’, to know what goes through a bee’s or a crow’s mind when they’re exploring their world….