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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Aristotle – A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Barnes.

This 141 page overview of the work of Aristotle constituted a bit of background reading to my course. After reading some of the work of the man himself – specifically The Politics and The Nicomachean Ethics – I found Barnes' book a bit too dry and too focused on Aristotle’s scientific work which time has made obsolete.

Aristotle did indeed have an amazing academic career spanning just about every subject you could imagine. He was a true polymath arguably founding the sciences of both Biology and Logic as well as contributing to much else besides. If that wasn’t impressive enough he went onto write the two books mentioned above on politics and ethics which are still being studied in Universities over two thousand years later.

This wasn’t a bad introduction to the man and his ideas but I did struggle with it at times. Probably not something I could recommend as your first experience of Aristotle.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud;
Under the bludgeonings of Chance
My head is bloodied but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.

William Earnest Henley (1849 – 1903)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 9)

By Julian Baggini

Conclusion

It should now be obvious that the idea that the atheist must be an amoralist is groundless. The religious believer and the atheist share an important common ground. For both it cannot be that what is right and wrong, good or bad, is defined in terms of God or simply follows from divine command. For both, moral choices ultimately have to be made by individuals, and we cannot get others to make our moral choices for us. So whether we have religious faith or not, we have to make up our own minds about what is right and wrong.

To provide a source for morality we need to do no more than sign up to the belief that certain things have a value and that the existence of this value provides us with reasons to behave in certain ways. This very broad commitment does not entail any specific philosophical or even religious position. It is arguably no more than the basic commitment of someone who has human feeling. Once we have undertaken this basic commitment we have several resources to help us think about what the right thing to do is. We can think about what is required to help our own lives and the lives of others flourish. We can think about what the consequences of our actions are and avoid those that harm things we think are of value and try to do those things which benefit them. And we can recognize that to say something is good or bad in one circumstance is to say it is good or bad in any other relevantly similar circumstance, and so can strive to be consistent in our actions, or to put it another way, strive to avoid hypocrisy.

Of course, it can still be said that we can provide no logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but neither can we provide such a proof for theists. The mistake that is often made is to suppose that if one has religious belief, moral principles just come along with the package and there is no need to think about or justify them. Once we see through that myth, we can see why being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist.

[I think that saying (or believing) that all morality originates in/with God is nonsensical. Beyond this the idea that morality originates in or is encapsulated in a single religious book is both absurd and nonsensical. It has even been said that those who do not subscribe to any of the countless religious beliefs we have created around us cannot by definition be moral creatures. This to me moves beyond the bizarre into the territory of the ridiculous.

I am not alone in thinking that personal morality is an amalgam of the culture we are each accidentally born into (and also of course when exactly we are born into that culture), our upbringing, our education, our peers and our life experiences – along with a possible sprinkling of genetics. This mixture of influences explains how ideas of morality change over time, from place to place and within an individual’s life time. These obvious facts are difficult to explain from a theistic point of view that baldly states that we all know the (same) difference between right and wrong because God (presumably the Christian God) encapsulated that knowledge within each of us.

Morality is clearly a predominantly cultural phenomenon passed down from generation to generation in the same fashion as all other culture – and modified in exactly the same way. In that sense morality is simple, the complexity arises when we try to explain how a particular moral view point arises and why it is taken up (or not) by members of any particular population group. But for that we have the moral philosophers.]

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The 97th Step by Steve Perry

In the far future a Galactic empire groans under the repressive heel of the Confed. Without power or influence the only way for ordinary citizens to both prosper and walk freely is by becoming a member of the criminal underground. Such a man is Ferret, once a farm boy on a desiccated world now a smuggler and thief. But when his past catches up with him resulting in the deaths of his best friend and the only woman he ever loved Ferret’s lifestyle collapses into an endless quest for oblivion in drugs and drink. Only when his old martial arts teacher happens upon him in a bar does Ferret realise what a mess he has made of his life. Taken on by the Siblings of the Shroud Ferret, now called Pen, is taught the meaning of the 97 steps and begins to discover his destiny as the teacher of the man who will finally bring down the Confed.

With more than a hint of Star Wars about it this book managed to hit pretty much all the SF clich├ęs whilst just managing to be entertaining enough to finish. Despite the fact that there was hardly an original idea in it, Perry still created likable enough characters, dramatic enough combat scenes and an interesting enough storyline to keep me turning pages. Although a reasonable read I can’t really bring myself to recommend it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It’s weird, but I care.

I spend a significant part of each day playing computer games. Largely it’s just a waste of time – time that I could be reading – but I do derive a great deal of pleasure from playing them. Normally the games I play revolve around conflict of some kind as most computer games seem to do. Presently I’m playing Battlefield 2 or Company of Heroes either on-line with friends from work or on my own in single-player mode.

Company of Heroes is new to me though I have played many games like it over the years. It’s what’s known as an RTS or Real-Time Strategy game. In this particular game you get to control a fairly substantial military force of either British, American or German troops, tanks and artillery during the later part of World War 2 in Europe.

There are many things I like about this sort of game but I think what really does it for me is the way the game forces you to think tactically as you respond to actions and counter actions of the ‘enemy’ usually played by the computer AI (Artificial Intelligence). Such things are hardly anything special and not something I would normally think of Blogging about but one thing that did strike me again recently was my feelings towards the men under my ‘command’. I care about them.

Some of my gaming buddies find this rather amusing. After all our ‘men’ are just bits of AI software. They’re not alive in any real sense. They have no feelings, no individual personalities and do not ‘care’ if they ‘live’ or ‘die’ because they are not alive to begin with. So it can be seen as inappropriate at best that I care about their ‘well-being’. My good friend Ali_P can be notoriously cavalier with troops under his ‘command’ happily disposing of them in suicide attacks because he no longer requires them. I myself have had troops stay and die against overwhelming odds in order to give me time to regroup my forces elsewhere but such difficult decisions come with any military leadership.

What makes me feel strangely guilty is when I take my eye ‘off the ball’ and troops die because of my negligence or inattention. I am sorry that they ‘died’ because of my incompetence. It’s weird, but I do honestly care about these small bits of AI software. How strange is that?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Watchdog warns over number plate snooping

By Richard Norton-Taylor for the Guardian

Monday July 16, 2007

Cameras that automatically record car number plates, a weapon in the fight against crime and terrorism, could breach human rights and privacy laws, the government's surveillance watchdog warned today.

Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, said that evidence obtained by the cameras could be challenged if used in court. Though he did not spell out his concerns in his first annual report published today, he said his position was "the same" as that of his predecessor, namely that new legislation was needed to resolve issues "arising from enhanced technological capability". The problem is that automatic photographing of number plates, with information passed on to the Highways Agency, can be classed as covert surveillance. However, it is not covered by existing laws regulating the use of covert surveillance.

Sir Andrew Leggatt, Sir Christopher's predecessor and like him a former appeal court judge, warned last year that the deployment of automatic number plate recognition constitutes surveillance when an identifiable image is recorded of a person in a vehicle. He added that it could also amount to obtaining private information about the person whether or not the individual had been identified in the context of a specific investigation or operation. He said the practice "will therefore be vulnerable to challenge unless it is authorised". The trouble, the surveillance commissioners say, is that if the number plate recognition system is set up to record any vehicle which is linked to a computer database, including that of the Highways Agency's camera records, it is unlikely that the system would be authorised.

Sir Christopher made it clear that the Home Office had ignored his predecessor's warnings of the need for new legislation to protect a system widely used by the police to pursue cars suspected of being involved in crime. Whitehall officials say that the system is also valuable in tracking terrorist suspects. The office of the surveillance commissioners was set up by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

[Paranoid….? Who me? I still think the way to go is just to barcode everyone from birth and have done with it – rather then this piecemeal process of turning us all into obedient little robotic citizens. I’m sure that the fact that I was bar-coded would make me so much safer than being anonymous little me.]

Friday, October 19, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Empires of Belief – Why we need more Scepticism and Doubt in the 21st Century by Stuart Sim.

Seeing the growth of faith based belief systems apparently on the march all over the world Stuart Sim feels that it is time to take a stand. Utilising the philosophy of scepticism this book calls for an attack on the seeming certainties offered up by religious, political and scientific ideologies. Calling on the power of doubt Sim believes that we need to wake up before the world is thrust into an even deeper conflict between competing mindless fundamentalists.

This was a vigorous and well argued book which brings scepticism back as a central defence against the many competing ‘empires of belief’ in the world today. Far from concentrating on the obvious religious extremism Sim also explores the boundaries of political and scientific beliefs – especially when they profess absolute certainty. Virulently opposed to these absolutes he proposes that we can all use a healthy dose of scepticism in our lives to help us navigate the present area of competing beliefs. Sim also warns against the use of ‘super-scepticism’ exhibited by the post-modernists and post-structuralists. Such ideas whilst arguably the logical conclusion of scepticism, are seen as ultimately self defeating and unreasonable. This is a useful and rewarding book for anyone interested in how to call any absolutist ideology into question. Recommended.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 8)

By Julian Baggini

Universalizability

There is something else we could say about why it is bad to cause unnecessary pain which opens the door to another powerful way of thinking about ethics. In each of our own cases we would have no problem in seeing that it is bad for us to suffer unnecessary pain. But if it is bad for us, surely it is also bad for any other creature that could suffer pain in a similar way? If that is true, we have another reason not to cause suffering to others.

This is a very natural line of thought, and versions of the principle that stands behind it have been formulated in various different ways throughout history, from Confucius's golden rule 'Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself, through Kant's categorical imperative, to the parent who asks their child to consider what would happen if everyone behaved like that. What reasons do we have to accept something like the golden rule? One reason is that we are in danger of acting inconsistently - or to put it more crudely, hypocritically - if we don't. We can see why by thinking about Kant's distinction between what he called hypothetical and categorical imperatives. An imperative is any kind of command such as `you must do X' or `you ought to do X'. Some imperatives hold only with regard to some desired outcome or purpose. For example, if I'm trying to gain weight, then it might be said that I ought to have another cream cake. This 'ought' carries some force only because of my desired goal of gaining weight: I ought to eat the cake only if I want to gain weight. Such an imperative is `hypothetical' in Kant's terminology, meaning that we always need to give some goal or aim to explain why we really ought to do what the imperative commands.

In contrast to these, Kant argued that moral 'oughts' are categorical. I ought not to murder regardless of my aims or objectives. The prohibition is categorical, meaning that we do not need to give some goal or aim to explain why we really ought to follow it. One of the points Kant is making is that this just is the structure of a moral rule. It is the nature of moral rules that they have the form of categorical imperatives. If this is true, then whenever we recognize that we ought to do something or ought not to do something else, we are endorsing a principle that is not relative to the particular interests, desires, or objectives of specific individuals, but universal and applicable to all. So, for example, to recognize that I ought not to be cheated is to recognize that no one ought to be cheated. To be indignant about being cheated while not worrying about cheating others is thus an example of hypocrisy: the arbitrary changing of rules to suit oneself. We need not go as far with Kant to embrace the idea of the categorical imperative to see that some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning. All we need to get the general principle of universalizability is first to accept that certain things are good or bad if they happen to us, and second to accept that there is no rational reason why, if they are good or bad for us, then they are not also good or bad for other people in similar circumstances. If we accept these two propositions then we have some kind of rational grounding for the principle that we ought not to do unto others what we would object to them doing unto us.

As with all the moral principles I have sketched, we do not have to go too far into the details for things to get difficult and controversial. In this instance, one of the major debates is whether or not universal, categorical imperatives are somehow demanded by reason, as Kant thought, or whether or not the sense in which universalizing moral rules is rational is much weaker. For what it's worth, I think the second response is correct. But as with so many details of moral philosophy, for practical purposes these debates may not matter very much. The very basic principle of universalizability, that if we think something ought to be done in one instance then it ought to be done in other relevantly similar circumstances, commands sufficient agreement and can be used in such a wide range of moral arguments, that technical problems with its formulation and justification are no obstacle to its employment in everyday moral reasoning.

[Universalising morality is another good strand in moral thinking – but yet again not enough in itself to stand as the moral principle. This is actually a good point to make, that no single moral guide is sufficient to answer all of our ethical questions, that guidance should be and needs to be sought from various and diverse sources. Only in this way can we have a truly rounded morality. Kant and other moral philosophers can provide hints, tips and sign posts to help us all think about morality in ways that may be unfamiliar to us. Such unfamiliarity can only prompt us to reconsider the foundations of our own moral thinking and with some effort provide us with a more rational response to the moral questions that arise on a regular basis in everyone’s life.]

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Picture Time.

There's sometime about puppies that always makes me smile no matter what mood I'm in. I call them "Life on a leash" and are seen normally in the process of dragging a young child around in the attempt to explore everything - now! I cannot help but admire their enthusiasm.

Friday, October 12, 2007

US Rejects Ban on Cluster Bombs

by Agence France Presse

February 24, 2007

The United States on Friday rejected an international call to abandon the use of cluster bombs, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We ... take the position that these munitions do have a place and a use in military inventories, given the right technology as well as the proper rules of engagement," he said.

Forty-six countries meeting in Oslo on Friday pledged to seek a treaty banning cluster bombs by next year, with major user and stockpiler Britain and manufacturer France signing on, Norway said.

"We, ourselves, have already taken a couple of other steps with regard to technical upgrades to cluster munitions, as well as looking very closely at the rules of engagement, how they are used," said McCormack. "So it is something that over the course of the years we have looked at very closely. We have taken very seriously the international discussion with respect to the threat posed by unexploded ordnance to innocent civilians," he said. Japan, Poland and Romania refused to sign the accord, while key nations such as Israel and the United States did not take part in the conference.

The 46 countries agreed to "commit themselves to ... conclude by 2008 a legally binding international instrument that will prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians," according to the declaration. A number of leading countries, including Britain and France, had previously said they wanted a ban to be part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a process which Norway and a number of other nations consider to be a failure.

A cluster bomb is a container holding hundreds of smaller bomblets. It opens in mid-air and disperses the bomblets over a large area. The smaller bombs do not always explode on impact, which means they can continue to kill innocent civilians years later. A recent report by Handicap International claimed that 98 percent of casualties from cluster munitions are non-combatants.

[It would appear from this and other studies that the vast majority of casualties caused by ‘cluster munitions’ are civilians and especially children. If the proposed world-wide ban is unacceptable to some users then at least it should be possible to restrict their use to combat zones where it is unlikely that civilians will re-enter once the conflict is over. Use of these weapons should at the very least be outlawed within built-up areas or areas where it is likely that civilian casualties will occur once the fighting has stopped. War in general is an awful business even if it is sometimes a necessary evil. Surely it is not beyond us to make such a distasteful activity as civilized as it possibly can be?]

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Cuba by Stephen Coonts

Fidel Castro is dying. Conspiracies are already underway to bring forward a successor. At the heart of the most dangerous is Minister of State Security Alejo Vargas. With his police force to command and the secrets he has accumulated over the years he has managed to intimidate almost everyone. He also has an ace in the hole if all else fails. For he knows of the secret locations of six remaining ballistic missiles left over from the Cuban Missile Crisis, now fitted with state of the art biological weapons – each aimed at the heart of a separate American city.

Thrust into this arena is Rear-Admiral Jake Grafton in charge of a carrier battle group off Cuba’s coast. He is under orders to prevent to launch of the missiles at all costs and must sacrifice the lives of the men and women under his command if necessary to save the lives of millions of his countrymen. The clock is ticking and Grafton cannot afford to make a single mistake.

I like Stephen Coonts. He manages to get across often quite fantastical ideas in a understated way – without being insultingly jingoistic (unlike Dale Brown). Coonts clearly knows his military but uses that knowledge in a more subtle and nuanced way than some other authors in this genre (like Dale Brown) so that I for one didn’t feel insulted by incessant flag waving. The portrayal of Cuba itself seemed to be rather stereotypical – though I don’t know enough about it to pick apart the particulars of his description – and the military personnel did seem fairly two dimensional at times but the story was an interesting one and the combat sequences were well handled. Whilst not exactly a book to win any awards this was a reasonably good and entertaining read. One for the beach maybe.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 7)

By Julian Baggini

Consequences

It is an obvious fact about actions that they have consequences. What is more, these consequences can be good or bad: they can make things better or worse. Arguably, the mere fact that we recognize this to be true is enough to get some form of morality going.

To give a simple example, if I kick someone for no reason then that causes them pain. That pain is a bad thing which cannot in any way be outweighed by any better, good thing, because there is no reason for the kicking. Recognizing that the causing of this pain is a bad thing thus gives me a reason not to kick them. It should be obvious that if we start thinking in this way we have the basis for a kind of morality, one that is usually termed consequentialist. We have reasons for not doing things that have bad consequences and we have reasons to do things that have good consequences, just because we recognize that it is better that good things happen than bad ones.

As soon as we try and build on this banal-sounding truism to construct a complete moral theory we head into difficulties. But it does not seem to me that these subsequent difficulties in any way cast doubt upon the simple observations that set us off in this direction. For instance, consider one difficulty, which concerns the status of these reasons for action. If we start to think about why a thing having bad consequences is a reason for not doing it we can soon see a puzzle. What kinds of reasons are they? Are they reasons that express simple facts? Is 'pain is bad thing' a kind of factual truth on a par with lead is heavier than water'? Many philosophers have thought not. 'Lead is heavier than water' is a simple, incontrovertible truth which is demonstrated by the physical sciences. In saying that it is true we are doing no more than describing the world. But when we say 'pain is a bad thing' it seems we are not just describing the world, we are evaluating it. If we were simply describing the world we could say things like 'pain is found to be unpleasant' or 'pain is something living creatures seek to avoid', but the moment we say it is bad we move beyond the facts to making value judgements.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then any moral argument that is based on a claim that 'pain is a bad thing' is not just expressing truths about the world but is making a judgement about it. And that means that moral claims are not true or false in the same way as factual claims are. Because moral claims are judgements, it is always possible for someone to disagree with them without saving something that is factually false. So if I say pain is not bad, you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error. There are various philosophical reasons why this question is important. But in practice I am not sure it matters one bit. All we need to get going on a broadly consequentialist way of thinking about ethics is to accept that pain is a bad thing. Now it is an interesting question whether or not 'pain is a bad thing' is a fact or a judgement, but as long as we agree that pain is a bad thing, for practical purposes the question does not require an answer. But what about the person who does not accept that pain is a bad thing? Let us assume this disagreement is not on technical grounds (in other words that they refuse to assert that it is a bad thing because they believe to do so entails some philosophical commitment they do not want to sign up to). In such a circumstance I don't think we need to be concerned by the fact that our moral view does not command 100% agreement. As I have already argued, morality in the end requires a personal commitment and the acceptance of responsibility. In some unusual circumstances we may be confronted with a situation where rational argument can take us no further and we are confronted with a stark disagreement: I think (unnecessary) pain is bad, you do not. In such a situation we can only stand up for our values. And since our most basic values are shared with the vast majority of other human beings, such resolution in the face of dissent is hardly fascistic.

I would not want to suggest that there aren't real problems with consequentialist thinking. Indeed, I think there are a great many and that a purely consequentialist moral system is deeply flawed. However, that does not diminish the fact that in simply accepting that bad consequences provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others we have one pillar upon which to build a godless morality.

[I think that most people are to a large extent consequentialists. We do things because we think that the consequences will be good or do not do things because we think that the consequences will be bad. Of course, as Baggini points out, there are many problems with this idea as the only guide to morality – but as a single strand along with others it does offer a useful (if far from perfect) guide to the idea of what is right and what is wrong without the need for God.]

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Video Time.

Saw Across the Universe yesterday with CQ. As a Beatles fan I went along for the music but stayed for the delightful movie. I must admit that I enjoyed every minute of it and it almost instantly became only the third film this year to make my DVD list. If you haven't seen it already and you have the least bit of interest in the 60's I can heartily recommend this movie.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Evolution of Seeking Truth

I’ve been tagged by Stardust to do a post on the Evolution of my Blog. It’s certainly not the normal 20 Questions type Meme so took more than the usual time and effort to put together.

I was prompted (actually badgered) into Blogging by my good friend Aginoth who discovered it some two years ago. Being the persuasive person that he is – and very persistent – most of the group produced our own Blogs. To begin with I really didn’t know what to Blog about. I certainly wasn’t going to Blog about my life which is far too boring to interest anyone else. The only thing that I could even conceive Blogging about was ideas, a subject I love with a passion. So it began on Sunday October 16th 2005 with this quote from Leonardo Da Vinci:

Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals open your eyes!

Pretty soon the mix of postings took shape – basically politics, religion and philosophy. I have always liked asking annoying questions and have been accused on more than one ocassion of never knowing when to stop. When I get my teeth into something (or someone) I am pretty much relentless especially when I scent blood in the water – hence my Blog warning of watching out for sharks! I like to know how people think especially about things I struggle to understand. Like my hero Socrates I find that people most of the time don’t really understand why they think and believe what they do. Blogging about various things I find helps those willing and able to debate on hot topics to actually discover their own thoughts and beliefs. Whatever dosen’t kill them makes them stronger.

Almost from the very start my Blog has attracted Christians who stongly oppose the things I post. One of the earliest was Q (now rebranded as stephen who shows up from time to time on Jewish Atheist's Blog) who, like his sucessors, slowly come to the realisation that I am not a fly-by-night atheist who doesn’t really have a firm grounding in their unbelief. After some rather heated exchanges – at least from his side – Q finally gave up on me presumably to look for easier meat. This patern has been repeated in the subsequent two years.

One of the great things that has emerged over the life of this Blog is that I have become the regular (or semi-regular) haunt for about a half dozen commenters. Most of them appear to be in general agreement with my point of view which is always good to hear. Being a lone voice in the wilderness might seem pretty cool but it is nice to have a few friends around for a metaphorical beer too. They also, when the need arises, back me up against the ocassional asshole that inevitably shows up from time to time.

Any regulars will have noticed that I’m a huge book reader. From December 2005 I started Blogging about books starting with Books that Rocked my World. Rather inevitably the first book I reviewed was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins which quite literally blew me away in my 20’s and made me a convinced Darwinian. It didn’t prompt me to lose my faith in God – because as my readership will already be aware I never had any to begin with. It did however have a huge impact on my view of the world and much else besides. Since that date I have been posting more regular book reviews some of which recently have actually provoked reactions from the authors themselves. Books are a significant part of my life so it’s no real surprise that they’re also a significant part of this Blog.

Another significant thread that runs throughout the two year life of this Blog is discussions about Terrorism and the so-called War on Terror. More often than not they generate no comments at all and I’m even unsure if people read them but I feel that certain things must be said. My readership will already be aware that I am opposed to the War on Terror and have repeatedly pointed to the dangers such a faux war represents to Western style Democracies with our increased survellience of citizens and imprisionment without trial. It seems saddly that I will need to post on these things for the forseeable future.

One of the things I was rather sloppy with to begin with was the providence of the things I posted. I had assumed, wrongly in turned out, that it was obvious when a posting was from me and when it was from another source. After several comments I made efforts that the origin of the posting was as clear as I could make it.

I love cartoons. Often they can speak volumes on a subject with just a single well drawn image. From early 2006 cartoons became a regular feature of this Blog. I now post two every week on Wednesdays and Sundays. Normally I alternate a religious and non-religious cartoon for variety.

Also early in 2006 I discovered the Ministry of Homeland Security who recycle old propaganda posters from WW2 and The Cold War and redesign them for the political realities of today’s screwed up world. These posters have now become a regular bi-weekly post on this Blog. Most of them barely cause a comment whilst others really strike a cord.

So not long after this Blog was launched on an unsuspecting world it pretty much settled down into the style you see today. No doubt the content will change over time. I have a butterfy mind and have always failed to keep an interest in most things (except just three that I can think of right off) for very long. But we shall see – after all that’s part of the adventure of living, not knowing what’s just around the corner.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Welcome to the Machine – Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan

This was a rather strange book and turned out to be not quite what I was expecting. I have been interested for some time now in the ways societies control their citizens. This has become more acute since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent so-called War on Terror. Governments are increasingly using surveillance and other techniques against their own populations in the name of security. We have yet to witness the end of Government intrusion into our daily lives.

Although this book does indeed cover that area, the problems I had with it far outweighed any interesting or informative arguments it may have contained. Almost from the first page the reader is presented with what is best described as a rabid attack on science, capitalism, rationality and anything that smacked of Western culture. Only, the authors argued, when we turn our backs on these ‘evils’ will we be truly free and fulfil our human potential. Significant parts of this book proved to be a struggle as arguments against technology and capital were layered over each other in what I can only imagine was the vain hope that something would eventually cause a cogent argument to emerge from the mess. Unfortunately this was not the case.

This was a real shame because, beneath all the bile, there are actual arguments to make against the way the West is run and the way Capital pervades, transforms and shatters lives. Whispers of useful critiques drifted through the book like ghosts apparently unseen for the most part by the authors. Without a clearly focused approach they singularly failed to make their arguments stick too often racing ahead into fantasies of dystopian paranoia. I’m sure that this work wasn’t supposed to be funny in any way but I admit that I laughed out loud on several occasions as they presented blue sky theorising as inimical near future or present covert technology which is, in reality, either still years if not decades away or simply too impractical to produce or deploy.

We in Europe and the US are certainly in danger of drifting, or being pushed, into a surveillance society as envisaged in this book but I doubt if such a controlled world is likely or even possible. Human beings are born contrarians who know deep in their hearts that resistance is never futile but is on the contrary truly character building. Some of Jensen’s and Draffan’s fears are not without foundation but I do feel that they protest far too much.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Gold Standard

I love movies and if I could see a film every week I would. Unfortunately the number of films being released that I want to see has been in steady decline year on year. As I get older I find myself becoming an ever harsher critic of the movie industry. From time to time though a film impresses me enough to reach what I have dubbed my ‘Gold Standard’. This simply means that I thought it good enough (for various reasons) to later purchase on DVD for further viewing. I mentioned this standard recently on Sadie’s craft Blog and she requested that I list some of the films that have met my exacting standards. So here’s a taste of the films I have enjoyed over the last few years. I expect that some will surprise you – maybe.

300
A Very Long Engagement
Children of Men
Dejavu
Donnie Darko
Hero
Hidalgo
House of Flying Daggers
I, Robot
Kingdom of Heaven
Man on Fire
National Treasure
Over the Hedge
Pride and Prejudice
Serenity
Seven Swords
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Incredibles
The Island
The Motorcycle Diaries
The Prestige
Troy
Underworld
V for Vendetta
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit

Monday, October 01, 2007

Atheist Ethics (Part 6)

By Julian Baggini

Human flourishing

If you flick through Aristotle's great work of moral philosophy, the Nichomachean Ethics, you might notice something that looks strange to modern eyes. At one point, Aristotle asks what the right number of friends to have is and whether or not it is possible to be friends with bad people. But how can the number of friends we have be a concern of ethics? Understand this and you have understood what is very different about the Ancient Greek conception of ethics compared to some popular modern conceptions of morality. We tend to think of morality in terms of prohibitions and obligations. There are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do, and living a moral life consists in following these rules. Our broader life goals, such as success, happiness, or finding the perfect pizza, are then pursued within these constraints.

This modern conception separates out the idea of a life going well for a given individual and that person following moral rules. This distinction did not exist in Aristotle's ethics, nor in many of the ethics of other Ancient Greek thinkers. For them, ethics just was about what is required for a human life to go well or to 'flourish'. What we would now recognize as moral rules were based on the idea that following such maxims was required if one's life was to go well. Because ethics was approached in this way, the list of recommendations Aristotle made included some things we would think were obviously about ethics and some things which we would not. So the good person - one whose life is going well - will be prudent, have a close circle of not too many friends, show courage, be just, spend money wisely, and be amiable and witty.

A central insight of Aristotle's was that in order to live such a life one has to cultivate certain dispositions of character. He recognized that we are creatures of habit and that the best way of ensuring we act well is for us to practise doing good things, so that we then do them without having to think about it. So moral education is about instilling virtuous habits, while moral theorizing can be undertaken only once we are mature and developed. One important question is whether Aristotle's ethics ignores the distinction between morality and self-interest or shows that the division is illusory. It would be nice to think that just as long as we do what is genuinely required for our lives to flourish then we will always do the right thing by others. But this may be too optimistic a view. After all, it has to be remembered that Aristotle was writing for a male, slave-owning class who did not take into account the interests of those lower down the social ladder. There is no hand wringing in Aristotle about the slave's ability to lead a flourishing life: slaves are just ignored. So there are at least grounds for concern that Aristotle's approach only meets the interest of some and not all, and that therefore it fails to provide a true morality.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to see just how far one can go with Aristotle's approach. Just by thinking about what is required for a life to go well, we end up with a picture of a virtuous life which is in almost all respects an extremely moral one. Greed, anger, maliciousness, petty self-interest, and so forth do not enter into the life of Aristotle's flourishing person. For your life to go well for you, you cannot afford to be in the grip of these destructive forces.

So here is a first step in moral thinking. Forget any transcendental lawgiver or divine source of morality. Just think about what is needed for a human life to go well and you will soon find that most of what we recognize as morality comes into play. If that were all we could say about morality, however, we might be a little concerned. After all, it does seem that the wicked can flourish too. Many have tried to argue that this is not so, and that, despite appearances, no one who is wicked is truly happy or content. I personally wish this were true but find it hard to believe. Life would be very easy if self-interest and living well always coincided. But I don't think they do, and that is why we need to draw upon other ways of thinking about ethics if we are to construct a credible morality.

[I’ve just read through about half of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics this weekend for a course assignment. It’s pretty good and often surprisingly modern in tone considering it was written 2300 years ago. As a single work it doesn’t represent what we should think of a complete foundation for ethical thought – no single book or thinker should ever be that – but it does provide a valuable resource for the further contemplation of non-theistic (or at least non-Christian) non rule-based ethics. I’ll be re-reading this work and others by Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers shortly. I think that they still have much to teach us.]