Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

How to be an optimal human, at the least according to some conceptions of “optimality” and “human.”

Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright embarrass themselves while telling women to vote for Clinton because she is a woman, they shouldn’t be as shallow as going after the boys who allegedly flock to Sanders’ rallies…

New research seems to indicate that evolutionary psychologists have tried for decades to explains facts about gender differences that may not actually, ahem, factual.

Another one for the New Atheists: a series of books seeking to undermine some of the most superficial arguments made against religion.

There is a new, heavily annotated, edition of Mein Kampf, which rather ironically “looks a bit like the Talmud.” A must for democracy and critical thinking.

The pros and cons of contemplating one’s death (mostly cons, the pros come at the very end).

Morality as a muscle, and why virtue ethics is far better than deontology or utilitarianism to deal with the complexities of today’s world.

Good general article on the recent discovery of gravitational waves.

What is the self? It depends, argues Julian Baggini. But getting different answers in different contexts doesn’t mean we disagree as much as we think.

Is humanity getting better? Yes, but not enough. The article also includes a wonderfully disturbing example of the dire consequences of getting causality wrong…

115 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Having read Brave New World multiple times, I’ll strongly disagree that Huxley is driven by a virtue-ethics POV, at least by that alone. I can make a good argument that he’s trumping poorly framed utilitarianism with a better utilitarianism.

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  2. Alan White

    But eudaimonia as individual enhancement is much like democratic goals of civic achievement for the populace–the so-called pursuit of happiness interpreted as individual rational golden means of virtue–which must include maximizing educational and life-work opportunities–and surely that is not inconsistent with utilitarianism.

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  3. Daniel Kaufman

    Socratic: I strongly disagree with your strong disagreement. And Huxley strikes me as no Utilitarian. Indeed, on a Utilitarian ethic, the BNW is a utopia. I give my students an assignment that asks them to explain what, on a Utilitarian view, is wrong with the BNW.

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  4. Alan White

    Clearly any utilitarian GGGN is susceptible to criticism for what it takes as the intrinsic good of the second G even by lights of accepting the principle of utility: that separates Bentham and Mill. Brave New World may be at least a criticism of what that second G is, if not some more aggressive argument for replacing the entire GGGN.

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  5. Alan White

    Ooops a correction on Bentham and Mill. I meant they parted ways on the first G–quantity versus quality. Nevertheless, one could do what they did–along with replacing the second G of intrinsic good as well as a form of eudaimonia–and still remain utilitarians. I agree with SocraticGadFly that BNW may not just be a criticism of what utilitarianism is in fact correct. Though of course it may also be a suggestion of some whole other moral theory as proper.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    I must say I strongly agree with Dan here against both Alan and Socratic. But I’m too fraking tired to actually propose any additional argument. So goodnight, and good continuation, gentlemen!

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  7. ejwinner

    brodix,

    “Hopefully this isn’t too long” – no. it’s too long. sorry. (And I remark that as a one continually posting comments of 500 words or so).

    Alan, Socratic,

    As to the BNW, utilitarian, virtue ethics debate: I think Dan and Massimo have it right. The ‘consequentialist’ argument can defeat a number of esoteric positions, especially regarding aesthetics. But a virtue ethic, of any kind, is sought because, it not only brings peace (as it often does), but it also redefines the individual seeking it – sometimes to the detriment of the individual’s utilitarian interest.

    Once a virtue ethic is adopted, the individual is committed; he or she is not really interested in proselytizing it ‘de-ontologically,’ nor do immediate consequences alter it. Ethics is no longer a matter of ‘what I do,’ but of ‘who I am.’

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  8. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    If a Theist is looking round now foe atheism’s “central argument” from someone who might reasonably be expected to represent the best atheist case, what argument is he going to find?

    I’d reply to that theist by rejecting the idea that it is atheists who need to present the argument or evidence. Per my previous reply, atheism really is based on the complete lack of evidence for theism. That really is it.

    A theist coming along and asking “so what is the central argument for atheism?” is reversing the burden of proof.

    Further, just about any atheistic argument beyond the above would require an actually specified definition of “god”, the thing being argued against. And “sophisticated”theists won’t give you that; quite deliberately they will give you only apophatic vapours and fog, lacking any substance. (This is, effectively, another tactic for reversing the burden of proof.)

    Thus, atheistic argument tends to take the form of rebuttal of arguments theists put forward. Though that game has limited point, since theistic beliefs do not actually result from those arguments. The beliefs come from wishful thinking and the arguments are rationalisations.

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  9. brodix

    Coel,

    I put forth what Robin described as animism, but is still a scientifically open question; The bottom up source of consciousness, as manifest in biology. Essentially that raw element of being shining through all life, be it very simple, or very complex.

    I assume the atheistic position tends to be that consciousness is only epiphenomenal to advanced central nervous systems, while I am describing how it manifests how it divides between form and energy, then further through both the effects of time and temperature, within the physical state of the present.

    So while theism usually is an anthropomorphism of some universal ideal, i.e., a top down ideal, or frame, I am arguing it is a useful expression for the sense of being rising up through life.

    Of course, if you wish to use another term, I’m on with that. Call it the animistic impulse, or whatever.

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  10. Coel

    I put forth what Robin described as animism, but is still a scientifically open question …

    Nope, it is not a scientifically open question. Scientific questions are sensibly and properly posed, they are not strings of words that read like something created by the postmodernism generator, just with a somewhat different vocabulary.

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  11. brodix

    To further the thought; Theism is to propose various objects or entities are animate; The Gods of War, the Sun God, The Coffee God, even a God of the Universe(presuming it is a singular entity).

    So why not propose the one thing that is animate, life on this planet, as a form of God. Science certainly accepts that all of biology originates from a single source, the tree of life.

    What action differentiates life from non life, other than the seeking of the positive and avoiding the negative, from amoebae seeking nutrients and avoid being nutrients, to philosophers trying to best define the good and the bad?

    Even Stephen Hawking proposes we find and colonize another planet, because we will destroy this one. Is that really any more far sighted than the actions of the amoebae? Likely the only way to do it would be to introduce forms of such basic life and let them evolve to the circumstances of that planet.

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  12. brodix

    Ej,

    It does have a good narrative flow though and thanks for the like!

    I meant to post a shorter quote, but there are lots of quotable sections, so I was hoping to draw anyone who might be interested into reading it. It’s all on line.

    It was originally written about 1912 and expanded several times, into the 50’s.

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  13. brodix

    Coel,

    “Nope, it is not a scientifically open question.”

    So science has solved consciousness! I guess I just didn’t hear it. I thought it was the “hard problem.”

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  14. Thomas Jones

    Actually, I think both Alan and Socratic make arguable points with respect to Huxley’s BNW. In the Forward to the 1946 edition, he wrote:

    “If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the Utopian and primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity . . . . and the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: ‘How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?'”

    Of course, Huxley is said to have originally conceived of BNW as a parody of H. G. Wells’s utopian novels, but took a dystopian direction as he reflected on possible detrimental consequences in trying to reengineer society. Huxley’s own vision of a utopian society came years later and is explored in his novel “Island.” By then, he had come to value the spiritual orientation that he explores at length in “The Perrenial Philosophy.”

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  15. SocraticGadfly

    Daniel, not all utilitarianism wants a utopia as the end concept, or believes that one is possible. So, I’ll stick by my claim that Huxley is arguably trumping utilitarianism with better utilitarianism. At a minimum, I’ll doubly stick by the claim that virtue ethics is not the guiding philosophy of the piece.

    And, I’ll hat tip to Alan’s follow-up comment, and to Thomas’, as part of this.

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    The quote from Huxley describes what is essentially a form of Eudaimonism. Some people — like Martha Nussbaum — have argued that Mill is really a Eudaimonist and not a Utilitarian, precisely because of all his talk about “higher pleasures” the only real rationale for focusing upon which could be some sort of Eudaimonism.

    If by ‘Utilitarianism’ one means any kind of hedonic, quantitative, Consequentialism, then Huxley ain’t it. But if by “Util”, you mean Eudaimonism, then yes, Huxley is a Eudaimonist.

    Which also happens to be what I’ve said each and every time, in this exchange.

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  17. SocraticGadfly

    Well, then, it’s back to Alan and whether virtue ethics has an exclusive claim to eudaimonism. Per Thomas, strains of that thought also arise in Brave New World Revisited.

    In this sense, it’s an issue of talking about philosophical goals, not motivations. (That’s setting aside the issue of whether Huxley was consciously driven by any philosophical school in writing the original BNW. In part speaking as an anti-schoolman, I don’t think he was.)

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  18. Philosopher Eric

    My third comment yesterday was queued for containing two links, and apparently Massimo couldn’t get to it for a while. I think I’ve caught up once again however. This one isn’t about Brave New World, but don’t let me interrupt that discussion…

    I wanted to mention that even though I and some others here have strong reservations about the “moral muscularity,” and “optimal human” concepts, I have no problem with people working on such self help strategies in general. Whether through popular books on the subject, or from formal Buddhism, Stoicism, or even a standard religion, I believe that each of us benefit from having reasonable ideologies to live by. One of the practical drawbacks to “joining atheism,” I think, is that it doesn’t technically provide its own associated ideology.

    That said, however, I believe that there is also a “natural ideology” for us to potentially discover. (A while back I was surprised that Socratic didn’t jump all over me for addressing it as the “is” which creates our “oughts.” I hope this was because he understood that I wasn’t actually challenging David Hume!)

    My point is that beyond our moral notions, and beyond our languages, and beyond our species, I presume that existence remains perfectly irrelevant to something like a rock, but not for something like myself. And what ultimately defines good/bad for something like myself? The positive and negative sensations produced through a conscious mind, it would seem. If you take them away, then my own existence should become just as personally irrelevant, as it presumably is for a rock. This “natural definition” of good/bad, free from human constructs like morality, should provide us with a far more basic type of ideology from which to lead our lives, as well as structure our societies.

    By the way I’ve shortened its acronym down to “ASTU,” or “Amoral Subjective Total Utilitarianism.” Would anyone like a test run?

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  19. Thomas Jones

    Dan K, personally, *my* opinion of BNW is not high–largely because it’s not a particularly good novel or particularly good philosophy. This is perhaps where Alan and Socratic’s readings depart from yours. As you say, “I give my students an assignment that asks them to explain what, on a Utilitarian view, is wrong with the BNW.”

    I think it is great that you incorporate it into your philosophy courses. It probably engenders more feedback than would reading a piece by Bentham, for example.

    But what Alan and Socratic have an issue with–I suspect–is your statement, “Indeed, a good part of what Brave New World is about is criticizing Utilitarianism from a virtue-ethical perspective.”

    You statement may be something of a reach outside the aims of your philosophy class.

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  20. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas: BNW may not be as good a read as a novel as 1984. Is it more prescient, though? I say yes.

    Given that Dan butters his political bread differently than I, maybe there are issues there, too? I don’t know; just spitballing.

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  21. Daniel Kaufman

    Huxley was far better a prophet than Orwell. I would argue that the current US is already about 50% BNW.

    As a novel, I have to disagree with Thomas. While it is not the greatest literature in the world, it is well written, entertaining, raises very interesting questions, and is very, very funny.

    I also think that Huxley was much more of a thinker/philosopher than you give him credit for, Socratic.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    “Thus, atheistic argument tends to take the form of rebuttal of arguments theists put forward.”

    Again, “should” But the New Atheists have willingly taken on the burden of evidence and allowed theists to be in the position of rebutting atheist arguments . And they have done so with weak arguments (eg Dawkins “central argument” in GD). In doing so they have handed the advantage to the theists.

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