Some Good Links: Persons, Ethics, Politics, Economy

 

1.  Persons (and ethical agency)

‘The I in Me’..  Thomas Nagel reviews Galen Strawson’s  book Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics.  London Review of Books.  5th November 2009.

Nage; a distinguished figure in metaphysics and ethics discusses Strawson’s view that there is no deep ‘I’ or ‘self’ that endures over time.  Nagel does not add much of his own views, but an excellent account of Strawson.  One thing Nagel does not mention is that the title of the book is a riposte to Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959), well known book by his father Peter Strawson.  P.F. Strawson though metaphysics should be descriptive, that is should be close to our common sense and everyday language, and was a strong defender of the view that the ‘self’ or ‘person’ is a basic substance of metaphysics.  G. Strawson is a critic of common sense and everyday language, claiming that these are responsible for misleading notions like the substantive ‘I’, leading him towards what his father called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, that is a metaphysics which looks for structures concealed by common sense and everyday language.  There are questions of moral responsibility that arise in discussion of personal identity, that Nagel only refers to briefly.  G. Strawson’s view poses a challenge to ideas of moral responsibility, by questioning the existence of a person who can be held responsible.  The next link refers to the issue of personhood and ethics from another direction.

Ethics (personhood and virtues)

‘Integrity and Fragmentation’ by John Cottingham. Clicking on the link starts automatic download of .doc file from Cottingham’s website. The paper will be published as an article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2010.

Hat tip philpapers

Cottingham looks at the role of integrity in ethics, drawing on the virtue theory tradition, which is concerned with the kind of character and habits conducive to human flourishing and ethical actions.  Drawing on ‘Athens and Jerusalem’ (Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian religious texts), Cottinghman finds an implicit role for ‘integrity’, partly captured by Aristotle as ‘the unity of the virtues’.  From these sources, and their coming together in Aquinas, we understand that the unity of live over time, and the unity of our character traits, is necessary to the good life, if not all that is necessary.  Cottingham brings the more recent ethical philosophy of Bernard Williams and Harry Frankfurt into the discussion, particularly with reference to the inadequacy of integrity on its own, to fill us with a sense of obligation.  As Cottingham points out, this is a central insight of Nietzsche’s.  G. Strawson takes Nietzsche as the source of arguments against the idea of a deep self over time, so we see here how metaphysics and ethics connect.

Politics (ethics and economy in republican political theory)

‘Freedom in the Market’ by Philip Pettit, a freely available pdf of a 2006 article in Politics, Philosophyy & Economics.

Hat tip philpapers

Pettit’s best know book Republicanism produces a theory of freedom in which the ethical value of individual freedom is not just freedom from constraint , but freedom from ‘domination’, where domination means being bound by laws or commands to which we have not consented, directly, or indirectly through representative political procedures.  That leads into ‘republicanism’, the tradition in political thought, which refers to freedom, and human flourishing, as including political rights and participation, at their centre.  Pettit approached this tradition in Republicanism in a perspective which seems indifferent to the freedom of individuals in the market, and very concerned with rectifying apparent threats to freedom in capitalist society.  I sometimes get the impression in that book that the republican critique of a minimal liberal commitment only to freedom from direct coercion, is embedded in a negative attitude to the liberal market economy.  However, in this paper Pettit does pay tribute to the importance to freedom in the market place, he notes the importance of property rights and free exchange in the economy as ways of escaping the coercive subordination to a master that is the fate of many in a economy lacking in markets.  Markets create choice including a choice of employer/master.   Pettit distances himself from ‘libertarian’ notions that all regulatory constraints on exchange and property are wrong, but he puts himself in the same territory as moderate libertarians (in recent political theory Jerry Gaus, going back a bit further early Hayek,and going back even further most of the Classical Liberals) by referring to trade offs between property rights and the more collective public kinds of goods.  That is we have to choose which combination maximises liberty.

Politics (Political and Economic Liberalism)

‘From Liberalism to Social Democracy’.  Geoffrey Kurtz reviews Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson.  Dissent.  26th August 2009. A bit late with this link, but the story is still on Dissent’s homepage. so I can just about include it.

`Kurtz, following Kalyvas and Katznelson, refers to the way that Classical Liberalism of the late Eighteenth and very early Nineteenth century, was constituted through a move from Antique Republicanism to a consciousness of a more modern individualistic kind of liberty.  Thomas Paine, James Madison, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant are considered,  That is an advocate of the American and French Revolutions, one of the main figures in the early American Republic as a President and political writer, a Scottish Enlightenment historian and political thinker, a Scottish Enlightenment professor of moral philosophy who wrote a great work of economics, two French writers of literature and political thought.  These were all people concerned with the kind of freedom pertaining to the ancient republics, based in civic duty and participation, the death of those republics, and the kinds of liberty possible in a modern individualistic commercial society.  Completely the right context for discussing the origins of liberalism.  The argument goes onto the suggest the inevitable evolution of classical liberalism into social democracy, which to my mind is not as necessary an evolution as claimed, but it is certainly an outcome of that republican-liberal moment, rooted as it was in appreciation of the liberty of commercial society.

Economics (a return to Political Economy)

Econ Journal Watch

It’s free to download, economists of reputation write in it, and it contains no equations.  It can certainly be read by anyone with a basis understanding of political and social issues.  Any reader of Adam Smith would have gone beyond it in dealing with economic complexity.  The basis of the journal is that contributors criticise articles in established economics journals, and the author(s) of the piece under criticism are offered the chance to reply and have the final word, which they often take up, if not always.  I haven’t had to go through it systematically yet, but so far I’ve read some very interesting debates about interpretingAdam Smith and the success of Swedish welfarism.  Something else that caught my eye, but have’t read yet is a debate with Bill Easterly, one of the world’s leading development economists.  and a major contributor to debates about ending Third World poverty.

The journal has a methodological bias and a political bias.  The methodological bias is towards non-mathematical economics, the belief that economics is a broad discussion of individual and social rationality and action, in which maths may be useful but which is distinct from mathematics.  The political bias is towards free market classical liberal and libertarian thinking.  The methodological and political orientation come together as ‘Austrian Economics’, most famously represented by F.A. Hayek, who was preceded by Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Ludwig von Mises (the latter is the most important figure for many ‘Austrians’).  The beauty of the journal is that in some ways it gives the advantage to those who are most against the journal’s approach, so in some ways it’s the Keysians and non-free marketeers who should read the journal to see sympathetic views, rather than ‘Austrian’ liberals and libertarians.

The editor, and founder, Daniel Klein, is someone who is very interested in, and aware of, bias in economics and takes very seriously the idea of exposing bias in the most serious and consistent way, of admitting to his own biases, and finding ways of formulating discussion between those with differing biases.

This journal deserves to be read by a broad audience.  Please have a look.

Nietzsche against Master Morality

The assumption is widespread that Nietzsche’s ethics can be explained as the master morality which he diagnoses in the Essay 1 of On the Genealogy of Morality. The assumption is widespread among those who are semi-informed, and even more disturbingly among those who have some claims to expertise on Nietzsche. As a reaction to Nietzsche, it’s not totally inappropriate, the texts do provoke the reader to think of master morality as something better than slave morality. That is somewhat different from a committment to master morality as a form of ethics.

Nietzsche sometime says he is referring to a philosophy of life rather than ethics or morality. I believe it would be going to far to say that there is no ethics, or moral philosophy in Nietzsche. However, it is important toı recognise that Nietzsche is challenging (which is not the same as rejecting) the bases of ethics or morality. What he is doing is to find something like what Hegel calls immediacy, and Kierkegaard calls wonder in a reaction to nature and human nature. Though whether that means we can classify Nietzshe with contemporary Naturalists of a scientistic reductionist orientation is another thing. Nietzsche looks at the wonder, or immediacy of the master’s view of the world in the most primitive of moralities, the original master morality. That he explains particularly in relation to Homeric heroes, and in general an approach in which mutual obligations are recognised between masters, but not to those outside the relevant group of masters. From this point of view, the masters define themselves as good, beautiful, truthful and so on. The salves are those who have the opposite of those characteristics.

The slaves are not evil, because they behave according to nature in the master world view, they just behave as they do without evil intention. For Nietzsche, the concept of evil is deeply embedded in ideas of soul, strong personal identity, free will and inner intentions. It is the slaves who have a good/evil dichotomy who assume there is strong personal identity and intentionalism. For the master, there are immediate reactions There is no assumption for strong personal identity and all that might go with that: free will, intentionalism, memory over time. These aspects of master morality are clearly part of what Nietzsche advocates, but it is not what Nietzsche advocates as a whole.

Nietzsche is against a metaphysical theory free will, resting as he sees it on a strong sense of personal identity in which the self is a soul thing rather than a combination of forces as Nietzsche thinks. However, he is not against the ideas of autonomy, sovereignty of the self, or self-creation. These are all given great emphasis. Both art and science are taken as products of the creative self, which creates itself as a it creates a perspective on natural forces in nature or the creation of art. The master is not an artist or scientist. Neither of these would be a complete model for Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees value in the life that is like art, he finds that beauty is a product of the desire for happiness. Happiness comes in life led as self-creating and self-legislating. It is here that Nietzsche sees the origin of value, not in the brutishness and borrishness of the master towards the slave. He does not think that value originates in utilitarian calculations of maximised benefits, or any set of abstract principles or social institutions. Nietzsche refers to the master who forgets offence and only takes revenge where it is immediately possible, but he admires the individual with no need to punish or take revenge at all, much more.

Why Buffy and Joss Whedon’s other work matter

Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after three series this lead to the spin off Angel. Buffy ran for 7 seasons, Angel ran for 5 seasons. Towards the end of that period Whedon made 14 episodes of Firefly before it was cancelled by the network. The sequel to Firefly was the film Serenity. All these things have sold in massive amounts on DVD, unfortunately TV and cinema have been more mixed in their returns.

I’ll be returing to the Whedonverse. First of all, why does it matter? Today we’ll concentrate on Buffy. A series with a silly sounding name. The full name of the series, as Whedon points out, combines comedy, horror and drama. The silliness already indicates an interest in combining genres and crossing boundaries. What are the themes that appear and make Buffy important 8and which appear in the rest of the Whedonverse).

Buffy is an icon of female power, often defeating patronising enemies.
Buffy is also an ambiguous character: the hero and the disturbed individualist
The apparently simple conflict between good and evil moves switches back and forth between moral ambiguity and moral absolutes.
Buffy is drawn in different ways to 2 vampire characters (Angel and Spike) who make journeys from good to evil.
Buffy, Angel and Spike finds that despite the elemental conflicts she participates in, that the world has no meaning. The only morsl perspective is what the individual brings.
These characters refer to alientated states of mind and the struggle to overcome subjective alienation.
Characters find that passion drives them and is the basis rather than moral judgement.
Spike shows a moral evolution driven first by the restraint of a violence inhibiting implant, then by love for Buffy and then by regaining his ‘soul’ (soul=conscience in the Whedonverse). Many questions arise here about what morality is and what moral motivation is.
Individual difference and liberty are promoted along with an awareness that they can become alienating and disturbing.
Buffy is drawn towards ‘the dark’, towards violence, aggression and chaos in her own struggle against them.
The struggle against demonic chaos is a struggle to impose the order that Buffy resists.
Characters go through remarkable changes from apparent good to evil, and from evil to good. This is made very material in the vampirasation of Spike and Angel, both events are shown in flashback, and in the ways in which Angel and Spike get their souls back. For Angel, a soul is a punishment, for Spike it is a reward he seeks to make him worthy of Buffy. These tranformations and many others, raise questions about the limits of personal identity and the posisbility of change within continuous identity.
It deals with different possible worlds, as do many philosophers.
It’s very funny, all serious themes are ironised and everything is ironised. This is an important message in itself. Comedy and tragedy are always close together.