Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter”

January 17, 2020

I’ve been busy reading Bergson and haven’t posted in awhile.  In the interest of providing some content and maybe getting feedback, I’m offering a portion of the notes I took.

 

NOTES ON BERGSON’S “LAUGHTER”

 

 

 

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.

—–Henri Bergson[1]

 

This appears to be wrong. Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[2] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. A friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or verbals signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[3]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

[1] Henri Bergson, Laugher: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[3] McGraw/Warner

Comedy and Lies

January 9, 2020

Comedy and Lies

Two cannibals are eating a clown, and one turns to the other and asks, “Does this taste funny to you?
——-Tommy Cooper

The concept “funny” is ambiguous in the English language. We say, “You should go see that comedian. He’s so funny!” We also say, “Stay away from the tuna salad; it smells funny.” And when we say a $20 bill is “funny money,” we don’t mean either that it makes us laugh or that it’s spoiled; we mean it’s counterfeit. Is there a connection?
Even when we say, “It’s funny because it’s true,” we generally imply some sort of connection between comedy and falsehood. After all, if all true statements were funny or no factually false ones were, there would be no reason to say such a thing. When we say something’s funny because it is true, we mean it is true but in an unexpected way. Will Rogers said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” The Democratic Party is an organized, recognized political party, so his statement seems self-contradictory; but when we recognize the ambiguity in the word “organized,” and compare it to some other “organized political parties,” we see it can also be true. The momentary confusion gives way to a realization of a truth; but if he’d simply said, “The Democratic Party is disorganized,” it wouldn’t be funny at all. There had to be a way that the statement was false before it had the possibility of humor.
So how is the “funny” of humor related to these others? The tuna smells “funny” because it isn’t what it seems to be; it looks edible and supposedly is healthy, but the smell suggests the appearances are deceptive. The money is “funny” because it looks like legal currency when it isn’t. Comedy too is not straight-up truthfulness, even if it is not straight-up lying either. Comedy is always a little “off.” It has a certain falseness, at least in being false to our expectations. “Stay away from the tuna, it smells funny tonight” is not humorous; but sung to the tune of “The Eye of the Tiger” it’s hilarious (Weird Al Yankovich, “The Rye or the Kaiser,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGJd8FLAqRA; “The Rye or the Kaiser (Theme From Rocky XIII)” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC). The statement may be true, false or simply fiction; but it is false to the context, it doesn’t fit, and thus it’s funny.
Sometimes a straight-up lie is funny. The classic example in American culture is the “big fish that got away” story. If the story is a straightforward “I hooked a bass that looked to be ten pounds but he got away,” it’s not funny even if it’s a lie. If the story is “I caught a huge fish but sharks ate it,” it’s not funny, it’s Hemingway. But if the story is colorful and wildly exaggerated, listeners will pay rapt attention and laugh even though they’re pretty sure the “fish” was half that size if it existed at all. There’s nothing funny about murder, or about accusing someone of murder; but when it’s done in a way that is so exaggerated as to be unbelievable, and we’re told it’s not true but the claim is repeated so often that it’s certain to be remembered, it is (if you’re into NSFW roasts (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2x1bwa) for instance). The humor is the obvious falseness, which negates any pain that would exist if it were true.
The difference between a good lie and a good joke or schtick is that a good lie hides its deception, while humor revels in obvious falseness. Even if the story is true, what makes it funny is generally a falseness. I used to tell the story of my efforts to take my wife to the beach on the last day of our honeymoon, 24 hours with an average of one misadventure every two hours. The story was true, but what made it work for the audience was the falseness in the telling. An account that actually conveyed the frustration and anger would have left people not laughing, but merely uncomfortable. Comedy can be complete fiction or absolutely factual, so long as there is enough dishonesty to take away the sting of “real life” and leave the pleasure of sifting the true from the false.
Part of the joy of the humor, then, seems to be the discovery. The lies are exposed, or at least the lying is exposed since it isn’t funny if seems completely true. I once told a person that at the last meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Society of Dyslexic Agnostics debating whether or not there is a Dog. She just nodded along. That line usually works because people notice the incongruous canine. Maybe she thought SAD is a real group. But if the audience sees through the confusion too quickly, it’s not much of a joke either. The principles of a good joke and a good detective story seem to be the same: enough confusion that the audience is temporarily perplexed, but a retrospective clarity so that they can look back to see how you got from the set-up to the finish.

Comedy: The Basics

January 6, 2020

Comedy: The Basics

The last time I went flying I started a game of Peek-a-Boo with a toddler in the seat in front of me. After the fifth time I had to grab him by the throat and say, “Look, no matter how many times you try this, it’s always going to be me.
——Rita Rudner

We are born crying; we must learn to laugh. I’m not sure what that says about life. Still, while we must learn how to laugh, we are not taught how to laugh; it seems to be one of those inborn traits of humanity, that unfolds naturally in the fulness of time. Babies are not generally known for having a “sense of humor,” even if they laugh readily. A baby who laughs a lot is said to be “happy,” not “joking.” I’ve been trying to pay attention to my grandson, and I tried to pay attention to my children before; and it seems that children first laugh spontaneously, from joy. When we took my grandson to Dinosaur World, he was so excited to see the full-sized models that he laughed and danced. This isn’t to say they were funny to him, but rather that they gave him joy. He also, like every child I’ve known, laughs in anticipation, like when he’s expecting a tickle. After all, what is so funny about peek-a-boo? It’s tremendously predictable and repetitive, the very opposite of humor for adults. But for a child, this seems to be the point. Young babies seem to be startled the first few times when the familiar face suddenly reappears, and then delighted. Later, as object permanence firms up, they take joy in anticipating the return of the missing face. So laughter is an expression of present or anticipated happiness.
Babies seem to laugh at funny faces, pratfalls and so on pretty early, particularly when an adult seems to show silliness or clumsiness. I’ve never seen a toddler laugh at another who fell down, but adults who pretend to fall but then pop up again smiling seem to be hysterically funny. Some young children may laugh even at a genuine fall where someone was hurt; but research today shows that an instinct for altruism also appears in toddlers at about (or shortly after) they begin to appreciate silly physical comedy. This leads me to think laughing at another’s pain is due to a lack of empathy, which is also to say a lack of maturity, or else perhaps a simple mistake where one does not realize the other is really hurt.
It is often said that children do not have a sense of humor, or have a terrible sense of humor, and have to learn what is funny. However, I saw an interview with a comedian years ago who made his living entertaining children, who said this isn’t true. Rather, small children are amused by different things, and in particular by the role-reversal of an adult who knows less than the child. The obvious example of this is the “Mr. Noodle” routines in Sesame Street’s “Elmo’s World” segments (such as here: Mr. Noodle). When the adult does something so silly that the child has to come in and become the teacher, that is funny to children. The physical humor of Mr. Noodle is part of the appeal, but clearly the role-reversal is part as well. Perhaps this is part of the well-known quality of humor to remove the pain of painful situations. The life of a small child is to be surrounded by giants, who are generally benevolent but can also be frightening and confusing. The child constantly tries to imitate these giants, and feels satisfaction when able to do it well. When an adult takes on the role of the child, pretending clumsiness and ignorance which need rescue by the superior understanding of the child, it is particularly funny to the kid. This is also the fun of later games of peek-a-boo where the child “hides” from the adult and pops up, and the adult feigns the surprise and delight which the infant once genuinely felt.
For the child, laughter is a natural expression of joy. For the adult, this sort of laughter becomes rarer. Comedy is the art of intentionally producing laughter, not through physical means like tickling and not spontaneously by simply giving joy. What distinguishes comedy from these other sorts of laughter is that something is done that is “funny,” which generally involves some sort of swerving from the “normal” or “expected” way things usually go in a way that gives pleasure.

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

December 20, 2019

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

 

This is part of the confusion that manifests itself in so many ways in our day; something is sought where one should not seek it; and what is worse, it is found where one should not find it. One wishes to be edified in the theater, to be esthetically stimulated in church; one wishes to be converted by novels, to be entertained by devotional books; one wishes to have philosophy in the pulpit and a preacher on the lecture platform.[1]

—– S. Kierkegaard

 

 

Does anyone else think it strange that we demand higher moral standards from our comedians than we do from our nation’s political leaders? A comedian’s career can be derailed by a careless tweet. An actor’s career can be derailed by a charge of sexual impropriety. A singer can be called to account for performing at a party hosted by a dictator, or sometimes even just for performing in a country with an unsavory government. But if the President suggests that someone should be beaten or killed, or confesses to a crime, it’s said he was “just joking;” if a dozen or more women testify he raped or assaulted them, they’re all dismissed as liars; if he praises and is praised by murderous, corrupt dictators and even claimed by them as “one of our agents”, it has no noticeable impact on the love of his fans or the respect of his party.[2] Our age accepts any buffoonery from its leaders, so long as they make the crowds laugh; but actual comedians are expected to act like leaders.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the fictitious anonymous author argues that such confusions reflect a society in disarray. “Our age has lost all the substantial categories of family, state, kindred; it must turn the single individual over to himself completely in such a way that, strictly speaking, he becomes his own creator.” Our lives lack context; there is no essential connection between one and another. There is no passion; nothing has significance in itself, and we are left only with the frivolities that capture our interest for a moment. Our age, even more than Kierkegaard’s, seems fundamentally confused and disoriented. We want big, glitzy megachurches with a good show; we analyze the moral messages implicit in the latest blockbuster movie. Leaders are “just joking” or just using “locker-room talk,” while entertainers are expected to be role-models. We look for things where any serious, thoughtful person would not; and what is worse, we find what we’re looking for, because the age itself is careless and thoughtless.

Such thoughts as these suggest that it is time to think about humor, and about what it means in this age. What is comedy? Why do we take comedy so seriously? Why do we look, not to the saints or the scientists or the journalists or the leaders for truth, but to comedians and to politicians who caper and jape more than any real comedian? I want to think about these questions. Maybe, when I’m done, I’ll find the joke was on me; it wouldn’t be the first time.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or, v. 1; edited translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hont, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 149

[2] Melissa Lemieux, “Russian Media Calls Trump a Moscow ‘Agent,” Jokingly Suggests He’ll Need to Flee to their Country After Leaving Office;” Newsweek 12/16/19 (https://www.newsweek.com/russian-state-media-calls-trump-moscow-agent-jokingly-suggests-hell-need-flee-their-country-1477554)

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility” https://philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/humility/

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 5)

June 16, 2019

Interestingly (to me at least) the very nihilism at the heart of the Republican administration which is putting together this panel actually suggests an argument that something like this is actually necessary.[i] According to Alasdair MacIntyre, it was inevitable that Western culture would collapse into Nietzschean nihilism once it ceased to base morality in the values of a particular culture. The Enlightenment dream of a universal ethics valid for all persons qua persons was a fantasy from the start. All morality has to be rooted in and derived from some vision of human flourishing. The virtues recommended by that ethics are the character traits that aid in living the sort of “good life” embraced by that particular culture. Outside of any social context, those virtues are arbitrary and unsustainable. Unless you embrace the sort of eudaimonia prized by Athenian gentlemen, the Aristotelian virtues such as bravery, self-control and pride won’t make any sense. An Augustinian Christian’s virtues such as humility and universal love would seem absurd to Aristotle, just as some of his virtues would seem to be nothing more than “glittering vices.” In MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of Western thought, the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal reason alone apart from all religious, national or other communal standards was doomed from the start, and in fact cut the foundation out from under human moral thought. The result was emotivism, where moral language simply collapsed into a contest of wills, each individual attempting to get everyone else to feel the way he or she felt about whatever point was being debated. From this point of view (sometimes called “communitarian ethics”), the moral nihilism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is simply an open acknowledgment of the fact that God is dead and has been for a long time, and all the lofty claims by liberalism to seek universal ethical standards has simply been a fraudulent attempt to impose the standards of their group on everyone else through trickery and persuasion. The notion of “human rights,” from MacIntyre’s perspective, would be rights as defined by a certain group using a certain understanding of human nature, but using language that asserts their view to be the only legitimate one. Conservatives, in this view, are simply more honest in relying on political and physical force rather than sophistical argument.

If MacIntyre offers a reason to doubt the common notion of “human rights” as a culturally and religiously neutral, universal ethical standard, then MacIntyre also offers a solution that would cast more doubt on the legitimacy of the State Departmet’s human rights panel as presented in the press. In his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that loyalty to one’s own group is the cardinal virtue, the one essential quality for any further moral life.[ii] The virtues stem from one’s vision of the good, fulfilled, “happy” human life; and that vision of human flourishing is conveyed to one by one’s particular culture. Without a particular culture, one has no human ideal to seek to live out, hence no virtues as habits enabling that good life (or vices to lead away from it), no moral roots, and one’s moral life simply withers away. Each of us are products of our culture, and our vision of the good life comes from that culture. However, MacIntyre says, that does not mean that everyone in the culture agrees on everything. For example, he points to Adam von Trott, who was involved in a plot to kill Hitler.[iii] Trott did not act out of commitment to some abstract universal morality; he acted because he felt the Nazi leadership of Germany had betrayed German values and German culture and had to be stopped. On this view of patriotism, “dissent is patriotic,” if it is rooted in core values of the community itself and aims to perfect the community as a project. To discover those core values in any community, one would have to look not only at its explicit claims but at its overall history and trajectory, what that society valued as shown in its deeds and its aspirations and what it seemed to be striving towards.

By this standard, conservatives today seem to be going astray; they do not discover and live out their country’s values, but try to recreate it in terms of some other, smaller community’s project. For example, conservatives in America today do not study history; they rewrite it. Even in the communitarian view, facts are facts; what value one puts on those facts may be another matter. And the facts are that the leaders of the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers,” studied and quoted Enlightenment philosophy, particularly social contract thinking inspired by Rousseau and Locke. They distrusted religious extremism, what we would call “fanaticism” and which they called “enthusiasm.” They embraced the scientific, empirical investigation of truth. Many (roughly half) were Freemasons, embracing a religious liberalism that rejected sectarian or what we would call “fundamentalist” spirituality; a good many were not even Christian, but rather Deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the three men selected by the Continental Congress to write the nation’s Declaration of Independence, were religious liberals. Jefferson, who is credited with describing the “separation of Church and State” as a “wall” between the two, was the third president of the United States; yet in conservative circles he is treated as an outlier and unimportant fringe thinker compared to Aquinas despite the fact that only two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.[iv] In an attempt to undermine “liberal” and “Democratic” importance in American history, the Christian Reconstructionism or Christian Dominionism promoted by such religious conservatives as Rousas Rushdooney and Jerry Falwell has sought to present the American revolution as a conservative revolution against a liberal monarchy. In fact, it is no coincidence that both the British Conservative party and the Americans who supported King George III were called “Tories.” So when Pompeo says the State Department’s new panel on human rights will seek to express “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” this seems disingenuous. The overall thrust of conservative efforts, including those by some people on the panel, has been not to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, but to rewrite them. A better way for such a committee to establish “our nation’s founding principles” would be to include historians who could review the personal views and public writings of our Founding Fathers, as well as seminal texts such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and other documents that have contributed to the wider civil religion of the USA.

To be continued….

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue second edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 1-78

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Pearson Education Inc., NY 2014) pp. 405-410; originally presented in The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (1984).

[iii] “Patriotism,” p. 408

[iv] For example, Brian Thevenot, “TribBlog: SBOE vs. the Media,” The Texas Tribune March 22, 2010 (https://www.texastribune.org/2010/03/22/sboe-removes-thomas-jefferson-blames-media/). The actions described here are by no means unique to Texas, but are representative of conservative rhetoric for at least the last several decades.

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.

 

To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/state-dept-panel-redefine-human-rights-based-natural/story?id=63400485)

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/03/politics/jared-kushner-axios/index.html)

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/climate/trump-climate-report.html) As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 2)

June 11, 2019

What Pompeo seems to be saying, therefore, is that the Republican government wants to redefine this notion of “human rights” in terms of a particular definition of “human nature.” Is this necessarily “misogynistic” or “homophobic”? I will mention the sophistic argument that if it is based on “human nature” and “natural law” then of course it can’t be, since by definition it can’t be an “irrational” hatred of women or fear of gay people if it is “natural.” This is circular and unlikely to quell any concerns by people who are not already convinced that the particular “nature” on which this “natural law” is based is the true one. The real question, after all, is whether this proposed alteration is likely to be harmful to the interests and desires of women, gays or anyone else. Aristotle’s philosophy stated that all non-Greeks (whether Asiatics, less civilized Europeans or whatever) were inherently “irrational” and thus natural slaves, most fulfilled living lives in slavery to the wiser Greeks. Likewise, he believed women were inherently less intelligent and less rational than men, and would only be truly happy living in households controlled by Greek men. In essence, he looked at his own Athenian culture and judged all others in comparison to it; those that gave greater rights to women or to non-Greeks were said by him to be disordered in some way, and those that were a completely different culture he deemed “barbarian,” a term that literally meant “non-Greek speakers,” fit only for domination. Clearly, a society based on that sort of “natural law” would be bad for women, since women would only fulfill their “nature” by running the household for men who were active in the political and economic life of the society, having and raising children, and managing their slaves. Whether it would be bad for gays is another question; the Greeks accepted and expected male-male sexuality, particularly between older men and teenage boys. But in the Catholic understanding, the fact that there are two genders suggests that sexuality is intended for reproduction, and any expression of sexuality that cannot possibly lead to pregnancy is unnatural and disordered: not only abortion, but homosexuality, contraception, and masturbation.

But the Thomistic view of natural law is not the only possible one. Utilitarians in the 19th Century had a very different view of human nature, one that emphasized pleasure as the motivation for all actions, and thus defined a “good” act as one that brought the most pleasure possible to the most people possible, or aimed to reduce suffering to the least amount to the fewest people possible. Based on this understanding of human nature, and of nature in general, they were politically active supporting laws against animal cruelty (since animals too can suffer), in support of workers and poor people (such as opposing debtors’ prisons), supporting the rights of women, and so on. Kantians by contrast argue that “human nature” is to be guided by pure practical reason, apart from concerns about sensation; therefore, what is moral is what is done out of a sense of duty towards the universal moral law. A prominent example of this sort of moral law reasoning is the philosopher Robert George, who in an interview argued against Peter Singer’s extreme utilitarianism by asserting that we must base our legal understanding of human rights on the principle of always treating others as ends in themselves, never as means towards another end (Kant’s second version of his Categorical Imperative). By this understanding, any law that seems to treat another person as less than infinity valuable would be immoral and unnatural, even if the person wished to be so treated. For example, from a Kantian perspective voluntary suicide to escape a painful terminal illness would be wrong since it would be treating the other in terms of sensation rather than as a rational being whose every moment of existence is valuable regardless of whether it is pleasant. So taking the legal definition of “natural law theory,” we can wind up at radically different legislation based on different moral theories. A full commitment to natural law as both a philosophical and legal principle would most likely argue that moral people reasoning together will be able to discern the moral principles inherent in human nature and base legislation on those principles. Whether this idea should cause alarm to any group would depend entirely on how they expect this administration, and the panel it has created, to define “human nature.”

To be continued…