Between Either and Or April 19, 2011Posted by Matt in philosophy.
Tags: balancing life and work, Bruce Springsteen, corporations, Either/Or, Elliott Smith, Kierkegaard, work
It was a difficult morning.
The sky was cloudy, the kids were crying, and to top it off, we were completely out of that life-giving elixir, coffee. When I finally pulled away from our babysitter’s home, running late as usual, it was with a sigh of stressful relief, knowing that a small piece of another busy day was complete, but also that time was short and the work ahead was long.
I have a good job, one that pays fairly well and has a decent amount of flexibility in the work day, but oftentimes the soulless, bottom-line philosophy undergirding every action of a corporation can wear on a person and stress becomes a fact of life. It becomes difficult to extricate oneself from the corporate machine with its overlapping deadlines, impersonal interactions, and its impassive eyes of stone that only see dollars and cents.
This morning I was scheduled to conduct a meeting at a location on the east side of the city, meaning that I would have a much longer commute that is normally necessary for my work, so before leaving town I grabbed a cup of coffee and chose an album to listen to while making the drive – Elliott Smith’s Either/Or.
As I made my way onto the crowded stretch of interstate, the melancholy sounds of an acoustic guitar and Smith’s whispery vocals filled the car and my mind started to wander. The album is of course named for Soren Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or, which talks of the inner, soul-shaking turmoil of humans between aesthetic pleasure and moral rightness, freedom and necessity, imagination and rules etched in stone.
As I drive this busy Memphis freeway I think of some of the dueling forces in my own soul, between the job that provides the income to support a family but that could easily suck away my very being, leaving behind only a shell of humanity, and the drive to do something worthwhile, to change the world for the better.
The tragic story of Elliott Smith is one where he ultimately couldn’t strike a balance in his life and succumbed to pain and anguish, dying of self-inflicted wounds at the age of 34. While I am certainly not suicidal, I see the danger in giving in and becoming just another corporate automaton whose life is defined by the bottom line.
I think of one of my favorite Springsteen songs, the poignant “Racing in the Street,” where he utters these prophetic lines:
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racing in the street.
That’s me. I want to go “racing in the street,” to not let my work swallow me whole, to keep my love for my fellow man intact. I want to recognize beauty and enjoy life to the fullest. As I drove the highway, passing by those numerous monuments to humankind, a beam of sunlight broke through the cloud cover, illuminating the ground around me and suddenly I knew it would be alright.
I am on the right track.
Objectivism and Child Rearing August 17, 2010Posted by Matt in humor, philosophy.
Tags: Ayn Rand, children, Objectivism
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My friend Nicole sent this link to me on Facebook and I thought it was pretty funny so I wanted to share it with all of you.
Magnetic Morality March 30, 2010Posted by Matt in philosophy, science.
Tags: brain, consequentialism, deontology, end justifies the means, magnetic fields, morality, RTPJ
According to a recent scientific study, magnets can alter a person’s sense of morality.
Previously neuroscientists have found that the area of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) is related to moral judgments. In this study, a powerful magnet field was used to scramble this moral center of the brain, making it much more difficult for subjects to separate innocent intentions from harmful outcomes.
This experiment consisted of 20 subjects who were read several dozen different stories about people with good or bad intention that resulted in a variety of outcomes. An example given in the article referenced above was a story about a boyfriend leading his girlfriend across a bridge. In some versions, the boyfriend walks her over the bridge without incident and with no ill effects. In others, the boyfriend intentionally attempts to get the girlfriend to break her ankle on the bridge. They were then asked to rate on a seven point scale – one being forbidden and seven completely permissible – whether or not they found the situation to be morally acceptable.
When a magnetic field was applied, it created confusion in the RTPJ neurons and caused it to be harder for the subject to interpret the boyfriend’s intent, so the subject focused solely on the situation’s outcome. When no magnetic field was used, the subjects focused on the boyfriend’s good intentions, rather than the outcome.
I find it interesting that the unaltered mind tends to focus on “the means” of a situation rather than “the end.” It all seems to go back to that age old conflict between two major forms of moral philosophy – consequentialism and deontology.
Consequentialism is the idea that the consequences of an action are more important than the action itself. Thus, if the outcome is desirable, then the method of reaching that outcome is morally good.
The ethical field of Deontology, on the other hand, focuses on the concept of a person’s duty or moral obligation. Immanuel Kant called this a categorical imperative – a rational standard that creates a moral structure. So, in this view, actions are important and regardless of their consequences, some actions are always morally wrong.
This study is intriguing in that it shows a person’s natural moral compass seems to tend toward a deontological view rather than a consequentialist one, one in which the end does not necessarily justify the means.
Jesus’ Dollhouse July 21, 2009Posted by Matt in family, philosophy, theology.
Tags: children, determinism, dollhouse, free will, god, philosophy, theology
This morning I was enjoying a few minutes with my oldest child, Rachel, during breakfast when she asked what I thought to be a rather profound question. At some point, out of the blue, she innocently asked me, “Daddy, are we like dolls in Jesus’ dollhouse?”
After talking back and forth for a few moments, I realized that the basis for this question from her rapidly developing 6 year old mind lay in the age old theological debate between Free Will and Determinism. Do human beings actually have a free will, are they able to make rational choices of how to live their life that will ultimately control their destiny, or are we following a path that has been pre-ordained by an omniscient God? Needless to say, I was floored by her perceptiveness.
“Honey,” I said, “that is a very interesting question and one that has been asked for many, many years by people studying theology. What made you think of that?”
Rachel smiled and shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know. I was just wondering if this (gesturing to the house around us) is like a dollhouse and we are like dolls to God.”
“So,” I carefully answered, “what you are really asking is, does God control you and me like dolls?”
“Uh, huh,” she replied, shaking her head in affirmative.
“Well, what do you think?”
Giggling like only a little girl can, she answered, “I hope not.”
Like I said, she’s a smart kid.
On Torture and Morality April 27, 2009Posted by Matt in philosophy, politics.
Tags: consequentialism, deontology, Dick Cheney, ethics, Immanuel Kant, morality, philosophy, torture, waterboarding
I’ve had a great interest in moral philosophy for some time now and I often find myself disseminating ethical problems in an attempt to understand the root causes for the moral conundrum being faced. Sometimes this analysis focuses on works of fiction (see On The Watchmen and Morality) and sometimes, such as in today’s entry, there are real world problems that can seem rather confounding.
Recently, I’ve been struck by the controversy surrounding the alleged use of torture, particularly the act of waterboarding, by the US government on those from whom they hoped to glean information of terrorist activities. The two sides of the argument seem to follow directly in line with the conflict that has long been at the root of moral philosophy – Does the end justify the means?
Following the release of the “torture memos,” we have been bombarded with positions from both sides of the argument.
Human Rights groups make the claim based in the moral philosophy of deontology that torture is always wrong, regardless of the information that would could gain from torturing. The best known purveyor of deontological ethics, Immanuel Kant, based his moral philosophy on something he dubbed the categorical imperative, defined as “acting only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become universal law.” In this way of thinking, human beings would never be seen as the “means to an end,” but as “ends” themselves. Thus, there could be no moral justification for an inherently wrong act, regardless of the end result.
On the other side of the ideological fence stand the consequentialists, those who do claim that the ends justify the means. In the mind of one following this idea of morality, an action can only be judged “right” or “wrong” depending on its ultimate result. In the current argument over torture, this is probably best seen in the statements of Dick Cheney, who recently made the claim that the information gained from those whom the US tortured may have saved thousands of lives. Thus, in his view, torture becomes morally justified if the consequences of the torture are deemed good.
And this, of course, doesn’t even get into virtue ethics
On the Watchmen and Morality March 11, 2009Posted by Matt in books, philosophy.
Tags: deontology, Dr. Manhattan, evil, good, Immanuel Kant. consequentialism, John Stuart Mill, moral absolutism, morality, philosophy, Rorschach, utilitarianism, Watchmen
I re-read the incredible graphic novel, Watchmen, last week and was able to see the newly released movie on Friday night, so, as would be expected, I’ve been thinking about it a good bit. The book itself is complex in its dealings with human nature, God, society, and a host of other issues, but one piece of the overall puzzle that caught my attention was its treatment of morality, and the conflict between major schools of moral thinking.
While the Comedian could be included as an example of amoral philosophy, there are two characters in particular that I would like to look at, each of whom tend to reside on opposite ends of the moral spectrum – Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach.
Throughout the book, Rorschach displays a sort of black and white moral absolutism, a personal philosophy shaped by his past experiences on the street. He displays this time and again, both through statements like “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise on this,” and through his actions in punishing with no remorse those he perceives as evil. This worldview becomes particularly clear in the end when the characters discover Veidt’s plot to end nuclear escalation and avoid global war by orchestrating a catastrophic event that kills millions, rather than the billions that might die in said war, and Rorschach stands as the lone dissenting voice, refusing to acquiesce. Moral absolutism, such as that exhibited by Rorschach, is a subset of an approach to ethics known as deontology, which can be defined as a branch of ethics dealing with duty, moral obligation, and right action. Immanuel Kant was a noted deontologist whose moral philosophy was centered upon the concept of duty. One’s duty is a direct consequence of what Kant called the categorical imperative, a standard of rationality which begets a moral structure. In the story, it was Rorschach’s uncompromising dedication to duty, built upon a categorical imperative defining evil that led him to act in the way that he did and that eventually led to his death. In his view, as well as that of Kant, some actions are always evil, regardless of circumstances.
On the other side of the coin stands the manifestation of a man-made, deist God, Dr. Manhattan. Throughout the book, Manhattan stays coldly aloof from humanity, apart from the cares and wants of others. It is not until the end of the book, as Veidt’s plan for an act of horrific violence to end worldwide hostilities comes to light, that we really see the bedrock upon which his moral sense stands. As the story reaches its climax, Manhattan, with his near-omnipotent powers, certainly has the ability to put a halt to the plan that would destroy much of New York, yet he chooses not to do so, instead allowing millions to die in order to save the lives of billions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism. Consequentialism is the idea that the consequences of an action are more important than the action itself. Therefore, if the outcome is desirable, then the method of reaching that outcome is morally good, or, in more Machiavellian terms, “the end justifies the means.” Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill may have expressed this best when he wrote about “The greatest good for the greatest number.”
So, we find the moral predicament of the Watchmen similar to that which has plagued our world for ages. Which is more important, the end or the means?