Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Free music

My Rimsky-Korsakov site is up until further notice, with three complete opera recordings.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why be moral? Why do anything?

I've just finished Frans De Waal's latest book, Primates and Philosophers. De Waal is a primatologist with a special interest in cooperative behavior and conflict resolution among great apes, and the book is a revision of a series of lectures he gave a few years ago. (A generous excerpt is available from the page linked above.) A little under half the book is De Waal's, and in it he sets out his case that human ethical conduct is based on "good natured" animal behavior. Then a number of prominent philosophers and biologists present critiques, to which De Waal responds.

It's good to have this kind of dialogue within book covers. As usual with De Waal, he makes a strong case but overstates it a bit. But he comes off better in many ways than his more philosophically-minded commentators.

For example, Christine Korsgaard and Peter Singer are still so embroiled in the philosophical tradition that they forget to ask themselves one question: How do we decide what to do?

Both of these distinguished philosophers hold to the notion that we can act either emotionally or on rational grounds. Singer says, "we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them." (p. 149). Korsgaard writes, similarly, that a rational agent "is capable of rejecting an action along with its purpose, not because there is something else she wants (or fears) even more, but simply because she judges that doing that sort of act for that purpose is wrong." (p. 111).

But why would we do that? I'm not denying that we act unselfishly--indeed, I try to act that way myself. But I do it because I want to. It's easier to look myself in the mirror that way. I feel that I'm doing something that makes my living less of a waste, and I do it because of that sudden flame of empathetic delight that kindles between two people every now and then. I desire that sense of human contact more than any number of lesser pleasures, and I fear wasting my life more than most really big pleasures. I try to live ethically because I have an emotional need to live ethically.

How can people act in any other way? Are mothers selfish because their infants give them such great pleasure? Anyone whose mother felt otherwise and performed her parental duties simply out of a sense of obligation knows better.

De Waal cites work by Antonio Damasio and John Bargh, among others, suggesting that our actions are motivated by emotion. But we really shouldn't need neurologists to tell us this. It's only many years of telling ourselves that we are rational creatures that blinds us to the obvious truth, which is that at every moment we do whatever we want to do most of all. Morality involves educating the heart, opening ourselves to the pain of others, and learning that certain pleasures are not worth their consequences. It involves wanting to be a certain kind of person and wanting to live in a certain kind of world. Take away the wanting and none of the maxims, rules, and principles of ethics would matter to us at all.

Monday, March 26, 2007

No new posts?

Sorry to all those who are reading this and wondering when the next post will come along. Nothing I've been doing recently seems to fit into the blog format, so my visits have been largely limited to removing the "comments" hawking fake Vi-a-qra or linking to porn sites. Some days that's a full-time job.

For what it's worth: I'm moving in two directions right now in my work. The myth book is no more, but some of its material is going into a new chain of essays tentatively called The Discipline of the Invisible. Some of that material may get some play here. The main theme of this work is the impossibility of generating a coherent theory that can show us the way out of our current trap. Moving through a study of some other ways of constructing experience, the essays close by suggesting that we view economic activity as a means of structuring time instead of a system of producing and allocating goods. It leads to an all-or-nothing kind of political aporia.

The other work is going to be longer in the preparation, though I may post a detailed outline some time soon. It's titled The Forgotten Question, or, The Birth of Modernity out of the Spirit of Reaction. The central figure in this piece of intellectual history is the late-eighteenth-century philosopher Fichte, and its theme comes from Marx's famous maxim that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is, to change it." The odd thing is that Fichte and those closely influenced by him were determined to change the world, and they were so moved by the critical philosophy that they were developing out of a radicalized Kantianism.

My argument, in a couple of sentences, is that Fichte and the Jena romantics brought the Enlightenment project to its completion, as they turned Kant's self-critique of reason to critique consciousness itself. The restoration in 1815 and the transformation of idealism from a matter of "seeing" to one of "being" in Schelling and Hegel helped conceal this breakthrough so thoroughly that Marx didn't seem to have heard of it at all. Modernity claims to inherit the Enlightenment project, but Fichte's activism and commitment to practice were its real heirs. Our world is not the fruit of the Century of Light; it's a shallow imitation of that period, founded on the fear of its unsettling and liberating energies.

And I'm also preparing a small site on the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, so I can post dubs of two old Soviet-era recordings which have never been widely available.

If anyone is interested, I'll be speaking at Symposium Books in Providence, Rhode Island, on Thursday, April 26, at 6:30 pm.