Philosophy Feed

Wickedness

Wickedness (Routledge Classics)Wickedness by Mary Midgley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have not read Midgley before, but will definitely read more of her work. I appreciate the way she writes, including her wit, but mostly for the clear way it reveals a good, analytical mind at work.

This particular book has many keen and useful insights on human motivations and the way we get ourselves into trouble.

I did think the final chapters failed to drawn to any sort of grand conclusion, but her basic thesis--that we can explain (and therefore address) human wickedness by studying natural human motives--is one I agree with.

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Eluding Responsibility

I was drawn to some of philosopher Mary Midgley's comments on how we neglect our responsibilities in her book Wickedness.

The general recipe for inexcusable acts is neither madness nor a bizarre morality, but a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one's actions and to the principles involved.

And this

It seems clear that a great many of the worst acts actually done in the world are committed in the same sort of way in which the battlefields of the First World War were produced--by people who have simply failed to criticize the paths of action lying immediately before them.  Exploiters and oppressors, war-makers, executioners and destroyers of forests do not usually wear distinctive black hats, nor horns and hooves.  The positive motives which move them may not be bad at all; they are often quite decent ones like prudence, loyalty, self-fulfillment and professional conscientiousness.  The appalling element lies in the lack of the other motives which ought to balance these--in particular, of a proper regard for other people and of a proper priority system which would enforce it.  That kind of lack cannot be treated as a mere matter of chance.

Reading that chapter of the book left me musing on Trump as an example of what she was writing about.  Then that was clearer in a later chapter on "Selves and Shadows."

Influential psychopaths and related types, in fact, get their power not from originality, but from a perception of just what unacknowledged motives lie waiting to be exploited, and just what aspects of the world currently provide a suitable patch of darkness on to which they can be projected.

And this

To gain great political power, you must either be a genuinely creative genius, able to communicate new ideas very widely, or you must manage to give a great multitude permission for things which it already wants, but for which nobody else is currently prepared to give that permission.

 


Aggression in Children

An interesting discussion of the role of aggression in children in Mary Midgley's Wickedness.  

We have to consider realistically the part which mild, controlled aggression actually plays in human social life.  As with fear, it is probably best to start here by looking at the beahaviour of small children.  At this simple, primitive end of the spectrum, stimulated attack is a marked and essential part of play.  This is not because children are full of hatred and destruction.  It is because the sense of otherness, the contact with genuinely distinct personalities around them, fascinates them, and it is best conveyed by mild collision.  Laughter and other distancing devices safeguard the proceedings--but the wish to collide, to invade another's world, is a real one.  Without that contact, each child would be isolated.  Each needs the direct physical clash, the practical conviction that others as well as himself are capable both of feeling pain and of returning it.  Surprising though it may be, that interaction lies at the root of sympathy.  The young of other social animals play in the same mildly aggressive way, and derive the same sort of bond-forming effects from it.

Besides play, however, children also need at times more serious clashes.  Real disputes, properly expressed and resolved, seem essential for their emotional unfolding.  In this way they being to get a fuller sense of the independent reality of others.  They find that there is somebody at the other end.  They learn to control their own anger, to understand it and to reason themselves out of it.  A quarrel which is worked through and made up can be profoundly bond-forming.  But they need to feel anger before they can control it and to learn that it can sometimes be justified.  They learn the difference between justified and unjustified anger, and come to accept that justified anger in others can be the consequence of one's own bad conduct.  What they learn is thus not to eliminate anger and attack from their lives, but to use these things rightly.  And in adults, right up to the level of saints and heroes, this is an essential skill.  Mild, occasional anger is a necessary part of all social relations, and serious anger gives us, as I have suggested, a necessary range of responses to evil.  Our linked capacities for fear and anger--for fight and flight--form a positive organ to be used, not a malfunction.  This no more commits us to misusing it than our having feet commits us to kicking people.


Reading Midgley

 "To deny one's shadow is to lose solidity, to become something of a phantom. Self-deception about it may increase our confidence, but it surely threatens our wholeness."

A great quote from Mary Midgley,'s Wickedness.  I've never read Midgley before, but I am enjoying this book.  She has a very acute way of analyzing a topic and a sly but affectionate sense of humor in how she criticizes ideas.

Here is another passage I appreciated:

The keener we are to prevent evil, the more we need to be realistic about the difficulties.  Many cultures have expressed their sense of these difficulties by myths, painting our world as having something radically wrong with it.  In our own culture, this work has been done by the myth of the Fall.  Indignant rejection of this myth in recent times has been due to real misuses of it.  But the consequences of trying to do without any such notion may not have been fully understood.  There really is a deep, pervasive discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct.  In order to deal with this, we need to recognize it, not to deny it.


Muhammed Iqbal Day

Today, November 9, is Iqbal Day in Pakistan.  On a Facebook philosophy group I encountered this post about Iqbal and his philosophy, which delighted and interested me.

A few choice excerpts:

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) would be the first to remind us that in the 21st century we have a very high calling: to exercise our inescapable freedom, in constructive ways, for the well-being of all, in a spirit of world loyalty.  By freedom Iqbal means decision-making: choosing among diverse possibilities in the immediacy of the moment, in the context of the wider web of life.  As creatures among creatures on a small but beautiful planet, decision-making is part of our very essence. From the day we are born, we carry within our bodies potentials for empathy and hatred, creativity and blind reproduction, cooperation and cruelty, respect and callousness, good and evil. We feel these potentials within our very being as promptings and urges, as affective lures. But it is we ourselves, not the urges, who actualize the urges – some of them so destructive and others so life-enhancing. Indeed, we actualize these potentials, again and again, individually and collectively.  

For Iqbal, the future does not come to us already settled, as a pre-existing order. We help create the future, moment by moment, by the decisions we make within our own context. Sometimes we make terrible decisions at great cost to others, ourselves, and the earth. And sometimes we make wonderful decisions, adding a beauty that did not exist beforehand. We can be agents of terror or wonder. Either way we are free.  Our noble calling is, for Iqbal, not simply to be free. It is to create futures that are good for people, other creatures, and the earth: to become, as the Qur’an puts it, vicegerents on a small but beautiful planet. This is what it means to be a human being and to be a Muslim. It is to accept and live from the calling to add goodness and beauty to the world.  

***

so must we, in the name of an all-embracing principle of creational dignity persuade our fellows to transcend narrow and parochial interests in the quest for spiritual democracies in which people live with care and respect for each other and other creatures. 

I think our most important current project at Americans is restoring community by building relationships through institutions of civic engagement.  So, for example, this week I attended a meeting of mostly LGBTQ people getting an update on an assessment of the needs of our local LGBTQ community that we might better targeting our funding.  Later I attended a meeting organized by mostly moderate clergy, new to activism and advocacy, looking to unite Christian clergy in response to racial and religious hostility.  I also taught, in our local Catholic university, about how we respond to a world of uncertainty--through fear or with a sense of adventure.  And I attended a variety of events related to my service on the Salvation Army Advisory Board, where a number of the folk, including the Salvationists, are significantly more conservative than I am.  But I'm enjoying my time on that board.  Reading this blog post about Iqbal helped me more fully understand the fun I had this week.


Novum Organon

The Novum Organon, Or A True Guide To The Interpretation Of NatureThe Novum Organon, Or A True Guide To The Interpretation Of Nature by Francis Bacon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book I on Bacon's Novum Organon is an enjoyable and insightful discussion of induction and the new science that he proposed to replace Aristotle and Medieval approaches to knowledge. I particularly liked his discussion of the "idols of the mind."

Book II was an application of the new method to the scientific ideas of his time, thus not very engaging and something to skim through.

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Eastern Philosophy: The Basics

Eastern Philosophy: The BasicsEastern Philosophy: The Basics by Victoria S. Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harrison is a good writer. Despite this being an introduction to the basics, I feel as if my knowledge base and understanding have greatly expanded.

At the close she declares "A so-called 'global philosophy' that attempted to merge the various philosophies of the world into a common tradition seems unlikely to succeed." Instead she advocates focusing on the idea of a "global philosopher" which she then defines as "one who is conversant with a number of the world's philosophical traditions and is equipped to participate in a philosophical discussion within and between them."

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Fragile Dignity

The ethic of respecting human dignity is an essential part of the modern idea.  This author argues for why the concept is fragile and current under assault:

Incidents like the ones in Austria, Northern Ireland and Chicago contradict the contemporary Western dogma to treat every individual in a way that acknowledges his or her worth as a human being, regardless of their port of departure. And yet, this dogma is delicate. Not just because human dignity seems presently jeopardised by some kind of ‘Trump effect’, or even by some broader reawakening of authoritarian sympathies across the Western world. No: the very concept of human dignity is tenuous.


Rules of Debate

I'm reading an introduction into Eastern Philosophy and I appreciated what I read today of the rules of philosophical debate established by the Naiyayika school in India.  There are 3 types of debate--discussion (vada), disputation (jalpa), and destructive criticism (vitanda).  Here's an excerpt:

Vada is concerned with arriving at the truth through rational discussion. The aim is not simply to win the other party over to your view, but to work through the arguments together.  Even if agreement cannot be reached, the debate will succeed if each party comes to a good understanding of the other's position.  A successful debate is one in which both participants explain their position using the five-membered Nyaya form of argument and without breaking any of the rules of reasoning.

Wow, that sounds really good and constructive.  I wish we had more of that type of public discourse.  And I appreciated these ideas:

This framework for debate was developed to be conducive to the exchange and clarification of ideas.  The respondent is not allowed simply to contradict the proponent's thesis and advance another in its place.  Instead the thesis has to be thoroughly examined in the terms offered by the proponent.  The respondent has to put himself into the mindset of the proponent and appreciate the force of the arguments from that person's point of view.