Category Archives: Philosophy

Niccolo Machiavelli: “As Much Of A Heretic Today As He Ever Was”

Niccolò Machiavelli

John Gray muses on the importance and relevancy of Machiavelli’s political thought today, and argues that any misreading of him comes from the fact that the Florentine philosopher is “as much as heretic today as he ever was”:

If Bobbitt misreads Machiavelli, it is because Machiavelli is as much of a heretic today as he ever was. Resistance to his thought comes now not from Christian divines but from liberal thinkers. According to the prevailing philosophy of liberal legalism, political conflict can be averted by a well-designed constitution and freedoms enshrined in a regime of rights. In reality, as Machiavelli well knew, constitutions and legal systems come and go. According to Bobbitt, “The lesson of Machiavelli’s advice to statesmen is: don’t kid yourself. What annoyed . . . Machiavelli was the willingness of his contemporaries to pretend that quite simple formulations were adequate to the task of governing in the common interest.” Plainly, the market state is a formula of precisely this kind.

The true lesson of Machiavelli is that the alternative to politics is not law but unending war. When they topple tyrants for the sake of faddish visions of rights, western governments enmesh themselves in intractable conflicts they do not understand and cannot hope to control. Yet if Machiavelli could return from the grave, he would hardly be annoyed or frustrated by such folly. Ever aware of the incurable human habit of mistaking fancy for reality, he would simply respond with a Florentine smile.

Quick note here: I study this stuff — or will do this fall — in grad school, and from the start I think Machiavelli has been my favorite political philosopher. Not necessarily for his message, though I think he’s been more right than most give him credit for. The reason I enjoy reading and re-reading The Prince and his many other works including the Discourses is because he’s a particularly easy read. There’s something to be said for simplicity in writing, and i’ve always been turned away by theorists who complicate theirs for impact — or perhaps it’s more that they cannot simplify (see Foucault).

(Photo: flickr user Joshua Schnable)

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Quote For The Day: Stephen Fry Calls For Olympic Boycott

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I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian “correctively” raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.

“All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” so wrote Edmund Burke. Are you, the men and women of the IOC going to be those “good” who allow evil to triumph? […]

For there to be a Russian Winter Olympics would stain the movement forever and wipe away any of that glory. The Five Rings would finally be forever smeared, besmirched and ruined in the eyes of the civilised world.

Stephen Fry, An open letter to David Cameron and the IOC

(photo: via wikicommons)

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The Proliferation of Human Rights and Its Consequences

... Human Rights

Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame — cofounders of The Freedom Rights Project — argue that the “gross inflation” of human rights treaties adopted by international organizations over the last several decades, obscures people’s understanding of those rights, thus making it difficult for rights to be realized, or demanded:

The expanded and diluted notion of human rights allows illiberal states to change the focus from core freedoms to vague and conceptually unclear rights that place no concrete obligations on states. Enabled by such rhetoric, no human rights violation can stand scrutiny on its own merits. Instead, human rights violations are relativized — intellectually dismembered and discarded when it is politically expedient. In this world, cuts in development aid can be labeled human rights violations just like torture in North Korea. Crucially, this unprincipled politics of human rights helps authoritarian states deflect criticism. In 2007, Cuba, which has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere, succeeded in persuading a majority of HRC members to axe the specific mandate for monitoring its own human rights record. The praise authoritarian states shower on one another for supposedly upholding new, vague and abstract rights are therefore not just empty rhetoric but can produce real political gains.

Unfortunately, much of the human rights community has not only shied away from expressing qualms about rights proliferation, it has often led the process. But this approach has not helped advance the core freedoms that make the difference between liberal and non-liberal states: According to Freedom House, global respect for basic civil and political rights is in decline for the seventh consecutive year. Of course, it is exactly those basic rights that non-free states want to neuter. When everything can be defined as a human right, the premium on violating such rights is cheap. To raise the stock and ensure the effectiveness of human rights, their defenders need to acknowledge that less is often more.

Maybe anything and everything can be defined as a human right because we’ve never had a competent definition, or understanding, of what constitutes a “right”. Alasdair MacIntyre – who argued that the foundation of the international morality paradigm is paradoxically foundationless — illustrates this in After Virtue:

“the concept [rights] lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic, classical or medieval, before 1400, let alone in Old English, or in Japanese even as late as the mid-nineteenth century.”

What constitutes “a right” is something that has lacked consensus throughout history. We cannot realistically construct a foundation of international morality and justice based on the concept of rights, since we have little to no understanding as to what rights are, or whether or not they exist. We’ve been unable, as a species, to advance the concept of rights for most of human history, which would suggest then that we are misguided in thinking — as we currently do — that rights are something self-evident. It would also suggest that international institutions tasked with protecting vague interpretations of rights were doomed from the start.

(Photo by flickr user Jeremy Schutlz)

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Using Fiction To Examine The Morally Obscene

Chuck Klosterman 2

Heather Havrilesky examines the controversial questions raised and answered by Chuck Klosterman in his new book, I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling with Villains:

Usually, he does this by posing rhetorical questions: If Batman were real, and you knew that a vigilante was killing criminals without due process, would you root for him or want him arrested? What about Bernard Goetz, who became a hero to many New Yorkers in 1985 for stopping four black teenagers from mugging him on the subway (by, uh, shooting them) but who fell out of favor as soon as people figured out he was “weird,” as Klosterman puts it?

Why is Batman seen as a hero, when Goetz is seen a villain? Could it all boil down to a strong jaw, black tights and an excellent sports car?

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Doubting “Darwin’s Doubt”

Charles Darwin: Scientific Badass

Gareth Cook reviews Stephen Meyer’s upcoming New York Times bestselling book “Darwin’s Doubt”, which he calls “a masterwork of psuedoscience“:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

But do not underestimate “Darwin’s Doubt”: it is a masterwork of pseudoscience. Meyer is a reasonably fluid writer who weaves anecdote and patient explanation. He skillfully deploys the trappings of science—the journals, the conferences, the Latinate terminology. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. He appears serious and, above all, reasonable. The Cambrian argument has been a part of creationism and its inheritors for many years, but Meyer’s project is to canonize it, a task he completes with great skill. Those who feel a hunger for material evidence of God or who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read. Which is to say, Meyer will find a large audience: he aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.

The one thing that’s always bothered me about intelligent design has nothing to do with the ridiculousness of the claim, but rather with the un-falsifiability of the argument. Before Darwin, and indeed before science could teach us about molecular biology, fossil record and our kinship with other species, arguments from faith were made exclusively from the tenants of scripture, as one would rightly expect. Once it became clear to any thinking person that evolution is a fact, that the universe is not only expanding at a rate beyond comprehension but is actually speeding up, well then arguments from scripture began to seem more and more ridiculous over time. The more we learn about history, archeology, science and even philosophy, the more assured we are in the man-made origin of faith — the unalterable conclusion that the monotheistic religions are all plagiarisms of each other, predicated on plagiarisms of myths and legends long past and disregarded.

But intelligent design “theory” seeks to make up for that loss, and does a fair job of it. It does a fair job because it’s an unfalsifiable claim (a necessary element to any religious argument): if something cannot be totally explained by science (yet), it must necessarily be the work of a creator (God). But we know from our basic understanding of argument that the true mark of a weak, sorry position is whether or not that position can be falsified. As an atheist, I cannot disprove that intelligent design is true, but I can and do rightly point to examples of science and history to make the idea as unlikely as possible. The strangest part of the argument is that it really does seem like the last hurrah for the theological in their efforts to keep creationism alive in the conversation of our origin. Before intelligent design was considered valid (by those who do consider it valid), scientific discovery was brutally exorcised, persecuted and dismissed. Once something like evolution became too blatantly obvious to dismiss, the faithful threw up their arms and said, “ah well, yes, see how wonderful our God is to have come up with such a plan?”

Intelligent design is not a theory, but a mentality. There is no means of verification or falsity within it, and therefore it should not and cannot be considered in the same breath as those discoveries made through series of hypotheses and experiments. Discoveries that have taken us so very far away from the confusion, superstition and barbarism of our lowly species.

(Photo by C. G. P. Grey)

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Why Edward Snowden Did Not Commit An Act Of Civil Disobedience

Senator Rand Paul is just one of the many to laud Edward Snowden for leaking top secret NSA documents, but here he is taking it one step further, describing Snowden’s leaks as an act of civil disobedience:

I do know that committing civil disobedience is a — is a big step forward and history has treated people in various fashions. Some people who commit civil disobedience have been treated heroes, some have not.

Joel Brenner educates the senator on the true meaning and history behind “civil disobedience”, and compares that to Snowden running away from the consequences of his actions:
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The Underrepresentation of Women In Philosophy

Resting place of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Tania Lombrozo reflects on her experience at the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, held at Brown University:

Daniel Dennett was in the seat just ahead of me; additional luminaries were scattered about the room. A quick count revealed about equal numbers of men and women in the audience — an unusual figure for an event in philosophy, where women make up less than 20 percent of full-time faculty.

That was precisely the topic we’d gathered to discuss: the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, where numbers mirror those for math, engineering, and the physical sciences, making philosophy an outlier within the humanities.

There’s been no shortage of speculation about why. Perhaps, to quote Hegel, women’s “minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts.” Perhaps women are turned off by philosophy’s confrontational style. Perhaps women are more inclined toward careers with practical applications.

But the most plausible hypothesis is that various forms of explicit and implicit bias operate in philosophy, as they do within and beyond other academic disciplines. Unfortunately, though, this explanation refines our question rather than answering it.

Two Georgia State University masters students, Toni Adleberg and Morgan Thompson, and their professor Eddy Nahmias, collected data from over 700 male and female students on their experiences in the Introduction to Philosophy course at their university, aiming to solve for the why in the case of women being turned off and away by the discipline. Lombrozo shares their findings:

Overall, female students found the course less enjoyable and the material less interesting and relevant to their lives than male students. Compared to male students, they also felt that they had less in common with typical philosophy majors or with their instructors, reported feeling less able and likely to succeed in philosophy, were less comfortable participating in class discussions and were less inclined to take a second philosophy course or to major in philosophy. (Interestingly, however, they didn’t anticipate receiving lower grades.)

A possible solution to this is something proposed by Nahmias in an email to Lombrozo, “philosophy can do a better job introducing itself to incoming students.”

(Photo by flickr user Charlie Phillips)

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A Father’s Day Message From Louis C.K (Video)

It may be a few years old, but this timeless video of the great Louis CK totally nailing fatherhood in two minutes is absolutely perfect for father’s day. Enjoy!

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June 16, 2013 · 12:37 pm

Your Daily Quote

“And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you, those people who tell you at your age, that you are dead until you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. …and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. Thank you.”

Christopher Hitchens

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Your Daily Quote

Moral Enlightenment

“Whenever I criticize Islam, I am attacked for my purported failure to empathize with Muslims throughout the world—both the peaceful billion, who are blameless, and the radicals, whose legitimate political grievances and social ties cause them to act out in regrettable ways. Consider this standard calumny from Glenn Greenwald:

How anyone can read any of these passages and object to claims that Harris’ worldview is grounded in deep anti-Muslim animus is staggering. He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.

The irony is that it is the secular liberals like Greenwald who are lacking in empathy. As I have pointed out many times before, they fail to empathize with the primary victims of Islam—the millions of Muslim women, freethinkers, homosexuals, and apostates who suffer most under the taboos and delusions of this faith. But secular liberals also fail to understand and empathize with the devout.”
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Gotham And The State Of Nature

Tikkakoski, Gotham City

Rick Pimentel parses the link between Thomas’ Hobbes depiction of the state of nature in Leviathan, to the Gotham depicted during Bane’s rule in The Dark Knight Rises:

“Hobbes referred to the state of nature as a “war of all against all” and famously described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to transition a society from the state of nature to civility, its people mutually agreed to create a state and give up their power to the state in return for the protection of their well-being. For Hobbes, the ideal state is headed by a sovereign who has absolute power; a power that is consensually given by the people to him or her. This is the social contract as presented by Thomas Hobbes.

The “state of nature” is a good description for the society in Gotham that Bane created. Ironically, it was the social contract in reverse – Bane desired a dissolution of that contract. Bane regressed Gotham from a civil society to the state of nature in order to destroy Gotham (the state). Bane wanted destruction and chaos, Hobbes wanted peace and order. Bane wanted a civil war to destroy the state, Hobbes wanted to create and preserve the state. Gotham’s state of nature was clearly seen when Bane whips his supporters into frenzy as they pillage the homes of and beat the wealthy. Ever the populist, Bane knows exactly which buttons to press in order to create a society that certainly is nasty and brutish and most likely would shorten the lives of its inhabitants.”

(Photo by flickr user Jaro Larnos)

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New Atheism’s Problem Is Our Problem Too

Written by Cato:

I stumbled upon this video last night:

Watch the first 10 minutes or so and bear witness to a huge problem that pervades society—one that we rarely articulate or engage, but is at the heart of who we are as a people, and inherent to the information age and the multicultural society we inhabit. Modern Western society simply cannot agree as to what constitutes reliable and valid evidence. Because of this, we struggle for any sort of consensus on how to construct and reconstruct our society.

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Your Daily Quote

Bob Young & Aaron Swartz

The programmer, entrepreneur, and activist Aaron Swartz concluded it was immoral for the world’s knowledge to be locked up in databases that were accessible only to wealthy universities. His efforts to download thousands of articles from an academic database led to his indictment on felony hacking charges. Facing the possibility of decades in jail, Swartz took his own life in January.

Manning and Snowden both concluded that they were morally obligated to release documents that reveal government misconduct. And Assange concluded he ought to help Manning distribute those documents to the world.

Obviously, hackers’ curiosity and penchant for unconventional thinking can create tensions with authority figures, who hackers derisively refer to as “suits.” They are sometimes viewed as prickly loners, and may not observe the social niceties that make offices function smoothly. But while hackers’ disobedient tendencies give bosses heartburn, organizations can’t get along without them. Their intellectual curiosity and knack for finding creative solutions to hard technical problems make them indispensable.

Timothy B. Lee, “Hackers vs. suits: Why nerds become leakers”

(Photo by Creativecommons)

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Marketing Philosophy To The Masses

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Diogenes and Plato. Oil on canvas, 1649.
Painting by Mattia Preti, courtesy of Capitoline Museums/Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

Mark Vanhoenacker calls for a recalibration of philosophical outreach, emphasizing the crucial need of the discipline in our modern society and the benefits of thought experiments to solve for complex dilemmas:
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Particularism As The Best Philosophy?

Woodcut title-page border of Simon de Colines

Simon Willis argues that it is:

“There is, in philosophy,” the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has said, “a certain drive to the inhuman, to an inhuman idea of intellectuality.” I’m looking for a philosophy which brings us back to earth.

That philosophy is particularism, a fancy word for a simple idea: that in our ethical lives, rules are useless. Instead we should pay attention to real people in real situations. You can find arguments for it in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle in the fourth century BC and Ludwig Wittgenstein nearly 2,500 years later. Aristotle thought of ethical judgment as a matter of discernment and fine distinctions, literally seeing a situation in all its complexity. Wittgenstein wrote of rules in his “Philosophical Investigations” that “only experienced people can apply them aright”. You can be up to your neck in rules, but they don’t in themselves tell you how to apportion blame, or to whom, or how much. For that, you need to look at what’s in front of you. If you don’t, you’re driving in the dark without headlights.

Placing practice above principle puts the burden of judgment back on us, and leaves us vulnerable to life’s obscurities and self-deceptions, to the tangle of our duties and commitments. We might aspire to clarity, but we could easily be blind. That said, it’s an idea which represents the difficulty of doing the right thing, and why would we want less than that?

That sounds a lot like Virtue Ethics, but without the complexity (some would say nuance). Perhaps particularism is as close as we can get to virtue ethics, but both certainly contend similar things: modern moral philosophy lacks coherence and should be jettisoned if at all possible.

(Photo by kladcat)

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