Freedom and Judgment, Part 1, by Sean Agius

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Man being held by authorities after mass murder spree”

Imagine that the above was to be today’s primary news headline. Had this been the case, what would you assume your reaction to be? Presumably – shock, terror, sorrow and everything in between (or at least I hope so). Now if I were to ask you what your thoughts on the perpetrator would be, for the sake of the example let us call him Paul, how would you answer? This may seem like a stupid question (an adjective that I’ve become highly accustomed to over the years), the answer of which I suppose will be quite unitary. If you are in fact like most people you consider Paul to be an evil, malicious, repugnant, sinister, vile (insert other negative labels here) individual who should be locked away in prison for the rest of his life or worse.

Let us, however, merge this hypothetical with a few other hypotheticals, creating a nice little hypothetical soup. If I were to inform you that the attack was crime-related and that Paul is a gangster holding a series of affiliations with multiple criminal groups, would it alter your opinion? I assume not – you most likely still hold Paul in passionate detestment, wishing the law to cross the proverbial knockout blow upon his freedom or perhaps even life. Now imagine I informed you that Paul was a psychopath, the type who thirsts for blood in the same manner as the villain in a horror movie; does this in any manner alter your frame of mind? Perhaps for some, in a sense; if I were to imitate the role of the mind-reader however, I would presume that most people still hold little sympathy for our hypothetical man, irrespective of this new information.

Let me provide you with one final hypothetical though (this will be the last, I promise). Paul has recently just returned from a trip outside the continent in which he lived out his dream of trekking through a rainforest for an extended period of time. The journey was a fulfilling one, the peak moment arriving during the last week of the trip. As Paul was stumbling through the rainforest, searing in the potent sun and carefully navigating to avoid the snakes and tarantulas, he stumbled upon a cave, a cave so beautiful that Paul was left awe-struck.

It stood at something like twelve feet tall and a mile wide; its shapely limestone enough to render the most hard-bitten cynic into a nature lover’s blissfulness. The mass of the limestone dispersed in a unique yet symmetrical manner which could not be replicated by the most skilled of sculptors. Its color palate was mesmerizing, the traditionally withering effects of Time substituted with Mother Nature’s divine hand – gifting the stone with a rainbow-like pattern; some parts of it yellow, others red, others green, others a glorious mixture of the lot.

Paul was captivated! He had hoped to see something that would spark his interest but he did not expect this. He just had to take a closer look! With every step that he took the colors turned brighter, the pattern more pronounced, the stone more shapely; leaving him in a quasi-trance until he arrived at the cave’s entrance. His aesthetic palate still not satisfied, he entered the cave; instantly the darkness engulfed him leaving him as blind as a bat, yet still he wondered what image the unwrapped darkness would provide. Were the colors as radiant? The form as ideal?

A cave in the Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana, USA, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Defeated by his curiosity he reached into his pocket – pulling out his flashlight and aiming it at the ceiling. The picture the light uncurtained was not, however, a pleasant one. Clearly annoyed by the light, the bats hanging upon the rooftop begun to disperse in panic. Paul was not generally a fearful man but this would leave anybody shook. Out of pure instinct, he flailed his arms, unintentionally swatting a fleeing bat. It too acted on instinct, sinking its tiny, sharp teeth into Paul’s flesh before disappearing back into the darkness alongside the rest of the flurry of critters. Then as Paul’s adrenaline begun to dwindle he too fled the cave, having lost all interest in his exploratory quest. The bite burnt, but only minimally, it was barely even bleeding. He wiped away the blood and sighed.

“Maybe I’m better served admiring the cave from afar,” he thought to himself.

The final week passed as rapidly as the bats, the encounter nothing more than a distant memory. On his departure, Paul cursed himself for indulging in airport food as he felt tired, nauseated and dizzy during the plane ride. To his surprise, he woke up the next day feeling worse in spite of waking up in his bed for the first time in months.

“Still nothing to worry about,” he thought to himself, ascribing his illness to the jet-lag. Yet as the days passed, his condition worsened significantly. He should have gone to a hospital, a doctor, a nurse, anything! Yet he did nothing!

Finally, the day of the attack arrived. Paul was feeling violently ill that day, enough to finally recognize that he was in urgent need of medical care. His final mistake was to opt to walk towards the hospital rather than call an ambulance. The short walk strained him a hundred times harder than any of his multiple mile-long treks and gradually he began to lose control of his senses; his sanity slipping away like a leaf in a waterfall, until finally his conscious awareness fully disintegrated and his whole being was consumed with red.

You might be wondering a few things at the moment – what happened to Paul? What was the point of the story? Which continent did Paul go to? Is he Batman? Who is this wannabe Charles Dickens writer and why is he so keen on wasting my time? Unfortunately, however, I can only provide an answer to the first question.

Needless to say that in the aftermath of the tragedy the general public was in shock. Though mass murder sprees are not unfortunately unheard of, the events of this one truly were – Paul committing the attack not with weapons but his bare hands and teeth instead, his behavior comparable only to that of a wild beast – the foaming of the mouth, the ear-piercing roars, the mindless aggression. It was only after the investigation that the confused public finally attained some much-needed clarity to the situation. As it turns out the bat bite which Paul shrugged off as a small meaningless sting turned out to be anything but. The gradual deterioration of Paul’s health was the result of the rabies virus, contracted through the bat’s bite, gradually invading his nervous system until it finally attained full control of his body, hijacking even his brain – on the day of the attack, causing him to strike with the ferocity that only a rabid beast could muster, tragically causing the deaths of multiple innocents.

In light of this new information, has your opinion of Paul changed? Venturing a guess, I would say that it has. The prevailing opinion regarding Paul has shifted from that of an aggressor deserving of our spite to that of a victim deserving of our pity. This perspective shift is an interesting one as it highlights that even an action as radical as killing others may be morally excused within certain circumstances. Yet what is it that truly distinguishes the latter circumstance from the former two?

French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The key element to keep in mind here is the concept of determinism (as coined by the philosopher Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace) referring to the lack of ability to freely perform an action. In essence, many people morally excuse Paul for the mass murder spree as he is perceived not free to act otherwise. In this specific case, the physical illness caused by the rabies stripped him of any free will thus relieving him of any form of moral agency or responsibility for his actions that he may have previously possessed. But is it exclusively physical illness that may render one’s actions to be determined and thus morally excusable or may similar non-physical factors also play a role? This question strikes at the heart of one of the most pertinent philosophical debates within the entire history of philosophy – the free will/determinism debate.

The philosophical context of this debate is unsurprisingly significantly further wide-ranging than simply the physical health aspect. It involves a series of determining factors such as mental health, culture, family, knowledge and more. Factors which, according to the advocates of determinism, in unison determine each individual to act in the manner they do, thus rendering the first two versions of Paul no less determined than the third rabid one. These factors each merit a significant portion of attention in themselves – attention which would indubitably render this article too lengthy. I shall, therefore, be concluding this article with a philosophical cliff-hanger of sorts – promising to further expand upon such concepts within a succeeding article.

To be continued….

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!!

O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Say What? George Combe on Human Nature

George Combe, 1836, by Sir Daniel Macnee, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Man obviously stands pre-eminent among sublunary objects, and is distinguished by remarkable endowments above all other terrestrial beings. Nevertheless no creature presents such anomalous appearances as man. Viewed in one aspect he almost resembles a demon; in another he still bears the impress of the image of God.’

~ George Combe, The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, 1835

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!!

What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!