Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Philosophy

10 Books that influenced me most

Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)

1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.

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The amorality of faith

Stanley Fish, reviewing Steven Smiths “The disenchantment of secular discourse” in the New York Times:

the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand.

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The Ignorance of Certainty: Science’s failure to sell Global Warming

Today marks 360 years since the death of Rene Descartes. Descartes is the first of the modern philosophers in that he represents the emergence of the scientific and thus modern mindset. Indeed that the man on the street largely sees himself in terms of mind and body is due to this philosopher. Descartes sought to bring certainty to knowledge, and sitting in an oven one day (he tells us it was cold) he realised the only thing he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing. This is the origin of the famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. Which has entranced & dismayed philosophers and undergraduates everywhere for hundreds of years. Yet while the quest for certainty is admirable, it is also deeply misleading and ultimately damaging. Both in what little benefit results from certainty and more practically in misleading us about the worth of knowledge we already have. Descartes project philosophically ended soon after his death, but in misunderstanding the value of knowledge, much of the scientific community is risking our very lives.

The love of certainty over the shifting and transitory is as old as philosophy itself. Plato’s entire project involved the repudiation of the empirical and political in favour of establishing certainty. Many philosophers have invoked God as a crutch to guarantee that the phenomena of life (colours, sounds, movement etc) is more than just sensory data within our own minds, but represents exactly something which is “out there”. It is the holy grail of all knowledge, that something is absolutely certain, and yet no 2nd step has ever been added to Descartes cogito (indeed many even doubt that). Even if Descartes is entirely correct, his knowledge gives us absolutely nothing of value (beyond entertainment). We may be thinking things but in vats manipulated by chemicals, we may even be thinking things in human form in a world identical to our perception of it, and yet we still hunger, thirst, lust, and sweat identically even with this knowledge. This is not to renounce the project of knowledge itself, but whether Descartes cogito ergo sum is certain knowledge or just knowledge makes no practical difference.

The far more malicious side of the quest for certainty is the way it shapes the worth we apply to knowledge we already have. Science in modern times has been deeply affected by this, for both its practitioners and in its image in the public mind. While science is not like religion, it shares a faith like belief in its own ability to deliver certainty, not through revealed truth, but through a method. The results may change, but the method is what proves the wisdom of the course. When attacked in our modern and increasingly partisan public sphere, science and its boosters have tended to retreat towards this comfort of certainty, allowing public knowledge to be subverted by those opposed. Nothing illustrates this better than the question of Global Warming. In many ways the evidence is simply overwhelming that the planet is heating, that its causes can be reasonably identified, and that man has had some significant effect on this situation. Yet in the last decade the scientific community has been left almost dumbstruck that so many politicians and people resisted accepting their viewpoint in the first place, and once it was largely accepted that a rising chorus of voices has been able to reverse the tide and in some cases (like Australia) reverse government legislation addressing it.

Like Plato, or religious fundamentalists, Scientists when attacked or hurt by society tended to retreat to their more pure and certain quest for knowledge as a way of insulating and protecting themselves. When critics of Global warming attack, the response inevitably is that the attackers themselves have no credibility because they don’t have peer-reviewed papers, they haven’t degrees in the field, they don’t know and havn’t used the scientific method in determining their views of global warming, and so therefore are automatically invalid. But the truth of the claims of global warming skeptics has no relation whatso ever to how often or little they have been published, what their degree is, or their motives. Science only has a way of assessing the likely truth of each claim through its method, not ownership of the entire field of what is true. This is an important distinction oftern forgotten by scientists and especially their boosters. This may be career threatening when involving a dispute within the field (ie the shift in various paradigms in physics or astronomy), however it is threatening to the authority of the entire discipline and perhaps even the well being of the species, an area it has formerly dominated (Capitalism may make us wealthier, but it is scientific advancement which has allowed us to live longer/better).

This treatment of scientific knowledge as quantitatively different from other forms of knowledge has also severely impeded the ability of the scientific community to communicate with the general public. It sets them up for nit-picking where it is assumed by the public that they ought to be infallible (such as the back down over the melting Himalayan glaciers, and perhaps some claims about ice levels), and discourages many scientists from seeking out either professional communicators to push their views, or entering the arena directly themselves. Like Plato 2400 years before them, to publicly advocate what is the latest scientific knowledge is all too often seen as a dirty, compromising, and pointless endeavour. And to do so arguing against people without even scientific degrees or who have never been published in the field… well!

Yet for the good of the scientific community, many many more scientists need to get over this absurd concern for purity and decend into the political arena. Politics and communication are not a dirty words, and it is only through an understanding if not mastery of the political sphere (and here i mean social, cultural relations as well as partisan debates) that the scientific community will be able to ensure the best reception and understanding of their work. People like Richard Dawkins and Tim Flannery are doing good work, but both suffer from an absolute arrogance of tone and only reasonable communication skills. Dawkins in particular could learn a lot from his friend Christopher Hitchens. Who is usually polite, and yet strident, willing to debate almost anyone at any time or location. It’s a rather thankless job, but it is needed. It is a job that takes knowledge as an abstract thing (number of particles in an atom, colours of a mexican flying beetle, function of white cells in the body) and makes it practical by educating, and inserting that knowledge into the culture and social environment.

We are firmly ensconsed in a hyper-partisan world. It may have always been thus, but many still have not caught up. Science can’t expect to be able to dictate claims about truth to the world without shedding its claimed authority as the nearest thing to certainty (which makes it more vunerable, not less publicly), and unless it is willing to engage the public sphere on its own terms and according to its own rules. Descartes for all his glory, is not the model the scientist currently operating needs to look up to. Instead, scientists should see themselves as more like explorers, venturing forth to obtain and then bring back pieces to the public. The dissemination and education of reality needs to be seen as just as important as the discovery, yet this is an aspect that has been scorned for far too long, due to pretensions to certainty and disdain for the impurity of public life and political participation. But that needs to change, not only for the well-being of the scientific discipline itself, but perhaps humanity as well. Global warming might make things uncomfortable, doubting whether a asteroid really is headed for earth might just kill us.

Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar


I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)


When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

Hitchens less than dangerous idea

In case you missed it, here is the speech by Christopher Hitchens at the recent Sydney ‘Dangerous Idea’s Festival. He speaks for about 40 minutes, with an hour or so of questions from a (slightly disappointing) Tony Jones. Jones claims to play devil’s advocate, but ends up with a lame ‘but the faithful do good works’ line of questioning. If he wanted to really be contrarian in Hitchens style, he’d ask if the idea ‘religion poison’s everything’ is even a dangerous idea as the festival name implies. Hitchen’s extended ovation was guaranteed before he spoke a word. Though in other parts of the world he would still be shot or run out of town for it. Likewise the most interesting stuff in the interview is right at the end when discussing the difference between agnostics and atheists (where I think Hitchen’s claims far more wiggle room than he is entitled to). Either way, what he has to say is still well worth saying, and none do it better. Enjoy:

Not Evil, Just Human…

In an amazing find, a video has popped up on Youtube offering a fleeting image of Anne Frank (posted by the official museum, so its verified).

Last year I did the Australian thing backpacking around Europe, and in our travels visited Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House. I hadn’t read the book, but having been quickly devoured a copy just in time for our second WW2 related tour, of the concentration camp Dachau, near Munich in Germany. Visiting the camp brought into focus something I had only begun to glimpse at via Frank’s diary: That the people had to have known what was going on. Germany has made very admirable efforts to account for its past, but the people in the towns and villages around the camps, or in the big cities with soldiers marching by had to have known what was going on. Where they didn’t know, it was because it was easier not to know, it was safer not to know. But it was known. It was, in Rumsfeld’s great phrase a unknown known. Hitler ran a violent, disciplined and utterly totalitarian regime. But his power was still utterly dependent on the will of the people. The people granted him the legitimacy that the legal documents claimed. They accepted the rules and order via their compliance. They were responsible. Anne Frank and her family died after a neighbour turned them in. History (thankfully) has lost the record of who it was. It does however record the names of those who sheltered and protected them, but they were the rare and brave exceptions, in what was seen at the time as one of the most modern countries on earth.

If the concept of natural evil makes effectively zero sense as an explanation for deadly landslides, earthquakes and tsunami’s, the idea of human evil seems to me to make almost no more. The Nazi’s were not the most repressive or violent aka “evil” people that ever lived. They simply brought organised, industrialization, and discipline to the task of genocide. Where human error normally weakens plans both good or bad, the Nazi’s built in redundancies. Redundancies so that the great ovens never had to stop burning, that work didn’t go missing, that camps didn’t run empty. They were expressing views of discrimination and purity that are as old as the human species, and common to the animal kingdom. To call this ‘evil’ is to claim some unwordly or non-human influence. As if it seeped into their blood and minds and thereby excuses them of their acts. The evil man is hardly a man. This may be soothing, but it is only by an act of hiding. Most of the worlds faithful would dismiss as child like the idea of spirits or deamons taking over the body of a person and causing them to act strangely, but calling someone or some group evil is no different.

The Memorial at Dachau

The Memorial at Dachau

We give such acts a name like evil because we don’t want to believe they could be possibly carried out by a human. But this just weakens our ability to understand, and to prevent occurring again. Words like evil are soothing, because they let us name, they let us categorise, they let us define it as something ‘other’ or ‘non-human’. What the Nazi’s did will remain a stain on the human consciousness long after the last co-operator or agent of the regime has died (likely in the next decade). But it was carried out by ordinary men and women, as human as you or I. They lived in houses like ours, had partners like ours, ate the same food and drank the same drinks as we do. They were human, not us, but not something foreign either. Only when we realise this, can we get a proper grasp on the enormity of the Holocaust, of the rise of fascism and totalitarian societies such as in the USSR, Mao’s China or under the Khumer Rouge of Cambodia. Only then can we realise the importance of each of us regularlly committing to try and rid any similar such elements from our own societies, and those around us. To not simply accept and go along with the flow. Each and every one of us believes that if we saw evil emerging we would recognise it and denounce it. But when the United States started torturing suspects after 9/11, how many stepped up to condemn it? How many still excuse it for reasons of circumstance, or refer back to the essential goodness of the Americans, and the horrific intentions and designs of those who seek to attack them in the name of Islam. By making ‘Evil’ a sensible part of your world view, you lose almost all ability to make rational decisions about your own sides actions, about the complexity and shades of grey that this world forces on us, each and every day. The word and idea of evil obscures thought, obscures morality, and gives false comfort when none should be offered. The concept of evil is one of the most morally destructive ideas in human history and ought to be done away with as rapidly as possible.

If you haven’t yet, go read Anne Frank’s Diaries. They’re about the best common sense view of the war possible. Maybe with this amazing footage now up on Youtube a new generation will be inspired to go read her story.

Photo used under a creative commons licence by user edwin.11

Making the audience work for it

Some years back there was a politician doing the rounds of his local suburbs. He had been in parliament a long time, was well liked, and brought many rewards back to the electorate, including a big new bridge making it easier to get into the city. He knocked on one of the doors to find an old lady he counted as a supporter and after some pleasant banter asked if she was going to vote for him again this year. ‘No’ came her surprising reply. ‘Why not’ he asked. ‘I’ve served the district well, I’ve brought many benefits to the area, I even brought in the bridge which I knew you wanted’. Her reply ? ‘Thats what you did last term, what do we get this time?’

Its an old truism of politics, though one rarely endorsed in our overly professionalised political class, that if you want someones help or attention, don’t give them what they want, but make them work to support you instead. That is the best way to truly lock in support. In the 2008 Democratic Primaries, Hillary Clinton quickly out raised Obama by getting her key supporters to all donate the maximum $2300 amount possible. Obama on the other hand went for a significantly greater pool of people all sending in $10 or $25 dollars. And whenever he was struggling he would go to them and ask for more. Now these people often couldn’t afford much, but having already invested in him they were not going to see their investment wasted with his loss. The same logic applied in the full election when he went up against McCain. His supporters not only were far more tied to his cause because they had helped him out, many went from just financial support to actively door knocking to help. His star was tied to theirs, and they worked far harder and longer for him because of this, than if he had tried to simply buy their votes with any lavish election spending promises.
420isnack-420x0
I was reminded of this lesson recently by a great friend of mine who posts over at The Refined Geek. The lucky man is just about to go on his honeymoon, but rather than tell us all, he gave little clues and wrote up a short story that he said claimed all the details needed to find out where they were going. If he had simply told his mates where he was going we would have stopped talking about it weeks ago. But for the last few weeks, and especially last 2 days since the wedding the most consistent topic of conversation has been speculation about where they are going. Because we the audience had to work for the information, we were significantly more involved and ready to dedicate time and effort than had we merely been told what we wanted to know at the start.

And as I write this post, I am just finishing a piece of Toast with Vegemite iSnack 2.0. I rarely ate vegemite as a kid, but the lure of a new type, and one without a name got me interested, and even though I absolutely hate the new name, I’ve had perhaps a half-dozen discussions on it with people in the last few days. And consequently found myself when getting out breakfast supplies, reaching for the Vegemite jar.

So never just give your audience what they want. Make them work for it just a little bit, and they will be significantly more invested in your success and towards the result you want to achieve. People like to be involved more than they want to be rewarded.

The Joy of Uncertainty

Interesting fact of the day (h/t Secular Right)

When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

Taken from here.
god_help_me
There is an old and prevalent idea that religion makes people happy, the opiate of the masses if you will and therefore ought to be encouraged by government as a social good. If nothing else, this research helps disprove that justification, allowing for a clearer debate about the real social benefit of religion (as opposed to individual benefit, a topic outside the realm of politics).

But I also regard this fact with some sadness, for it suggests that uncertainty is tied to unhappiness. Of course when one does not know what is happening to their job, family, or social identity of course worries seep in and discolour the other moments of joy in life. But why should the question of gods existence induce similar anxiety?

I have long wavered between atheism and agnosticism, eventually coming down as an agnostic. But I do so precisely because I enjoy the debate and uncertainty and arguments that are viable for both sides. I know I am a moral, but (like all others) flawed individual and so I have little doubt that should there indeed be a god I would be judged my merits not adherence to scripture. That is, my day to day ethics. As such contrary to Pascal’s wager, the ‘cost’ for me of agnosticism is very low. Of course I may be wrong and god is a vengeful and spiteful entity (an impression one could certainly get from the Bible) but in that case I see morality demanding I do not worship or endorse such a force within this world, and I defy any to justify otherwise.

Thus for me, the debate about god’s existence brings happiness precisely because it is uncertain. Precisely because it involves, indeed demands engagement with the greatest minds of human existence (almost all of whom have turned their attention to this question in some form) and so therefore standing either in their shadow or on their shoulders (depending on how you value your own contribution) you have a topic of boundless entertainment and importance. I must admit to always being slightly surprised at those agnostics (and many atheists) who assert that the question of if there is a god or not is not important to them. My own belief is that nothing could be more important. Its existence would shape the entire purpose and order of this world towards its orientation. Its non-existence would demand the fundamental reshaping of human values and institutions away from the church and believers and a re-invigorated quest to find principles and ideals upon which we can guide and educate future generations.

A man of course has to eat, and religious scholarship, particularly from the point of view of non-believers is not a high paying job. And so I have turned my attention and study to matters of domestic and international politics, seeking improvements in the wider human condition and living standards of my fellow citizens and international brothers. But on the occasional quiet evening, or when I feel I am ahead in my own work, I often turn to those books in my library on religion and like to delve into these great subjects. Some of the most interesting moments of personal development and reflection for me have precisely involved wresteling over these great questions of the existence of god, and my resulting agnosticism is not a disavowal of the importance of the question, but rather the encouragement of it. A starting point from which I may freely seek evidence, reasoning and insight into the question. The joy is in the uncertainty of it all.

But perhaps I am different in that way. The uncertainty of the abstract for me is of great appeal. I admit to having no idea of how one would build a bridge, or identify a cancer cell and indeed little actual desire to. Far more practical and useful than debates over god, but sciences desire for certainty, often restricting its endeavors to the mundane cataloging of life are largely uninteresting for me. It is the questions of the most uncertainty I desire, and as we witness humanity begin to slowly escape religions fundamentalist grasp, to see people equally flinging themselves into certain non-belief is a poor and disheartening replacement.

So here’s an interesting one to encourage the questioning: What does the existence of tarantula wasps say about god? Responses Here, and on the wider question of ‘natural evil’ see CS Lewis and Stephen J Gould.

Image used under a Creative Commons Licence by user Radiant Guy

Cloudy Day Thoughts

A rainy, dark Sunday afternoon seems a perfect time to make a post and point I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Euthanasia should be legal.

Actually i’ll go further, the very fact that it is not, is the ultimate constraint on freedom in the modern world. More than the restriction of drugs, the prohibition of homosexuals from marriage, or the tax paid by each of us. By making Euthanasia illegal, we are day after day agreeing to the proposition that Government has the right to control our bodies even as we exit this world. It is morally no different to giving government the right to choose when and how each of us are born, and must be removed from our laws and protected in our constitution.

The damage which this law does daily can be no better seen than through a recent court case:

In a landmark decision, Western Australia’s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49. Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water “should not be administered against his wishes”.The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where assisting someone to take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment. Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach. In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions. “I am unable to blow my nose,” he said. “I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes.”He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a “living hell”.

“I’m Christian Rossiter and I’d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can’t move,” he told reporters.

So long as Euthanasia is illegal we are as a society accepting the jail of the human body, as appropriate for the enslavement of the human spirit. We punish and decry those who act to imprison a fellow member of society, be it their family members or a random stranger. But when an individuals own body becomes that coffin, far more effective and painfully than anything man could think up, we witness governments and ‘moral’ societies lining up around the world to demand that individual endures and suffers as long as is physically possible. When nature makes the body a prison, we have somehow come to see it as moral to become its prison guards.

Rossiter’s case captures the horns of the dilemma for a society which grants the individual only partial authority over their body. We already accept that individuals can reject medical treatment. Your doctor can’t force you to take your flu tablets, your dentist can’t fill that cavity without your consent, no one can stop teenager boys breaking their arms by riding skateboards, and for those with religious objections (such as Jehovah Witnesses with Blood Transfusions) we will let people choose their type of treatment. Rossiter won on similar grounds, he is able to choose to reject a certain treatment (forced feeding) but is not allowed to choose an alternative treatment (assisted suicide).

And so he will starve to death. Slowly, painfully and with the tools for his desired release within meters of him but untouchable due to the law.

Death is of course a scary thing, and addressing the fear that Euthanasia will be used in a utilitarian or bureaucratic means to simply end the life of the disabled or elderly is central to changing the law. In the USA at the moment, critical health care reform is being dragged down with the suggestion (courtesy of the now unemployed Sarah Palin) that unproductive, disabled, poor or elderly members of society would face ‘death panels’ a claim which even the cowardly lion of the NYT has called ‘false’. That such an idea could gain leverage whilst plainly unrelated to the actual legislation on the table demonstrates the widespread social concerns and challenges that overcoming this great bondage on individuals would require in the real fight. The great unspoken fear is of course the return of society and government having control over life in the practice eugenics, as was seen in western society as recently as the 1920’s, and practiced under the Nazis regime (China and India’s overwhelmingly male next generation also suggests similar practices at work). And yet if we really were incapable of avoiding the past’s crimes, then no society at all would be possible. All democracy would become tyranny, all authority abused, all prejudices encouraged, all freedom revoked. And yet whilst relapse is always possible, that is plainly not the experience of human kind. Over the last 400 years much of humanity has come to fall within the bounds of the rule of law, directed at the protection of the individual, with the rest eager to catch up. In such tight confines and with oversight, what is proposed is as far from the social control of totalitarian regimes as is possible. For euthanasia is worthy only, i repeat only as a means of freeing the individual within that most private of private spheres: their own body. Indeed it is more correctly our current tortured half-way house that seems to accept the idea of society choosing how and when individuals die. Legal Euthanasia is not the beginnings of eugenics, but rather the final refutation of it and its barbarous principle of granting society and government authority for that which it does not and can never have: the individuals own body.

Others run the other way, suggest this is a question of nature’s authority and not to be interfered with. These same people however likely see nothing but god’s will and love at work in the great acts of nurses, doctors and medicine to fight back against death, to extend our lives, and enhance the quality of our time on this planet. These people are not hypocrits, but rather in their fear of the unknown they have tried to invest in an amoral environment virtues of good or ill. God may be loving, but bacteria is not moral, nor is the lightening strike or flash flood. Nature has no care for our life or death. Only human beings who have consciousness of others, and a sense of morality can recognize the issues. From the importance of life to the morality of a dignified death. Instead of championing this moral demand, those of this view seek to outsource their responsibility.

In light of this fear, Politicians, the so called leaders of our communities have also hastily retreated from addressing the issue. In 1997 the Northern Territory government passed legislation allowing for Euthanasia, but it was soon repealed by the Federal Government under a Private Members bill of Kevin Andrews. Half-hearted moves were made also here in the ACT, and in 2008 with new leadership of both major parties in place, Bob Brown announced the Greens would again be pushing to over-turn Commonwealth legislation in this area. However much as on the issues of drug prohibition and marriage equality, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown no willingness to move or even listen to argument on changes in these areas. Yet the polls seem to indicate that the vast majority of Australia’s support the individual having their control, with only some minorities such as Catholics or Aborigines rejecting the law on religious grounds. Indeed we are held by our politicians to be so frightened and incapable of discussing this that they lined up in 2005 to make it illegal to even discuss methods of suicide online.

Whilst Rossiter’s death (like that of Terry Schiavo in the USA several years back) is public, the elderly and infirm have been taking their own lives in indignity and humiliation for many many years. Once proud members of the ‘greatest generation’ have been found with plastic bags on their head, stomach’s full of pills, or at the bottom of staircases. Having sacrificed so much, having seen so much, having given all the strength they ever had, the government today stands between them and final control over the manner and timing of their final exit. And so, hiding from family members and the law they take their own life, becoming in their final act criminals of the state. Their crime is to want to have some control, some independence and dignity.

There are challenges to be overcome and safeguards to be put in place. Full legislation would require at least a few years open public discussion before it is comfortably accepted. But if we are to be a free society we must remove these abhorrent laws. We must accord all adult, mentally firm members of society both the freedom and the dignity to have final say over the way in which they pass into death. Anything less is to condemn our fellow citizens to pain and humiliation for an issue which we have no right as a society to interfere with. Just as human society today recognizes it wrong for one individual to take the life of another, we will one day come to recognize it wrong to give society control over the life of each one of us as to the time and manner of our passing.

Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan

burning_bookThere is an undeniable charm to those whose contributions to fields of human endeavor whilst just amateurs. History is littered with philosophers whose greatest contribution came whilst in their early 20’s and nearly everyone can recite the story of Einstein working as a patent clerk whilst inventing theories that outsmarted the professionals. Politics has its own sacred story of the outsider whose distance from the levers of government is their very qualification for office (See Palin, Sarah). The internet too has given millions a new voice and opportunity to contribute and communicate (this blog being just one example). We are in the era of the amateur. The stultifying demands of professionalism which serve to restrict are being torn down in favour of amateurs can say anything, in any way they desire. Often this is of great benefit, breaking down groupthink and exclusionary norms, and challenging elite control of information. But what about when this means we are exposed to ignorance, prejudice and invention, masquerading as a serious contribution?

In ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ ($35.99 Profile Books Ltd) Margaret Macmillan sets out to document the many ways in which historical knowledge is mis-used by governments, politicians, writers, amateur historians, and indeed even her professional colleagues. Given a thorough thwack for their deviations away from big political history, the professionals however come out looking the best of a very sad and sorry list of popular engagement with their history. History, Macmillan notes has had something of a renaissance in recent times. People are far more literate, have more disposable income and leisure time, and our media, -much like a shark- needs to keep moving and consuming in order to stay alive. Not only is it easier to make and access history, but there’s something in the modern secular culture that makes us value history as a higher good. Something firm and unshakable from which we can stand:

History with a capital H… restores a sense not necessarily of the divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us (p20)

Given this immense power, is it therefore something we are willing to trust into the hands of amateurs? While civilization created universities to refine and restrict those who sought to have a public impact through their dissemination of history, the mass education of the public, along with the many self-inflicted wounds professionals have inflicted on their field (as McMillan demonstrates clearly) have destroyed much of the authority of advanced education. In making it cheap, it has come to be treated as cheap. Technology has allowed almost in the first world to call themselves a historian and contribute to the debate. But where our natural impulse is to champion on those contesting the popular view, we should also be careful about automatically granting higher virtues and morals to those who contest from the bottom as against the top.

In all societies, but particularly those who pride themselves on the freedom available, it is impossible to stop the flow of information from amateurs. But given that we have made it so easy for this to occur we can at least change the attributes we give to those who undertake this task. We have erred in assuming that because the professional is corrupt the amateur is pure. We have erred in believing that because the professional is biased the amateur is unfiltered. We have taken virtue and authority from being a reward for decades of work, and given them to the fresh and the new as playthings. In this mixed up climate we have made the underdog the default superior in any competition.

By and large the opening up of history to the entire public to either consume or contribute is a very very good thing. At its best, History is a learning process that saves us from sloughing and sweating to make fresh tracks when clear paths already exist. It gives us a grounding and sense of awe at what has been achieved and what could be achieved (It is my knowledge of History that makes me a progressive instead of a conservative). But ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ makes abundantly clear the destructive power of this knowledge and the risks and perils of amateur engagement with it. With the fire man learnt how both to improve his own life, whilst destroying his enemies; history is no less powerful, and unless handled carefully in this era of ridiculously easy dissemination threatens to cause the whole world to burn.

Housekeeping

I’ll be away in Melbourne for a few days so no blogging till mid-next week.

To pass the long cold hours I recommend:

Andrew Norton on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty at 150. Everyone talked of Darwin’s anniversary, but Mill has had perhaps just as significant an impact and continues to do so.

Christopher Hitchens is surprisingly shy about his own case for once, but he advances a serious question: Did the Toppling of Saddam Hussein lead to recent events in Iran?
Seems to have some merit to me…

And finally, hopefully by now you have seen Utegate as told by lolcats. Well now there’s a blog featuring the goings on of Australian politics all in lolcats. It may just be the future of blogging.

Have a good weekend.

First do no harm

This is a welcome rebuff to the recent spouting’s of pure ignorance by the Pope, and echoed by Australia’s own Bishop Pell

The East-West Centre in Hawaii has estimated that if condom use had not been widely promoted and adopted, today 8 million Thais would be infected rather than the 550,000 now living with the virus. That’s more than 7 million lives saved. And have these condoms encouraged promiscuity? Five years into the campaign, in 1997, only 12 per cent of Thai military conscripts reported visiting a sex worker, down from 60 per cent five years earlier.

Similar success stories can be found in Cambodia, India, and Brazil where rates of HIV infection have steadily declined as a result of education about HIV, safer sex and the provision of condoms. In the West African nation of Senegal, the government began promoting condoms in the late 1980s and this has helped to keep HIV prevalence below 1 per cent to this day.

The rest of the story is filled with many more stats & examples.

I’m normally not one who buys the line that there’s a divide between religion and science. I think it’s too artificial, too simplistic and cuts out too many interesting discussions. Questions such as abortion can not be properly answered without both science and religion (or a deliberately secular ethics system in place of).
But given the influence that men such as Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop George Pell have, they ought to be vigorously engaged when they make claims that are simply false, and likely to encourage dangerous behavior.

Personally I don’t really understand the church’s objection to contraceptives. They arn’t mentioned in the holy texts (for obvious reasons), the knowledge & use of doesn’t change teenage promiscuity rates (if anything it makes it riskier), and most critically, contraceptives prevent the creation of a human life, which all major faiths hold starts at conception, and not possibly before hand. (Not to mention that 13% of female deaths during pregnancy are caused by abortions(67’000 women & 20 million abortions), with the legality and religion of the country having little effect)

In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

So already living human beings will be safer, healthier, no morally worse, and alive, and far far less unborn humans will be brought into existence only to be later destroyed. If in any way your moral system has to do with the actual lives and well being of people as they are here and now then contraceptives are a no-brainer.
Anything less is not a moral system, but mere political doctrine for human behavior, dressed up as being ethically motivated.

It’s for reasons like this that I suggested a little while ago, that as a basis for a new left wing political philosophy, it had to begin with an acceptance of human nature as a constant. I deliberately didn’t link this to a utilitarian moral system, but anyone familiar with the philosophy would have seen it’s imprint on my words.

So let us talk religion and science, let us educate & inform children about religion and it’s possibilities and wonders, lets encourage those of faith to participate in the public debate and discussion, and let us then remind them of the responsibility they have to be honest and place a care for human well being ahead of their own prejudice and impulses. A hippocratic oath for religious leaders: First do no harm.

So good to see the papers running such a story, but it really should have appeared several days before. It’s no exaggeration to say lives depend upon it…

Of Liberals and Stem Cells

The debate over stem cells is one that ought of course be left to the scientific community. There great public can no more know the exact nature of what the research is (should they want to stop it) than their open support can ensure its success as a field of research (should they want to encourage it). We wont know what we turn up, until we do, that’s why it’s called research, and why so much of the ethical debate related to stem cell’s is so misguided.

But whilst the conservative position is clear and has its own moral logic (that life must not be consciously tampered with), there’s a certain amount of confusion about the Liberal position. As such you get -fair minded- criticism’s of the Liberal approach such as this occurring regularly in the press:

the comments I’ve received from readers about Obama’s stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.
….
Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:
If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.
I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can’t buy that. I’m a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it’s on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it’s not there yet. It hasn’t acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

If we don’t draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we’re so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

Yet despite the author ‘cringing’ at such an interpretation, he still returns to it in adopting wishy-washy words to describe the Liberal position. Liberals are accused of “denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people” without any discussion of just what “the beginnings of people” means morally. Billions of women have had miscarriages which have dumped similar stem cells, many before the mother was even aware of the pregnancy. This is a simple fact of life.
Likewise other key cells sperm cells are in their way the beginnings of people, just as are ovarian eggs. Yet these are naturally and regularly are dumped by the human body, and even the churches have largely given up the fight to stop it. But this is still claimed to be a “simple fact” that Liberals somehow deny in their view of stem cells as just that: Cells.

Likewise as we come to the end of the piece, Liberals are warned that this encouragement for research on certain cells (as opposed I guess to studying how heart valves are repaired, or skin cancer cells removed or foot fungus manages to affect the skins cells growth) risks the apochalyptic sounding risk of “obliterating respect for human life”, as if the Nazi’s eugenics program came before and led to the rhetorical demonisation of entire peoples, instead of the other way around.

In both cases whilst the consequences of the conservative effort are clear: No research that may benefit the well being of the living, efforts to legislate against practices which occur daily in human beings and are discarded naturally, the consequence of the Liberals position is unknown. So we get treated to such claims as it will cause the human race to stop caring about the human race, or bromides about “simple facts” of the moral universe that are anything but.

So here is roughly the Liberal thinking on Stem Cells
1) The relieving of pain and suffering is our supreme moral agenda.
2) The well being of conscious humans is far superior to that of cells which neither feel, think, or act.
3) Nothing alive should be disrespected, even though it bears less authority than that of the life of a Human Being (It’s no surprise Animal Welfare groups sprung from Liberal thinkers)
4) We don’t know the potential benefits or risks of each decision until we come to actually encounter it. The allowance of stem cell research doesn’t automatically mean we will later be faced with issues of human cloning or human eugenics. Such steps may never be possible, just as potential benefits (greatly extended life, cure for cancer, AIDS or something else wondrous) are also unknown. The moral weight of our decision is only known then, when potential outcomes come into focus, not now when they are entirely shadowed and impossible to see.
5) Following on from that, we are no more likely to justify moral abuse tomorrow than we are today, simply because we have made one decision now on the facts to encourage research or action in a certain direction. The briefest study of politics, especially within democratic societies will show the self-correcting and pendulum nature of human debates. Debates that are usually only ended when such a great mass of evidence occurs as to make it near nonsensical to object. (Ie that Communism is an immoral practice) There is no slippery slope. We can climb off at any point in time, and regularly do.
6) There is little way the general public can understand the complexity of such issues and whilst society certainly ought to make it’s general moral principles clear, it is not something we can asses that directly and certainly one’s we cant assess whilst still hypothetical’s.

But here’s the kicker: Stem Cells arn’t a matter of Liberal ideology, or moral theory. They were unknown until recently, and once we know more about them (or discover ways to replicate the results with artificial cells) may never be a point of contention in the future. They are simply a scientific opportunity that offers the potential to relieve and overcome significant human suffering, and we are dealing with material that is not, and never could be a human being, despite being alive. Just as the fly buzzing around your room is, or the 80’000 bacteria that cover your skin right now are, or those floating in through your window.

Liberals no more want human cloning or depraved eugenics than conservatives do. But they are at least willing to make a decision based on the actual facts before us (is anyone hurt by using stem cells:no, can research stem cells help: yes) than on hypotheticals far down the road (could human cloning result from mad scientists). That is the difference between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue. One is dealing with the current facts, respecting that future generations can also make informed moral choices if they do not like the path taken, the other claiming a moral foresight and knowledge that both is far greater than that of any future generation is capable, and one which knows before the research is done what path and outcome will result.

Update:
Ross Douthat (who is due to become the NYT’s next conservative columnist) take a new twist in response to similar arguments instead arguing that the Conservative position here against Stem Cells despite the loss of similar entities naturally and regularly in nature/fertility clinics/ is a democratically driven compromise position:

pro-lifers have done what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn’t make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley’s screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country’s uninsured and there’s no chance of passing single-payer would be “morally unserious” if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren’t newborns?)

But here Douthats comparison here doesn’t work, running on the simplistic logic that half a defense is still better than nothing. Yet unlike the clear benefit that would be benefited from mandating healthcare for newborns despite the millions who arnt newborns in his coutner example, there simply is no benefit in stopping the legislation against stem cells, either practically or morally. They arn’t half or a comprromise between respecting life and being willing to use it callously, they dont even qualify as a object of definite recognition. Which is why all the moral outrage has to be directed at hypothetical and potential moral problems such as cloning. As Michael Kingsly writes “There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells”. The debate is over the potential for future research, rather than anything currently engaged. But apparently defending something that isn’t worth defending, on the basis of hypothetical potentials, all the whilst your intention is effectively to legislate against something that occurs naturally anyway by the millions.
That is, the anti-stem cell position is one that since it cant defend it on the current circumstances is explicitly based on a deliberate leap to future possibilities in a universe where consent for immoral practices is already presumed), and a position that is effectively legislating against something that occurs naturally and regularly in the world. If none of this impresses you as sensible, then it’s claimed to be valid in its own right simply as a compromise position held within a democracy (which is a pragmatic not a moral argument, which by invoking allows in a whole host of other pragmatic arguments (such as the benefits the research could have to alleviate pain and suffering amongst the sick) that conservatives have desperately tried to avoid talking about by claiming this is a moral issue to be decided on moral grounds alone. And all this filed under a post Douthat actually labels “Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness”.

What price truth?

There exists in the mind of much of the public a quite misplaced idea of an incompatibility between science and religion, or at least within the religious and scientific community there feels such a contest is under way, when in fact their questions and methods are so completely incompatible as to be irrelevant to each other (science can not replace the “meaning-gap” which religion fills for some, and the idea of religion as just bad science has always been an a-historical misnomer). Then again scientific studies like this dont really help:

a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”

It’s hard not to be impressed by findings like that, but a skeptic will say there’s nothing remarkable — much less spiritual — about them. You live longer if you go to church because you’re there for the cholesterol-screening drive and the visiting-nurse service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against HIV because your levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — go down first.

Other than the obvious placebo effect here, it still must be remarked how insignificant the benefits of faith truely are. Think about it for a second. Those of faith believe they have been welcomed into the loving embrace of a omnipotent deity who not only created the world, but knows all things that have and ever will happen, and promises you eternal life for your embrace of the true faith. But on earth you get only a slightly lower chance of dying ? It’s not exactly a great pay off is it? The big guy may be on your side, but he’s not exactly helping out around the house is he? I know all faith’s have arguments arranged for why god simply doesn’t reveal his presence and be done with it, that it is the leap of faith that makes it meaningful. But talk about hiding your light under a bushel! Killing all except a few faithful through a giant flood was apparently O.K in ancient times, but now the active benefit of faith on believers wellbeing is no different to that brought through eating more broccoli in one’s diet!

Much like Pascal’s wager, i find the whole idea of selecting beliefs based on personal benefit quite distasteful and illogical. To think that the same omnipotent being who you are prepared to rely on, couldn’t see through your selfish motives. That tis better to falsely adopt a belief so as to be a part of the right club, than earnestly be wrong in your search for truth, in the eye’s of an omnipotent, ever loving god. What price truth then, if it is suggested you sell it for a lower chance of dying (with no chance of a money back guarantee should something go wrong!), even eternal life seems a somewhat ugly reward for the selling out of our belief for the rest of our (confirmed, real, tangible) natural life about the meaning of that life, the structure and form of how it came to be and to what ends you should devote your waking life.

For my own part, I’m agnostic in that I cant accept this world bears anything but a indifferent attitude towards human life. And so whilst intellectually I do not know the answer to the existence of god/gods/a spiritual side to existence (and in this i believe all who claim to know that answer, including atheists as faith bound), morally this universe makes much more sense if it is devoid of such a being (or at least one with any of the positive moral characteristics we bind up in the label “god”). But more than that, I enjoy not having an answer to the deepest and perhaps most important question in all human life. The existence of a god changes everything for human existence. To be certain one way or the other, yet with such pitiful evidence available seems to close so many doors and a fascinating intellectual struggle. But hey, if they’re right, they might at least have a few more years to see out than we wrestlers with the truth. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:

 

150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.