Archive for October, 2009

Just In: California Hates TV

by Jason Stotts

The LA Times is reporting that the People’s State of California may soon move to ban big-screen TVs.  The controversy is, of course, that the TV’s are “power guzzlers” and bad for the sacred environment.  The ironic part is that, as the article notes, private industry has already moved to newer technology and is already phasing out the older “power guzzlers,” before the legislation had even been introduced.  The point of the legislation, then, is only to increase the scope of governmental powers. The ban will, however, hurt consumer choice as the new technology is more expensive now than the existing technology. Clearly, this law is clearly not about the welfare of the citizens, but the power of the government.

“When the Republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are the most numerous.” ~ Tacitus

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Sexual Perfection Extraneous

by Jason Stotts

The following is a rough draft of what was going to be section 1 of chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Sexual Perfection: Foundations of a New Sexual Ethic.  However, the section had to be cut after a restructuring.  Instead of merely scrapping the material, I’ve decided to post it here so that you, our loyal readers, can have a look at it.

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Section 1: Brief History of the Problem

What is an emotion?

Each of us has experienced what we think are emotions and most of us would likely say that he knew what an emotion is. However, it quickly becomes clear, once we begin to try to concretize this knowledge, that our conception of emotions is ephemeral at best.

For example, love is popularly considered a paradigm emotion, but what about shame, disgust, and pleasure? Are these things emotions? Furthermore, even in the paradigm case of love, it’s not clear what exactly love is: is love something inside me, or is it a relation between my lover and myself, or perhaps both? Once we try to pin down the precise nature of an emotion, we quickly discover that the certainty we thought we had evaporates.

Yet, if we cannot understand even the more basic emotions and the role they play in our lives, it is hard to imagine that we shall be able to come to understand the true nature of sex or to ever know happiness. But how, you may be wondering, with all of the advances in technology, in medicine, in psychology, and with the intervening 2500 years since philosophers began asking hard questions about emotions, how can we not know what emotions are? The problem is that for all this time, there have been some serious errors that have prevented our understanding of emotions from progressing.

Plato was the first philosopher, of whom we have substantial record, to attempt to untangle the confusion regarding emotions. He believed that humans were truly immortal souls trapped inside bodies and that after death these souls would transcend the material world to a pure world of Forms. However, while bound in a body, the soul had certain attributes. In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the metaphor of a charioteer pulled by two strong steeds: a white purebred (reason) and a wild black stallion (the passions). He claims that in order to maintain one’s path, one must tame the black stallion as much as possible so that the two horses work together. If the black horse of the passions cannot be tamed, then he shall pull the chariot astray.

The problem with Plato’s psychology is that it treats the passions as innate and irreducible, in addition to being opposed to reason. Thus, while Plato would agree that it is the sight of a beautiful youth that stirs desire for a Greek, he would not think that any further analysis could be done. Yet, if the sight of a young boy were simply enough to stir desire and this was innate, then all humans (or at least all human males) should feel desire for these beautiful youths. However, today young men are not the objects of the lust of older men, but rather it is women that now serve as the ideal of beauty (a concept completely foreign to the Greek mind). By considering emotions as irreducible and opposed to reason, Plato set the stage for two millennia of confusion.

The next major setback for the understanding of emotions comes again from the Greeks, although this time it is the Stoics. One of the Stoic ideals was what they called apatheia, or the absence of desire and emotions. This ideal springs from their belief that emotions obscure our connection with the world and confuse our minds. Instead, we are told by the Stoics to follow Reason dispassionately.

The Stoics, instead of contesting the idea that the passions are opposed to reason, instead accept this as fact and decide that the only appropriate course of action must be to reject emotions in favor of reason. However, with no emotional commitment to follow the edicts of reason, why should I desire to? By completely denying that a passionate life could be a reasonable life, the Stoics severed any chance of someone desiring a life of reason and set up the ideal of the dispassionate life of “cold reason.” We shall return to this point at the end of the chapter and see that our emotions can actually serve as the motivation for ethics.

So far, we have seen that Plato thought that emotions were unanalyzable and needed to be commanded by reason and that the Stoics went even farther by outright denying that emotions could have any useful role in life. Yet, it was Kant, who insisted that emotions were absolutely opposed to reason and therefore anathema to Ethics, that struck home the final nail in the coffin for emotions.

While the Stoics had sought to create a philosophy dedicated to human reason in order to live a good life, Kant’s goal is something different. Kant seeks to create a philosophy structured for a “pure rational agent”. He seeks, as much as possible, to remove any human elements from his system and to enshrine “reason itself” as his deity. Thus, he states an agent must always act “not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth.” Thus, for Kant if a person has any emotional commitment (inclination) to an end, it cannot be ethical. This emphasis completed the divorce of emotions and ethics that Plato started by insisting that reason had to tame emotions. It also was the final blow against emotions insofar as understanding goes, since if emotions are only destructive of ethics, then we need not try and understand them. It would be best to avoid them altogether.

The history of philosophy with regard to emotions is a rather bleak one and it gives rise to most of the problems we see in the current understanding of emotions. Today, the three major problems in relation to emotions are: the open hostility to emotions, the dichotomy of reason versus emotions, and the idea that emotions are unanalyzable. We have seen the historic and philosophic origins of these ideas and we have even anticipated the answers to some of these problems in chapter 1. Now let us briefly address each before moving on to a thorough analysis of emotions.

First, we must point out that emotions are not necessarily destructive of ethics. It is important to realize that Kant only thought that emotions were destructive of ethics because he was absolutely opposed to any sort of self-interested action and he believed that if emotions had any role in ethics, then people would be inclined towards egoism. Since we have already dismissed the arguments against egoism, let us set aside Kant’s agenda and move on to other problems.

Not only are emotions not necessarily destructive of ethics, they can also be the fuel that powers ethics. If we realign emotions and reason, then emotions could help us to be ethical. Imagine the difference in action between the person who was coldly ethical because he thought it was right, but had no emotional commitment to right action, and the person who passionately wanted to be good. It should be obvious that the latter person will not only be better able to achieve a good life, he will also enjoy this life in a way that the former person will not.

We saw in chapter one that the conception of a person as having a separable soul/body was incorrect and that humans are actually integrated beings of soul and body such that when the body dies, the soul does not persist. Although we can easily dispatch with dualism, we still need to understand the connections between reason and emotions in order to integrate the two back together. In order to do this we shall have to provide a positive theory of emotions to replace the mistaken historic conception, which we shall do below. In the process it will become clear that emotions are not irreducible primaries, but are open to analysis, and that reason and emotions are closely related.

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Ayn Rand in the News

by Jason Stotts

I think it’s great that the two new biographies of Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, are really increasing the amount of media references.  For example, here is a short list of some of the bigger profile reviews.

Newsweek:  “Atlas Hugged” by Mark Sanford (Governor of South Carolina).

The New York Times: “Twin Biographies of a Singular Woman” by Janet Maslin.

Time: “Ayn Rand: Extremist or Visionary?” by Andrea Sachs.

And, perhaps the most interesting recent media Ayn Rand reference:

The Daily Beast: “Ayn Rand Power Dressing” by Rebecca Dana

While I don’t think that any of the commenters on Ayn Rand are particularly well educated about Objectivism, I think that it is good that she is appearing more and more in the media.  Even the negative reviews are getting her name out there and will hopefully encourage at least some new people to go out and pick up the primary sources.

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Democrats Finally Clear About Socialist Agenda

by Jason Stotts

Although she clearly didn’t mean to out herself, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) accidentally told the President of of Shell Oil that “And guess what this liberal will be all about? This liberal will be all about socializing…” (see clip).

The funny thing is that she clearly didn’t mean to out herself and, further, I think she means “nationalizing” anyway. Frankly, I think it’s great that the democrats are becoming more clear about their agenda. If we can get the debate out in the open, socialism versus capitalism, then we can start to have real discussions about it and consider the principles involved. Now, of course, this would not help the socialist side and so they clearly would not want to do this. I, personally, think that the American people have too much pride and integrity to accept the open move to socialism now.

Further, although many people tend to call themselves altruists (christian, etc), when the issue is clearly asked of them: “do you want to have half of every one of your hard earned dollars go to someone else?” most people will give a resounding “NO!”  The democrats know this too and so they cannot have the debate publicly and must couch it in terms of “greater good,” “common interest,” “national emergency,” and all of the other empty phrases they employ.

[Edited 10/26]

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The Christians are Burning Witches (Again)

by Jason Stotts

It sometimes seems like we are doomed to repeat history. Everything from the complete failure of socialism in Russia, to the hyperinflation of Germany in the 1920’s, and now the Salem Witch Trials.

The Associated Press is reporting in the LA Times that Christians are again burning witches, although this time it’s not in Salem; it’s in Africa.

The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice [The United Nations Children’s Fund] say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria’s 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.

In Nigeria alone, over 1,000 innocent children have been accused of witchcraft and killed for their crimes. How do I know they were innocent? Because there are no more witches in the world than blue unicorns, angels, or gods: they are all imaginary. Christians, however, cannot abide by any other competing forms of mysticism and so must obliterate the old African mythologies.

But killing witches does more than merely destroy some old African customs; it allows the christians to pass the blame for evil. Theodicy is a major problem for christians (and all others who believe in a benevolent god): if their god is all-powerful and all good, how can he allow evil? Well, this wonderful deity takes a hands-off approach to his most special creations and also gave them free will. Thus, it is not their god’s fault that bad things happen, but the fault of those who choose to do evil. Further, this omnibenevolent god has also, for some reason, given special magic powers to certain creatures, primarily evil ones apparently, to use as they wish. Thus, if the christians are to help out their god, who is all powerful and perfect, they must smite the evil witches (to whom their god gave magic powers).

The whole thing is so convoluted and silly, you would think that no one could be fooled into believing it. But, unfortunately, they do. It gets better still…

Denouncing witches is now big business in Nigeria and more and more witches are being denounced.

“Even churches who didn’t use to ‘find’ child witches are being forced into it by the competition,” said Itauma. “They are seen as spiritually powerful because they can detect witchcraft and the parents may even pay them money for an exorcism.”

That’s right, some pastors are able to use a special power (not magic) to detect witchcraft (which does not make them witches too) and they are willing to help by praying for you ($), performing an exorcism ($$), or leading a mob of angry villagers to kill the child ($$$).

One child, named Jerry, was “beaten by his pastor, starved, made to eat cement and then set on fire by his father as his pastor’s wife cheered it on.” Praise the good god that he survived! The very worst part for me is that this irrationality is so deep-seated that even the children denounced as witches can’t reject it. “‘Please stop the pastors who hurt us,’ said Jerry quietly, touching the scars on his face. ‘I believe in God and God knows I am not a witch.’”

This is why ideas matter! Ideas can kill children. Ideas can turn good people into monsters. Ideas determine the course of ourselves, our cultures, and our nations.

If YOU, reading this, are a christian, then your ideas are killing right now. There can be no such thing as peaceful irrationality. People can only be dealt with by reason or force, and you walked away from reason a long time ago. Give up your illusions and embrace a reasonable life. It may not feel as comfortable as your illusions and lies, but rest assured that it is the real world and through reason you can regain your humanity.

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Nietzsche’s Obituary

by Jason Stotts
Recently I was sent something most astonishing from my peripatetic philosopher friend Robert Garmong.  It is the actual obituary of Friedrich Nietzsche as published in the New York Times on August 26, 1900.  Now, my understanding of Nietzsche from my undergraduate days, and some of what I’ve read about him from Kaufman, led me to believe that he didn’t get famous until much later than this, but the obituary treats him as fairly well known.  Check it out.

Prof. Nietzsche Dead

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

Weimar, Aug. 25.–Prof. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the philosopher, died here today of apoplexy.

Prof. Nietzsche was one of the most prominent of modern German philosophers, and he is considered the apostle of extreme modern rationalism and one of the founders of the socialistic school, whose ideas have had such a profound influence on the growth of political and social life throughout the civilized world. Nietzsche was largely influenced by the pessimism of Schopenhauer and his writings, full of revolutionary opinions, were fired with a fearless iconoclasm which surpassed the wildest dreams of contemporary free thought. His doctrines however, were inspired by lofty aspirations, while the brilliancy of his thought and diction and the epigrammatic force of his writings commanded even the admiration of his most pronounced enemies, of which he had many.

Of Slavonic ancestry Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the village of Rocken, on the historic battlefield of Lutzen. He lost his parents early in life, but received a fine education at the Latin School at Pforta, concluding his studies at Bonn and Leipsic. Although educated for the ministry, Nietzsche soon renounced all faith and Christianity on the ground that it impeded the free expansion of life. He then devoted his attention to the study of Oriental languages and accepted in 1869 a professorship at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

This position he held until 1876, when overwork induced an affection of the brain and eyes, and he had to travel for his health. During these years of suffering and while in distressed circumstances he wrote most of his works. Since 1889 Nietzsche had been hopelessly insane, living in Weimar, at the home of his sister, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who has edited his works. For many years he was a close friend of Richard Wagner, the composer. His principal publications are “The Old Faith and the New,” “The Overman,” “The Dawn of Day,” “Twilight of the Gods,” and “So Spake Zrathustra,” which is perhaps the most remarkable of his works.

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On Marijuana

By Jason Stotts

As many of you know, I’ve recently moved to the People’s State of California. There is much that I like about the state so far, like the weather, and much that I dislike about the state so far, like the state government. One of the few things that I do approve of, however, is the fact that California allows the use of medical marijuana.

Frankly, I am for the full legalization of marijuana.

I see marijuana the same way that I see alcohol: as a drug that certain people like in order to artificially alter their moods. Alcohol is dangerous. People die all of the time from drunk driving, binge drinking, kidney failure, etc. Certainly more people die every year from alcohol use than from marijuana use. Marijuana is also dangerous. Not only is it known to cause cancer (like smoking tobacco), it also is bad for your mind.

Because both alcohol and marijuana can be used for good reasons, I think they should be legal. However, because both alcohol and marijuana divorce one’s mind from reality and prevent one from actually addressing the feelings and situations that lead one to substitute pot or alcohol for real changes, I think that they are immoral.

Now, someone could certainly argue that not only does small amounts of alcohol not hurt you, there are known health benefits in certain kinds of whiskeys (like scotch) and red wine. This is true, but is also not the case I am talking about. A glass of red wine with dinner is not harmful, drinking all of the time because you can’t handle the reality of your life is. The case of marijuana is not congruent, however. Marijuana is known to cause cancer and always disassociates one’s mind from reality. Therefore, the only situations in which is would be moral to use marijuana is in cases where these considerations would be irrelevant: as in the case of a dying person who is using the marijuana to control pain. There is also a medically convincing reason to use marijuana to encourage eating in patients who would otherwise have no appetite, as is sometimes the case during chemo treatment and certain diseases. However, the only reason why someone who is perfectly healthy would want to use marijuana is to divorce their mind from reality. I find this immoral.

Nevertheless, even though I think their use is immoral, I think that they should still be legal. Far more harm than good is done by making a fairly benign drug like marijuana illegal. Indeed, the first thing that happens is the creation of a black market for marijuana. This will restrict the supply of marijuana, thus increasing the price. The more it is regulated and enforced, the smaller the supply becomes and therefore the price jumps even higher. If, however, you legalize marijuana, you could control the points of distribution (like is currently done with liquor licenses), you can set an age limit (like the current drinking age), you could reduce the number of non-dangerous persons in prisons, and you could raise tax revenue from the sales tax on marijuana. Incidentally, you would effectively destroy the entire black market for marijuana almost instantly as the availability of marijuana would drive down the price and make the disincentives to entry (jail time, etc) not worth the profit of the lower priced marijuana. Not only would this destroy the black market for marijuana, it would also harm the black market for many other illegal drugs as one of the most popular drugs would be take out of the black market, leaving drug dealers with only the more expensive and more dangerous drugs. This would decrease the profits in the overall black market for drugs and thus decrease the black market itself.

Thus, there are many reasons to legalize marijuana. Yet, we probably won’t see this happen. Why not? Because the current war on drugs, marijuana in particular, is not a reasonable war, but one based on the concept of sin.

I had never thought about why some people were so fanatical about marijuana, since it’s not really that bad, as far as drugs go, until I read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. Now, there is much for which I would recommend this book, although his positive thesis is not among them, but one of the most fascinating things I found in his book is the idea that the war on drugs, prostitution, and all of the other dubious “victimless crimes” is actually a war against sin.

Think about it for a second. What is a “victimless crime”? A crime where there is no victim. None. It is a crime where no one was harmed in any way, was defrauded, was coerced, or any of the other ways in which you can actually violate another’s rights. So why are they illegal? Because the victim in these crimes, it is argued, is society. That’s right, none of us are hurt, yet all of us are. (You try to figure out the metaphysics of this one, I can’t.)

It is argued that if these victimless crimes are allowed to happen, then society itself will break down and anarchy will reign. Really? The more honest version of the argument goes like this: “if people aren’t controlled, then they will satisfy their pleasures in a way that is not pleasing to our god. We can’t let this happen.” The war against victimless crimes is a moral war based on the morality of christianity. This is very interesting, as it was my understanding that we had a separation of church and state in this country.
I don’t want to deal here with the entire issue of victimless crimes, which deserves its own essay, but I do want to point out that the issue of victimless crimes needs to be rethought in a rational light and the theological arguments against it, couched in legalistic terms, need to be dismissed.

Ultimately, what I think is that there are a whole host of things that are immoral, but that does not mean they should be illegal. The principle of law should be this: no one should be able to violate the rights of another. Period, end of story. No talk of the dubious concepts of victimless crimes or positive rights, concepts given to us from the couched christians. The law should not concern itself with people’s happiness or welfare: a person should be able to do as well as he can or be allowed to fail. He should not be able to force another (or all of us) to pay for his mistakes. Just because something is a bad idea, does not mean it should be illegal.

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My First Nude Beach

by Jason Stotts

There is something truly liberating about being naked outside. I found this out when I went to my first nude beach, San Onofre in southern California, not too long ago.

There is something so natural about being, well au natural, at the beach. Instead of spending all my time making sure my swimsuit was in the right place, that it didn’t get shifted around or pulled down by the waves, that it wasn’t in the wrong place for tanning, or merely just making me cold while it was damp, and all of the other myriad inconveniences of swimming suits — I was unencumbered and able to free enjoy myself. I was able to play in the waves freely, without having to worry about my suit. I was able to move about easier in the water, without my suit getting in the way. I was able to swim faster, without my suit dragging. I was able to lay out and enjoy the sun on my entire body.

In short, I was liberated.

You might think that liberated is a tad bit strong, for something so small as being able to be naked at the beach. But consider this: why do we have to wear clothes? Clothes serve many useful functions: they keep us warm, they keep us protected, allow us to go places we could go without it, etc. Clothing also serves to hide our bodies from the gaze of others. This can be good and bad.

Consider, for example, that the hiding of our bodies makes them more intimate to share with our lovers. Revealing our nude body to our lover is a very special act, since we withhold this from all others. In that sense, wearing clothes makes the body more sexualized. However, the body can be concealed not only for good reasons, but also for bad ones as well.

Consider that the Greeks used to compete in the Olympic Games in the nude. They did this because they celebrated the body and physical achievement. They also did not want to be encumbered by clothing, as this would slow them down and make much of what they did harder. This sort of joy of being an embodied human died with the advent of christianity and the intense ideas of bodily shame it brought with it. No longer could the nude body be celebrated as the greatest of all beautiful objects: the christians made it shameful and base.

So, being clothed can be good for some reasons, because it is useful and creates an intimate aspect of ourselves to share with our lovers, and also be bad for other reasons, because it is done in response to the idea of the inherent depravity of the human body. What then are we to do?

I think that we should recognize that clothing has many purposes, but that the nude body is in no way base or shameful. Thus, in contexts where clothing is actually an impediment and is only done out of a sense of shame, we should throw aside the misanthropic christian heritage and celebrate our bodies. This could open up exercise, swimming, or even just relaxing in the nude.

There are actually some very large advantages to this, the foremost of this is to reclaim our bodies as parts of ourselves. This may sound like a very strange thing to say, but many people suffer from a dualism that makes them think that their body is some sort of foreign prison for their soul. Being nude would help to erase this irrational belief by helping people to experience themselves as fully unified beings. There is something so right and natural about playing in the water in the nude that really forces you to see yourself as you really are: a unified being of mind and body.

It is hard to describe how liberating it really was to be naked on a beach. To play in the water nude. To feel the water against my skin with nothing between. To feel the waves rush past me. To lay on the sand and feel the sun on my skin. To throw off a misanthropic ideology and simply enjoy being human.

I can hardly recommend it enough.

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