Sunday, September 14, 2014

Summer of Discontent: Ruminations on a Hundred Years of the Same-Old, Same-Old

This past August 1st marked one hundred years since the beginning of World War I. What might have remained a squabble between an empire (Austro-Hungary) and a minor neighboring state (Serbia) set into motion the domino train of mutual defense treaties that led to a world war – the first world war – the first of two world wars.

I’ve been hearing a lot this summer about airplanes, surface to air missiles, bombing raids, hostile crossings of borders into neighboring territory. This summer began with the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine by, presumptively, Russian backed pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. It also saw the brutal and destructive Israeli response to the Palestinian response to the Israeli settler’s response to the suspected Palestinian killing of three Israeli teenagers in June (which was itself a likely response to yet something else egregious done by Israel or Israelis, etc., etc., etc.). As this summer draws to a close, President Obama declared the US and its usual allies[1] will respond to the rise of a presumptive new Caliphate (ISIL) in what we call the Middle East with bombing raids wherever necessary. What links these events to World War I?

Irredentism and revanchism. These are 20th Century concepts many of us thought could safely be relegated to the surely-we’ve-outgrown-these-horrid-practices dustbin. Clearly, such relegation, and the optimism which supported it, was premature.

Irredentism refers to the practice of justifying unilateral reshaping of borders according to the ethnic or nationalist connections between disparate populations contained across those borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an excellent example. Ethnic Russians live there. Russia should extend to wherever there are ethnic Russians. Therefore, Russia should extend to include Crimea. But there reside also nationalist Ukrainians, so one nation’s solution to inadequate borders in irredentist terms recreates the very problem for those who were thereby severed from their own national community. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI and the expansion of the German nation ahead of WWII were both expressions of irredentist claims to national unity, liberation or reunification. Borders, ever again a problem.

Revanchism (best pronounced with a hint of French inflection) refers to the practice of justifying the reclamation of lost territory, in a kind of national avenging. The challenge with revanchism is that it relies on the fiction that there is an identifiable prior settled state of affairs which has been upset in the seizure of territory by a neighbour. It also relies on the fiction that such action can heal, compensate for, or unproblematically reunify wrongly severed peoples and places. Here, the Israel-Palestine conflict serves as a perfect example of revanchism in action and of the tragedy of its pursuit. On both sides, the motivation is to regain territory taken by others. For the Israelis, it is the ancient loss of Judea, Samaria and all the rest of Greater Israel. For the Palestinians, it is the more recent run of generations of mutual and reciprocal territorial incursion, occupation, annexation, and settlement that is the legacy of the UN’s effort to compensate a people for one tragedy (the Shoah inflicted upon the Jews in Europe by Germany) by imposing a parallel tragedy on another people (the Nakba inflicted by the UN carving up British Mandate Palestine to create Israel).  Not surprisingly both terms, Shoah and Nakba, refer to the same existential catastrophe of a people being destroyed by the aspirations of another.

What this exposes is, I think, the inherent fragility of national borders and the feeling of charade we play whenever we demand that borders should be here or there or none at all.  I think it also has to do with the appeal of appealing to democratic self-determination by peoples who cannot stand each other, never have, and don’t want to continue pretending that they do. There will always be some excluded “us” trapped unjustly behind the borders with “them”.

It’s not like this problem is uniquely a Russian and Ukrainian or an Israeli and Palestinian problem…. Pick a border from any map and there you will find that border contested by some political community. Neither is it a problem of states that have recently undergone dissolution, like the USSR or Yugoslavia, or resolution, like Germany. Well, there might be one border not in dispute… the US-Canada border (though some Americans still claim manifest destiny, and some Canadians still rue the 54-40 Agreement). Ok, perhaps two such borders… add the Czech-Slovak border, which was an internal regional border made into a national border creating two new states from the old.

Clearly borders are a problem, mere lines on maps, a collective fiction. But they are also lines in the collective imagination, in the definition of a people, and in the very real actions which either affirm belonging or sting with exclusion. In the nation state, we find the curious and increasingly unstable blending of a geo-political entity with an ethno-cultural entity and healthy dose of nationalist ideology. A people in a place. A unified people in a unified place. The appeal is understandable, but the practice is troubling.

What makes a border worth respecting? As US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, recently scolded her Russian counterpart, “borders are not suggestions.”[2] But what are they, then, if not suggestions of limits, to some, and opportunity, to others? How to ensure they are not mere suggestions against an ill-tempered neighbour who believes there are compatriot nationals or fellow folk on the other side of the border clamouring for liberty or reunion and just a little bit of help?

As Cara Nine astutely asks, "If we don’t understand why territorial rights are justified in a general, principled form, then how do we know that they can be justified in any particular solution to a dispute?"[3]

This may just be the defining political question of the 21st Century. We’d better get better at answering it, lest this 21st Century become too much more a repetition of the 20th.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Including UK, Canada, France, and Germany among increasing numbers of others. Interestingly, Iran may join the coalition.
[2] US Mission to the UN, Briefing Room Statements, transcript of remarks delivered to the UN Security Council, April 13, 2014. Available at Last Accessed 14 Sept, 2014.
[3] Cara Nine, Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Divine Action in a Deterministic World

It is often suggested that unless there are gaps in our ability to give a natural explanation for an event, we cannot attribute that event to God’s agency. We see this assumption working in the traditional view of miracles, by which a miracle is understood as a violation of natural law.  The laws of nature say that one cannot walk on water; if someone walks on water, then this must be the doing of God, a supernatural agent.

Notice that belief in miracles, as violations of natural law, requires us to deny determinism.  Determinism is the view that everything that occurs in the natural world is a function of the state of the world in the past, together with the laws of nature.

Some theologians are uncomfortable with this picture of divine agency.  They want to say that God acts in the world, but are reluctant to admit that there are ever any violations of natural law.

Now this does not seem particularly difficult when it comes to God’s general agency, as that is represented by God’s creation and conservation of the universe.   But things get a bit more complicated when it comes to special divine agency.  What is that?  We might say, with Alvin Plantinga [1], that it is any activity on God’s part that is not identified with his general agency.  God’s special agency is represented in things that God does at particular times and for particular purposes, e.g. the parting of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews can escape the Egyptians.  Miracles are an example.

We may notice a certain tension here.  God’s general agency involves God’s conservation of the natural world, which must involve his conserving the laws by which that world operates.  But if God’s special agency requires him to violate these laws, it also implies a failure on God’s part to conserve the order of nature.  We might be forgiven for seeing a kind of contradiction here.

If this concern has any weight, then it would be nice to find some way of making special divine agency compatible with natural law.

To resolve this tension, some philosophers— I will refer to them as “quantum theologians”— have appealed to the principles of quantum mechanics.  Some of the events that occur at the subatomic level are non-deterministic.  For example, atoms sometimes emit light waves, but we can predict this behavior only probabilistically. There is some contemporary argument to the effect that the traditional miracles may not be violations of natural law at all, but may be manifestations of strange goings-on at the subatomic level [2].

Notice that the quantum theologians cling to the idea that special divine agency requires the world to be non-deterministic.  They hope to exploit the possibility that a non-deterministic view of the world is compatible with science.

I think quantum theology is confused for a number of reasons, but space permits me only one objection here.  I wish to deny that special divine agency requires us to suppose that the world is non-deterministic.

Let us suppose that determinism is true, and that everything that occurs in nature is a function of the state of the universe in the past, together with the (non-probabilistic) laws of nature.  Let us then consider the implications of this for human agency.  Many philosophers would say that humans cannot be held morally responsible for what they do in a deterministic world, but few would insist that determinism rules out the possibility of human action entirely.

So for example, if I intentionally light a cigar after dinner one evening, this is an instance of agency on my part.  Furthermore it seems to fall under the category of what we are calling special agency.  I am not capable of the sort of general agency that is attributed by theists to God, so it’s hard to see what else it could be.  The lighting of my cigar is something done by an agent— me— at a particular time and for a particular purpose.

Now consider a purported instance of divine agency. Suppose, for example, a child in a toy motor-car is stuck on a railroad track with a train approaching.  Because of a curve in the track, the engineer will be unable to see the child until it is too late to stop the train.  The child’s mother sees what is about to happen and cries out to God to save her baby.  At that moment, the engineer faints, releasing his grip on the control lever, and the train comes harmlessly to a stop [3]. If determinism is true, then the fainting of the engineer, and subsequent stopping of the train, has been in the cards since the beginning of the universe.  Yet there seems to be nothing standing in the way of describing this as an action on the part of God; the child’s mother may describe what has happened as an answer to her prayer. 

Of course, the stopping of the train is in conformity with natural law.  This might lead us to deny that it is a miracle. But that is not what is at issue here.  Are there any grounds for the claim that, because this event was determined to occur, it cannot be an instance of special divine agency?  I don’t see that there are. 

It is true that this event has a natural explanation.  But, under the deterministic hypothesis, my lighting of my cigar also has a natural explanation.  Yet we still describe this as an action on my part. If human agency is possible in a deterministic world, then special divine agency is, too.

It is possible that the universe is not deterministic, and that subatomic phenomena of the kind that interest the quantum theologians are not determined to occur.  But a commitment to special divine agency does not require either of these claims to be true.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


[1]  Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism; Chapter 3, Kindle p. 68, loc 1082; Oxford University Press, Oxford

[2] See for example Bradley Monton (2012), “God Acts in the Quantum World,” Chapter 7 in Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Volume V; Clarendon Press, Oxford

[3] This example comes from R.F. Holland (1965), "The Miraculous," American Philosophical Quarterly 2:43-51  Holland hoped to argue that the stopping of the train can be described as a miracle.  My argument does not require me to defend this claim.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Campaign Finance Mess

Most concerned voters regard the Citizens United v. FEC decision (2010) as a disaster for our already beleaguered electoral process because it allows corporations – not just individuals – to donate to political campaigns. Not content to leave the matter there, the Supreme Court did further damage earlier this year in McCutcheon v. FEC which eliminated any upper limit on how much a given donor – individual or corporation – can contribute to political campaigns in a given election period.

Unfortunately, many folks have reacted to these decisions in the wrong way: they regard the villain of the piece as the Court’s much earlier holding (late 19th century) that corporations are legal persons and therefore entitled to some of the same constitutional rights as natural persons. This reaction misses the real point of the court-majority’s opinion. The core idea of their argument – made clear in a long series of cases - is their claim that there is no constitutional requirement that the electoral process be fair. They reject outright the idea that voters have a right to a (more or less) level playing field in elections. Here is Chief Justice Roberts quizzing attorneys for the state of Arizona during oral argument over a 2011 case involving campaign finance:
I checked the Citizen’s Clean Elections Commission website this morning, and it says that this act was passed to, quote, ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to running for office. Why isn’t that clear evidence that it’s unconstitutional?” So much for the century-long effort of liberals and progressives to accomplish that democratic goal.
In this context, the attack on corporate personhood is a red herring. Of course corporations are not natural persons; that is a necessary truth. Corporations are creations of a legal system and could not exist without it. And they lack many of the essential properties of a natural person, among them, they don’t have their own ideas, make their own choices, feel regret over their unsuccessful investments and cannot be thrown in jail. But that said, it does not follow that corporations cannot legitimately possess some kinds of legal rights. Indeed, they could not function without legal rights to make contracts, own property, sue other corporations, etc. But it does not follow by any stretch that because they have some legal rights they must have all the legal rights of natural persons, including the right to contribute to political campaigns.

Clifford Anderson
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, August 10, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part 2 of 2)

L: I suppose you won’t accept the claim that the genesis of marriage is relevantly similar to the genesis of the daddy-daughter date?

R: Doesn’t that claim commit you to controversial views in theology or human evolutionary biology?

L: All it requires is that, just as one or more persons invented daddy-daughter dates as an inherently different-sex institution, whoever invented marriage did so as an inherently different-sex institution.

R: But how do you know that whoever invented marriage did not intend it to be a more general and gender-neutral institution, like the “parent-child outing” I mentioned?

L: Human history? I think we had a consensus—about marriage being a different-sex institution—that was, if not unanimous, at least so ancient and widespread that even cultures most celebratory of homoerotic desire did not question that marriage was a different-sex institution, even when their most creative thinkers were willing to abolish or change that institution in countless other respects (as in Plato’s Republic). The cracks in this consensus are a recent local flash in the pan.

L: We can’t infer from what was historical to what is right.

R: Agreed, but your question was about what was intended by whoever invented marriage.


R: But—here is a related worry—I think that perhaps we are in a different boat on this matter than we were even just a few years ago.

L: How so?

R: To ask whether marriage is an inherently different-sex institution these days is like asking whether Utah should refused admittance to the United States. That ship has already sailed, right? Some places have already decided that marriage is not an inherently different-sex institution.

L: Well, consider this: what do you think a son would say if his father told him they were going on a daddy-daughter date together today? And if the father said this after an uncountably long phase of going on daddy-daughter dates and father-son adventures, and after the other families in the community had noticed these institutions and adopted them as well? What would the son say to his father’s announcement?

R: I suppose the boy would laugh. Then he would attempt to correct his dad: “you mean we’re going on a father-son adventure, right, dad?”
L: What if dad replied “I know we used to go on those. We still can if we want to. But I overheard a few of the neighbors last night took their boys on daddy-daughter dates for the first time. I figured that if they can do it, so can we.”

R: Ah, I see. The boy would say “the neighbors are confused. They can’t take sons on a daddy-daughter date just like they can’t take moms on a father-son adventure. They can say what they want, but you and I need not be confused.”

L: I would not put it quite that way about marriage. But the gist of the son’s response seems correct in his case. The father is viewing a decision whose coherence is dubious to begin with as if it’s a coherent and exemplary feat.


R: I’m not persuaded by that last response. But I’ve felt there is something unfair about comparing marriage to daddy-daughter dates, and I think I just realized what.

L: What?

R: The complex title “daddy-daughter date” has a grammar that presents its different sexes fairly explicitly. But the lone word “marriage” doesn’t. It’s too bad for you that whoever invented marriage didn’t use a complex title like “man-and-wife marriage” or “male-and-female marriage.”

L: And it’s too bad for us all that the makers of dictionaries didn’t arrange the entries alphabetically by their definitions so we could look up the words.

R: You would not read much into the fact that the word “marriage” isn’t grammatically more complex?

L: I already said that the inventors of the daddy-daughter date could have called it anything at all. Stuff’s what it is and isn’t other stuff—for reasons that are not completely at the mercy of our labels.

R: But it still seems relevant here…


L: There’s another way of looking at the last two points. Do you think professional baseball is baseball?

R: Yes...

L: Is professional soccer soccer?

R: Of course. And the same with pro basketball, pro golf…

L: And professional wrestling?

R: Hmmm….No…Professional wrestling isn’t wrestling.

L: Why not?

R: It's fake. Those guys in the ring aren’t competing. They’re acting. Sure, they’re big and strong and could whip me in a real wrestling match. Some of them may even have been (or be!) real wrestlers. But what they’re doing in that ring, with the strutting and boasting and jumping and slamming—that’s not real wrestling.

L: But it’s called “wrestling”. Indeed, “professional” wrestling. Doesn’t a professional usually mean something like the best example?

R: I suppose so. But the only “professionals” in those rings are professional actors.

L: But don’t some people who watch professional wrestling think it’s real?

R: Some do; but of course that is no proof that it is real.

L: But you see my point, right?

R: That same-sex marriage is marriage about as much as professional wrestling is wrestling?

L: I didn’t say that. You can’t always take a title at face value. And you can’t always tell where the title applies just by looking at some grammar in the title itself.

R: But if that is your point, it undercuts your argument, right? Doesn’t professional wrestling just show that words—like “wrestling”—can historically expand from a narrower meaning to a wider meaning? Why not with “marriage”?

L: Professional wrestling does show that words can expand their usage in different ways. But sometimes words—here “wrestling” and “professional”—are used to make stuff seem like what it’s not. Some things might be thought and talked about as “marriages”—by a person, group, church, or state—without really being marriages.

R: You may be unsurprised, but I am unconvinced…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part I)

Today I finished two books relevant to our culture’s ongoing discussions about marriage, equality, and marriage equality—Minimizing Marriage by Elizabeth Brake, and What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George—since I am using two related articles by these four authors in my Political Philosophy course this fall.

So I’ve got marriage equality on my mind. Or—making some assumptions—on my brain. Assume two parts of my brain—“Righty” and “Lefty”—can think and talk. (The names map—poorly—cerebral hemispheres, not the political spectrum.) Neither reflects the views of the mentioned authors, or pretends to be up to speed on the literatures concerning marriage equality. Listen and see if you can help each think better.

Righty: I believe in marriage equality.

Lefty: Me too, but it depends what you mean by it.

R: Well let’s pretend I’m a straight woman and you’re a gay man…

L: Umm…

R: …and let’s pretend we live somewhere that says marriage is only between one man and one woman…

L: Fine.

R: Then I think marriage equality means that people like you should be allowed to marry, just as people like me are.

L: But we already can.

R: No you can’t. Not here and now. Remember what we're pretending.

L: I do. If I want to marry, I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me.

R: Wait, that is not what I mean. You can’t marry someone like you—someone who is attracted to a person of the same sex.

L: Sure I can. I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me and is attracted to a person of the same sex. Elton and Ellen can marry each other just as equally as Kanye and Kim can.

R: But that is still not what I mean. Neither Elton nor Ellen can marry someone of the same sex.

L: So? Neither can Kanye or Kim.

R: But that’s different. They don’t want to marry someone of the same sex.

L: So?

R: So marriage equality means that individuals can marry each other whenever they want to.


L: If marriage equality meant that, you would be fine with polygamy and many other kinds of ‘marriages’. But you aren’t. So it doesn’t.

R: Ah, that’s a common move. Some are fine with some of those things, but let’s pretend I’m not.

L: OK…

R: I guess my view is this…Marriage means two unrelated legal adults in a consensual, exclusive, life-long—or at least long-term—romantic commitment. Marriage equality means individuals of the same sex can get married to each other, just as individuals of the opposite sex can get married to each other. What’s your view?

L: Marriage, among other things, is an inherently bisexual institution. Marriage equality, among other things, means individuals should have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Um, “bisexual”?

L: Two-sexed. Compare: a bicameral legislature has two chambers; a biracial couple represents two races. And so on.

R: But the word “bisexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. Pick other prefixes. Instead of labeling the sexual composition of institutions “bi-” and “uni-” we could label them “hetero-” and “homo-” when the sex of their members is different or the same.

L: But that makes inherently homosexual institutions out of the Boy Scouts of America and the Gay Men’s Chorus.

R: True. But not because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus, but because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus. Inherently homosexual institutions would be so labeled not because their individual members are homosexual, but because their individual members are of the same sex.

R: Again, the word “homosexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. I’m willing to use labels like “same-sex” and “different-sex” to make the point. My view is that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution. One or both individuals within it can be bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, pan-sexual, or whatever. Individuals have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Why is marriage inherently different-sex? What makes anything inherently anything?

L: I doubt I can answer the general question. But perhaps one answer to the specific question is this: there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions; and marriage is one.


R: Show me there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions.

L: Imagine a father took his young girls out for individual ice cream outings, and called these “daddy-daughter dates.”

R: Ah, I see. A daddy-daughter date is an inherently different-sex institution?

L: Yes. And even though it wasn’t contrived to be that way just by naming it with capitalized words like “An Inherently Different-sex Institution.”

R: But there’s nothing remotely sexual about this different-sex institution.

L: Right. Just as there’s nothing remotely sexual about the same-sex institution of the Boy Scouts.

R: Are you sure the daddy-daughter date is inherently different-sex?

L: Yes. When the father’s young boy reached the age for ice cream outings, they could not go on a daddy-daughter date together. They invented a similar institution and they called it a “father-son adventure” instead. Which, of course, was inherently same-sex—but not out of animus towards the daughters.

R: Could they call it a “daddy-son date” instead?

L: Indeed, they could call it anything at all.

R: Why?

L: The words we slap on these institutions do not make them different-sex or same-sex institutions any more than words like “five” and “six” make natural numbers odd or even.

R: Could they make a more general and gender-neutral institution and call it a “parent-child outing”?

L: Of course! But daddy-daughter dates, mother-son banquets, brother-sister breakfasts, and a thousand other imaginable institutions are inherently different-sex. And father-son adventures, mother-daughter empowerment trips, sister-sister flame grill barbecues, and a thousand other such institutions are inherently same-sex.


R: Let’s say I agree so far. You still haven’t shown that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution.

(This is the first of a two-part post.)

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Crying at the opera

The opera Madama Butterfly equals King Lear in the intensity and detail with which the story builds to its tragic outcome. Even the title gives a hint: “Mrs. Butterfly.” Cio-Cio San, forced into life as a geisha by the ruin of her family, believes that she is married to the handsome, callow American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton. He thinks he’s just renting her, much like the curious paper house (999-year lease with monthly opt-out clause), while he’s stationed in Japan.

Puccini presents the crushing of Cio-Cio San’s hopes with all the art he commands – and Puccini’s music is hardwired to the lacrimal glands. In Act III, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife. The devastated Cio-Cio San presents Pinkerton with their son – and then expunges her dishonor as a samurai’s daughter must.

If you’re not helplessly snot-ugly blubbering by the end there’s something wrong with you.

Why do we cry?

Because the story and the music make us sad? That can’t be right. It’s a ‘sad’ story with ‘sad’ music, to be sure. But we have no reason to feel sad; nothing bad has happened to us. Nor are we sad for Cio-Cio San. There is no ‘Cio-Cio San.’ Rather than dying of a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart, the soprano hops right up, takes a curtain call, and goes out for drinks after the performance.

“But,” goes the usual reply, “art involves the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.” That is, in the experience of art we bracket the fact that the tragic events we observe are not really happening, though if they were they would make us sad. We watch the tragedy ‘as if’ it is really happening.

I’ve always thought this ‘willing suspension’ notion silly. First, we know all along, and never forget for a moment, that we are in a contemporary opera house, not 19th century Nagasaki. We know the whole time that we are not looking at a dashing young American sailor but a middle-aged, slightly tubby Italian tenor. The singers may be pretending; but we never do. The question of belief or disbelief just doesn’t seem to enter in.

Second, if we really did prescind from the unreality of the story the proper emotional response would not be sadness, but shock and alarm. We’d rush the stage to stop Cio-Cio San from committing hara kiri. But we are not even momentarily disposed to prevent her. Indeed, we feel that she ‘should’ do so; it’s somehow ‘necessary’ for her to do it. If the director decided to have Cio-Cio San survive and ‘move on’ from this bad relationship (perhaps with an empowering job at Mitsubishi) we’d be disposed to demand our money back.

Finally, are we really ‘sad’? That we would feel sadness, or that we are supposed to made sad, seems implausible as a phenomenology of going to this opera. What we are feeling at the end, especially if the performance is well done, is a particular kind of pleasure. After all, we don’t pay $125 a ticket to be bummed out.

So why do we cry and experience pleasure at the same time?

A key to this puzzle is figuring out what it is for a story, and for music, to be ‘sad’. Again, the explanation can’t involve the power to make us feel sad.

Let me propose a way of understanding what makes a piece of art ‘sad’ borrowing from two philosophers, Aristotle and Suzanne Langer.

A work of art is ‘sad’ (or ‘joyful,’ or whatever) if it somehow presents to us the form of something sad. In the case of a story, a series of events which would be sad-making. In the case of music, what is presented is the form of sadness. For another searing example of sadness, listen to the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (An even better example from Wagner is the motif of ressentiment in the Ring Cycle, which even shows us how resentment feels physically. It doesn’t, of course, make us resentful. We haven’t been robbed of our Precious by an arrogant god.) Mozart presents Donna Elvira’s despairing grief and shame with equal vividness in her aria “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata,” in Don Giovanni.

That is, art presents us with the form of a sadness-producing event but not realized in the ‘matter’ which would make it really so. Music presents us with the form of an emotional state, permitting cognitive access to that state without our literally being in the state.

It seems to me that the explanation of what’s going on here, that covers this complex reality, appeals to the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and then to the principle that in cognition the content of the cognitive state is formally identical with its object. That is, when we have cognitive knowledge of horses, what we know is the substantial form of horses, not representations of horses or ‘ideas’ of horses.

A sad-making series of events has a form. As actualizing its ordinary matter (real human beings) it would have its ordinary effect on us. As actualizing other, different matter (characters portrayed by performers) it wouldn’t. Our response in this latter case, the cognitive states we are in as a result of observing it, is not genuine sadness, but its form as the object of a particular kind of cognitive state different from the actual emotion. Being in this state makes us cry. But we’re not sad. Langer would say that we are ‘virtually’ sad.

However, to the extent that this virtual realization of the form captures its essence, it provides us the cognitive satisfaction that good realizations of form generally provide. That gives us pleasure.

And that’s why we go, even though we know it will make us cry.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On morality: objective or subjective?

Is morality objective, or subjective?

If it's objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is 'objective morality', in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it's subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it's really subjective and we can't make those kind of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, than what's the point of morality at all? Is 'subjective morality' a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From an objectivist point of view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn't know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From a subjectivist point view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse 'well, those were the olden days' when people want to excuse slavery in ancient 'enlightened, democratic' Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even in those eras of the past, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view's objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that's what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term 'morality', other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being 'dogmatic', or of 'moral relativism', or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an 'objective' view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a 'subjective' view of morality does not entail thinking that 'anything goes', or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life's most pressing problems.

Amy Cools
Department of Philosophy Alumna
Sacramento State