Monday, February 20, 2006

Protection of reason

Should we refrain from harming human life because it is human life? The question seems empty. Interrogating it may lead to a notion of rationality as valuable and worth preserving as an end. What does this mean?

Surely its meaning hangs upon what we mean by 'reason', and whether this equates to or is a part of what we call 'human life'.

What is the human and what is inhuman, if, for example, reason is logic and the ability to calculate? Surely computers must be prized above Einstein, so is the latter relatively inhuman? We may harm Einstein in order to protect a computer system if here we allow that what is logical just is what is human.

If, on the other hand, human life is, by some distinction, Einstein rather than the computer, what is it about human life that prioritizes its logical capacity? What can make less logical capacity more important than a greater logical capacity? What is special about 'human life' other than reasoning, such that we must look for a worthy logic, a worthy reason, precisely here and nowhere else?

Alas, this would be my question. The truth of the matter is that what is human is unimportant, and gets shifted around, while what is important is 'reason' and its value. I have no humanistic bent here, but where else are we to start than with ourselves, where our values are discovered and embodied? We must start, it seems, with our notion of 'reason', and interrogate its value.

It might be proposed that what we can make appear to ourselves as the workings of reason what is in fact nothing of the sort - I think of course of the 'logic' of computers. It will not be necessary to consider whether machines think, but whether the notion of 'reason' as 'logic' is what we truly intend, since the notion of calculation is that which we value. Is this our vision of worth? What more is 'reason' than 'logic'? The ability, perhaps, to judge correctly?

And so it continues. Why is there value in judging correctly? Is this to say accurately and dispassionately? Is judgment the extension of logic into calculating probability? If this is for us a poise under fire, such that we can reason things through even when the going is tough? Is it for us an ability to keep an intellectualised priority while battling sensation and emotion? Here's an apparent absurdity - why protect from harm precisely that which best insulates itself from it?

Affirming an intellectual paradigm is difficult for us when flames lick around our heels, but doesn't the ability of rationality consist precisely in this struggle? Surely we praise those with poise under fire? Without the reality of harm do we destroy rational ability? And how do we acquire this ability - should we create the proposition 'harm should be lifted in order for it to be lowered later, when the mind has the possibility of dealing with it?'; have we made reason commonplace, its link with the ability to do its work under duress simply trusted or shoved under the carpet?

Is it - not an ability - but an idyllic world, a retreat from the shifting and burning sands, that we value? Is reason that which we have never attained but nonetheless longed for? Is it Nietzsche's ascetic ideal? Is it Plato's contemplation of the forms? Did Plato not say 'no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death'? That this proposition is true, is it absurd? There is certainly no need to speak anymore of harm.

An ability implies a struggle, a utopia implies salvation. Harm is necessary to the former and irrelevant to the latter. In either case we cannot prescribe that it is proper not to harm the rational.

So what do we mean, and how do we mean it?

Saturday, February 18, 2006


  From the Guardian:
What grates on Sen is the idea that individuals should be ushered like sheep into pens according to their religious faith, a mode of classification that too often trumps all others and ignores the fact that people are always complex, multi-faceted individuals who choose their identities from a wide range of economic, cultural and ideological alternatives. "Being defined by one group identity over all others," he says, "overlooking whether you're working class or capitalist, left or right, what your language group is and your literary tastes are, all that interferes with people's freedom to make their own choices."
  What begins by giving people room to express themselves, he argues, may force people into an identity chosen by the authorities. "That is what is happening now, here," he says, a little indignantly. "I think there is a real tyranny there. It doesn't look like tyranny - it looks like giving freedom and tolerance - but it ends up being a denial of individual freedom. The individual belongs to many different groups and it is up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority."
  Sen is also critical of the growing consultative power given to the religious organisations of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. It does, he believes, magnify the power and authority of religious leaders at the expense of a healthy democratic debate. "Suddenly the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim organisations are in charge of all Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Whether you are an extremist mullah or a moderate mullah, whether you're Blair's friend or Blair's enemy, you might relish the idea of being able to speak for all people with a Muslim background - no matter how religious they are - but this may be in direct competition with the role of Muslims in British civil society."

  Perhaps this is all a reaction to the 'atomised identity politics' of the 80's, if that label makes any sense. But to lump everyone together is just as bad as an idea in other ways as to try to treat them all as representatives of small groups. Yes to try to help women in general when they have formed factions of black lesbians, white middle-class soccer moms, homeless abused etc. and for them to all want their own demands to be met is silly. But you can't hide the problems of minority ethnic groups by making them all of one religion. Not all Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists agree. From my experience of Muslim students, some feel very divided, specifically by where their family originally came from, down to country and the region of the country and even sometimes the village. Who can speak for everyone, everywhere?
  In the office recently, the cartoon controversy came up. A muslim staffmember expressed annoyance at both sides, saying that they thought the cartoons were disrespectful but could not condone what muslims elsewhere were doing - "they do not speak for me". I asked this staff-member who did speak for them, and as they struggled gave them the conclusion that perhaps only they themselves spoke for them. And the staff-member agreed, perhaps without realising exactly how lonely and unpleasant a predicament that is.

  Sartre reckoned, and he reckoned a lot of things, that you cannot trust the cause you are involved in to go on after your death - what if all the people you are working with give up, get interested in something else? This is a philosophy of do what you can, and do it now, do not trust in grand systems of thought to sweep public opinion for as long or as powerfully as you want them to. Just do what you think is right. (I believe he said this in Existentialism and Humanism.)
  Perhaps no-one can speak for you. Perhaps only you speak for you. If some humans feel like this, Sen is right to say that lumping everyone together under one banner is indeed tyranny, because your voice will be co-opted. I would react with much anger if a society of white male 20-something agnostics suddenly decided to speak for me, and I disagreed. And this leads us to a pressing question: how can we teach people to speak, for themselves, and not be afraid that hardly anyone will listen to them?