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It's Krrunch Time, Get Playful!

Sometimes being a student can be really tough, and boring...
julian reading philosophy

especially if you have to read something like this! Even the title takes five minutes to understand :-|
incomprehensible heidegger

julian reading philosophy

It may not always be Krrunch, but don't give up! :-)

Some tasty snacks can help you to keep on going... but they can run out too... :-(
julian finishes pringles

but surprises can happen...
julian finishes pringles
book kaleidoscope

never run away from the unknown...
julian is puzzled

fortune favours those who dare!
simpsons kaleidoscope

Find new ways to learn :-)
The Simpsons and Philosophy

Learning can always be Krrunch! If you use your imagination :-D
julian garden simpsons philosophy

It's Krrunch Time, Get Playful!


Many thanks to WW for the creative support, and Kavi for photography

The virtue of practice

In Moral Philosophy there are four main strands:

• Utilitarianism: i.e. 'the greatest good for the greatest number'
• Egoism: i.e. 'I know what's best for me, and that's all that matters'
• Kantianism: i.e. 'there are certain things that are right, and that's that'
and
• Virtue ethics: i.e. 'learn to live the right life, and you will be good'

From what I have learnt of ethics, I find virtue ethics to be the most satisfying. It is inclusive, allowing one to pick and choose from the other three methods of determining morality, and it is practical - emphasising the difficulty of living morally, the ability to improve oneself and to learn from mistakes.

In the 'Western' tradition, Aristotle (a great man in most ways, though unfortunately also the root of much of EuroChristian sexist dogma) introduced this ethical method via his famous 'Golden Mean' (see e.g. MacKinnon 90). For example, you are walking down the street and you see a starving beggar: you would be miserly ('illiberal') not to spare a bit of the excess money you have, but stupid ('prodigal') to immediately sign over your bank account and house to him. What would be the virtuous thing to do would be to give him what you can spare.

In other words, adopt the 'Middle Path': which brings us to Buddhism and Confucianism. These religions/philosophies emphasise the ability of the individual to choose to act morally, and the need to learn to do so through actions.

From what I understand of Buddhism, it basically advises people to understand that suffering (a consequence of immoral action one might say) comes from desire, and one can avoid this by learning to reject the impulses that come from desire. This can be done through a slow process of meditation and practice (e.g. physically getting rid of all possessions to avoid getting attached to them).

Confucianism focuses less on the individual I would say, but again there is a strong emphasis on practice: with a famous passage stating (basically) that in order for a ruler to enable a virtuous kingdom, he (for women weren't involved here either...) has to start by practicing virtue himself (“The Great Learning” qtd. in Velasquez 161).

And a note on gender: Gilligan's famous approach argued that women tend to have a different way of making moral judgements. Key words are 'concrete', 'relational': i.e. placing moral dilemmas in their practical environment and judging from there (Rachels 163-4). Which, perhaps incidentally, ties in with the feminist insight of making the personal political.

In anthropology the importance of understanding human behaviour as 'practice', promoted by Bourdieu and others has come to dominate; and the fundamental method of anthropology - participant observation - seems to be gaining converts in all kinds of disciplines and areas (cultural studies, market research, ...). As a method, it promotes understanding through living - i.e. practice. A parallel necessary understanding is that researchers need to understand how they too affect the ongoing practices of what they are seeking to understand: known as being 'reflexive'.

So, to conclude this somewhat rambling post: morality is developed through practice, and honest reflection upon one's own position. Practice, as a method and as a theoretical standpoint, is emerging as a paradigm in many disciplines. Reflexivity is also central to ethnographic practice.

Therefore, I suppose, one can argue that social science methodologies have mostly shed the idealistic modern/scientific notion that neutrality and objectivity are attainable, and instead moving to an ethical stance that has its roots in virtue ethics.

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Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. UK: Polity Press, 1993.
MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics. Theory and Contemporary Issues. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2001.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy. A Text with Readings. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 2005.

Are humans selfish?


People often disagree with me when I say that most humans want to help others, and will help others, and it ends up being a debate about whether people are basically selfish or not.

There’s a difference between being selfish and self-interested: selfish means – for example – not helping another person when there is little or no cost for you (e.g. not giving one ringgit to someone who clearly needs it, and you can easily spare it); self-interested means not sacrificing yourself – it is not selfish to refuse to give your car to someone, when you need it to get to work and support yourself, for example.

One of the reasons I decided that most people are not selfish is that I used to travel quite a lot, and I used to hitchhike often too. I travelled thousands of kilometres in strangers’ cars, and often they would go out of their way to drop me somewhere convenient for me. In all the places I travelled to, I have always been able to count on someone helping me out if I’m lost, or for some other reason.

OK – you may say that it was only a minority that helped me, and that’s true. But think of this – if everyone was really so selfish, how would societies work at all? We all cooperate willingly with other people every day, and think nothing of it. The idea that if there were nobody to force us to cooperate, under pain of punishment, we would turn around and become crazy beasts just flies in the face of all evidence. Wherever people group together, the first thing they will do is try to find some common means of communication and common standards to operate on. The problem, in my opinion, is that so many people are trained to expect others to make decisions for them, so when they are faced with a situation where there are no clear and obvious rules, they turn to someone to lead them – depending on that individual leader, they may or may not end up acting in violent and unsocial ways.

Anyway, all of this is because I was pointed to this interesting experiment - tweenbots. It sounds like some marketing cartoon for kids, but in fact
Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Check out tweenbots to see what happened when this was tried in Central Park, New York

Ethical dilemma - when would you kill someone?

Here's a moral dilemma that I heard some philosopher tell [* Edit 03/03/09: I heard it on one of the 'Philosophy Bites' podcasts], it addresses a dilemma of consequentialism - i.e. judging acts by their consequences.

First scenario
Imagine you are are told that if you kill one healthy person, his organs will be used to save the life of five others. It is guaranteed that those five will be saved if you kill him, and otherwise they will definitely die.

What do you do?



Second scenario
You have been taken hostage by a terrorist. He gives you a gun (but you don't have the option to shoot him, OK?) and tells you that if you shoot one person, he will let another five go free. If you don't shoot the person, he will kill the other five. If you shoot yourself, he will kill all of them.

What do you do?



Third scenario
You're in charge of a rail track system on which there is a runaway train that you cannot stop. Coming up in front of the train the track splits into two, and you have to decide to send the train left or right. However, on the left track there is one person tied to the tracks and on the other, there are five people. Sending the train down either track will kill the person or persons tied to the track.

What do you do?



If you're like most people, for the last scenario you would have immediately chosen the track with one person; for the first you will likely have decided that it's not OK to kill a healthy person to use his organs to save five others. And, for the second scenario, you may have hesitated between one or the other.

The question is: what is the moral difference between the first and the third scenario? The consequence is the same. In each, you are killing one person to save five others. But what seems obvious in the third, is not obvious in the first.

Hehe :-) bit of a mind-fcuk eh? :-O

My guess is that the first scenario is a lot more likely to happen, and therefore we recoil at the idea; it also would have consequences in terms of establishing a precedence and - ultimately, someone one day could decide to harvest our own organs.

In the third one, there is only a split second to make a decision and therefore it is easier to make.

Also, in the first one, the healthy person is a completely free agent - i.e. not captured, or otherwise in any danger, and you have to kill him in cold blood; whereas in the other two scenarios someone else has put him in that situation, and therefore you are absolved of some responsibility.

What do you think?

PS: For those who like philosophy, here's a new blog I came across with Philosophy Cartoons.

Language and logic

Another day is coming to a close, and I have been wrestling with an annoying problem with my blog for the last hour or so (it is somehow still linking to a pdf that I deleted). I also realise that I haven't posted since Sunday. The problem I had reminded me of something I wrote back in 2001 when setting up a website for my Masters - so, in 'filler post' manner, I am pasting here :-) I never used it in my Masters dissertation, but it always stuck in my head, so why not post it here now?

It's a bit unpolished, and I edited it slightly. But here it is:

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Western civilisation is closely linked with the totalising approach that is represented by the scientific discipline. The modern computers are based on transistors that are now so small that thousands of them are contained on one silicon chip. Transistors operate on a binary system whereby the transistor can be either in an 'On' or 'Off' position; computing logic is based on a series of questions relating to statements to which the answer can be either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. These are run at an unimaginable speed through the arrays of transistors and come out with the type of program that I am using to type these words. It is tempting to draw a direct line back to the Aristotelian syllogism, where A cannot be also B. Within the binary system there is no room for uncertainty or grey areas, all probabilities and possibilities will be expressed in terms of quantitative statistical mathematical probabilities. It is this unforgiving logic that is at the root of the information technologies – the technology that is a product of the social system from which it is drawn, a product of it and thus it also will contribute to the reproduction of the type of system that produced it.

An anecdote from my preparation of the website illustrates the way in which the engagement in particular practices may teach particular types of logic. For a few days I have been coming back to a problem I had with my online questionnaire whereby for a reason I could not fathom, some of the answers were being correctly reported in the summary sheet, while others weren’t. Finally, through a process of trial and error, I discovered that it was the label I was giving some of the questions, e.g. : "Q3.1", or "Q4.2_other", that was the problem. Specifically, it was the dot between the numbers that made the difference, this was not mentioned in the instruction manual which says, in relation to this point:
"List/Menu Assigns a name to the list or menu. This field is required, and the name must be unique!"

The name must be unique, but it does not say that if it has a dot in it then it may/will not work. This is the kind of technical shortcoming that is often described as a ‘bug’, errors that are seen as integral to a computer program but would never be acceptable in most other consumer goods that are put on the market. It may also be that it is way in which Dreamweaver has encoded the actual instructions in HTML for this particular element of the graphical interface does not correspond with how the other program – a ‘CGI script’ – operates. The latter is what is run when the questionnaire is filled out and then the ‘Submit’ button is pushed. In fact I have no idea what the real cause is, the only apparent cause that I see is the errant dot, but the reasons why that dot is causing a problem are probably multiple and even if someone were to explain them to me, it is likely that I would not understand it.

The reason why I tell this rather anodyne anecdote, the type of experience many people have had, is that it seems to me that in grappling with the software, I am obliged to start to think in a specific, probably Cartesian, manner. I am learning a language, and a particular type of logic. – if, in my 'travels' in cyberspace I was to meet up with someone who had used the same software then we would have a common understanding that may enhance or otherwise influence our interaction.

I’m moving towards a techno-determinist argument here: i.e. the programme has a ‘language’ that will influence my interaction with another person. However it is in the strength and inevitability of the potential causal link that I would like to place my argument. I have learnt a different logic, let’s assume, but I will use it according to my own interpretation of what is necessary and important for myself. This will be based on previously learnt behaviours and ingrained habits/practices. I may have learnt a new logic or language, but whether it actually affects my practices will depend on how much it clashes with previously learnt thought processes and the extent to which I perceive that taking on this logic will enable me to further my interests as defined by my social upbringing.
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