Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker

by Jason Stotts

In case you haven’t heard of it yet, Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker has a new book out defending the enlightenment and the progress that humanity has made since then called “Enlightenment Now”. The blurb for it is:

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.

Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature–tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking–which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.

With intellectual depth and literary flair, Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.

The book does a great job showing how much progress we have made and that the world is getting better everyday. This is an important message at a time when all we hear is how things are coming apart at the seams.

While I do have some reservations about the book (which Robert Tracinski does a better job of discussing that I likely would have), I do think it’s a worthwhile read and worth picking up.

Inferno: Cassandra’s Call

by Jason Stotts

A friend of mine just released a new fantasy book called “Inferno: Cassandra’s Call.” It’s the first in a new series that looks to be quite interesting. The blurb is:

Fall into a world where each new moon renews Earth’s hunger for human sacrifices. The Order of Pure and Cleansing Inferno administers the Ritual, delivering a chosen few to the flames to forestall the End of Days. Most grudgingly accept the necessity of the Ritual, and a few revere the Order for protecting life as they know it. Rare indeed is the individual who questions either, but Cassandra has never behaved according to expectations. She believes that she can put a stop to the bloody Ritual with the help of a renowned mercenary known only as Moose. Will Moose and Cassandra work together to uncover the secrets of the powerful Order, or will they betray each other in the end? Will the addition of Alex, a reckless brawler without a home, strengthen the party or strain it?

The Inferno series balances action worthy of any dungeon-crawling adventure with character-driven stories that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chris Claremont or Joss Whedon script. In the tradition of the very best science fiction and fantasy, it explores themes of personal identity, order and chaos, the structure of society, and the meaning of family. If you have enjoyed the work of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Goodkind, or Philip Pullman, this series is for you.

Check it out and, if you like it, leave her a review to help her get started. I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Ill-Defined Harm: A Review of Jesse Bering’s Perv

by Jason Stotts


Let me start by saying that overall, I enjoyed Jesse Bering’s new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.  Bering does a great job of parsing psychological studies and medical texts in a way that’s easily readable and interesting.  In fact, overall I recommend Perv and think that most people will really enjoy it.  There were even parts that I loved, like in his preface where Bering talks about some of his hard times in his past and says “This book, you might say, is my retaliation by reason.”  I fucking love that line.

In Perv, Bering has two major enterprises: First, he wants to show us that our apparently unique sexual proclivities are actually shared by quite a number of people (you’re more normal than you realize). Second, he wants to elaborate an ethical principle for when perversions are moral or immoral.

For his first enterprise, I think Bering does a really good job.  Consider this passage:

“The problem with zipping up on our dirtiest little secrets, however, is that others are doing exactly the same thing, and this means that the story of human sexuality that we’ve come to believe is true is, in reality, a lie.  What’s more, it’s a very dangerous lie, because it convinces us that we’re all along in the world as “perverts” (and hence immoral monsters) should we ever deviate in some ways from this falsely conceived pattern of the normal.  A lot of human nature has escaped rational understanding because we’ve been unwilling to be completely honest about what really turns us on” (pg. 5).

This is spot on.  This is precisely why it’s so important that people with “unusual” sexual desires be open about them: it creates a safe space for others to come out and lets us know how many other people share our desires.  This is precisely why being gay is accepted now and it wasn’t 50 years ago: some brave souls had the courage to come out and weather the storm to create a safe space and live their lives authentically.  It turns out that most of our “unusual” desires are not so unusual after all.

The problem with Perv is where Bering tries to elaborate an underlying moral framework with regard to perversions.  It is here that his lack of philosophical training emerges.

He starts well enough: “We’ve become so focused as a society on the question of whether a given sexual behavior is evolutionarily ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ that we’ve lost sight of the more important question: Is it harmful?” (21). So far, so good.  But, what does “harmful” mean?

First, he’s clear that whatever “harm” is, it cannot merely be in the mind: “Still, it’s only when this ‘mere breath of air’ is manifested in behavior that harm to another person may or may not occur.” (22) So “harm” must be an action.  Moreover, it must be able to be clearly explained: “It’s far easier to assume that all sex [sic] deviants including even some of those who’ve committed crimes, are immoral than it is to show, case by case, how they’ve caused measurable harm.” And, if we want to avoid moral dumbfounding, we must be able to elaborate the reasons why something is immoral (31).

Bering then uses the hypothetical of the necrophilia club and tells us that those who oppose it use some kind of presumption of harm reasoning.  Even after being told that no harm would come to anyone “people still insisted that somehow or another, someone, somewhere, must be getting harmed” (32). He notes that “the damage might even be seen as inflicted on symbolic bodies” (like the church or country), but rejects this saying: “Likewise, pain and distress can occur only at the level of a subjectively experiencing organism (human or animal) in possession of pain receptors and a nervous system able to register emotional trauma, not at the level of an abstract entity without a brain.” (33).  This, it seems to me, indicates that “harm” is either physical pain or emotional pain: that harm = pain.   Moreover, that harm, must happen to an individual and not some abstraction.

Now, Bering takes a weird turn.  He’s been trying to elaborate a moral principle to show when “perversions” are moral or immoral and he is trying to use the idea of harm to underlie this principle.  He then says: “But the concept of ‘perversions’ (or ‘going against what is right’) is entirely a phantom of the moralizing human mind” (66).  He continues, “Oddly enough, a healthy does of moral nihilism is the antidote for so many of the social ills connected to human sexuality.”  Moral nihilism, in case you don’t know, rejects the idea that there could be any kind of truth to morality.  What?! Wasn’t Bering trying to elaborate a moral principle?  These things are clearly not compatible.  In fact, this is the same error Nietzsche made: assuming that all morality was anti-life because christian morality is anti-life and then throwing it all away.

Interesting, even though Bering seems to now be arguing against any moral enterprise, he seems to have not given up on elaborating his moral principles and continues: “In my opinion, the only important point to weigh when trying to decide what is or isn’t sexually appropriate is, again, that of harm.” (88).  But Jesse!, you just told us that morality isn’t even possible and now you’re back to your quest of elaborating a moral principle?  Also, now you’re talking about “appropriateness” instead of immorality?  Is that some kind of substitute?  I guess we’ll have to see.

In the next chapter “It’s Subjective, My Dear” Bering again seems to be suggesting that “harm” is nothing more than pain and, therefore, couldn’t be the basis of an objective principle: “Sadism isn’t the only paraphilic category for which the question of harm can get murky […] a universally objective reality simply doesn’t exist in the present domain; what’s harmful to me isn’t necessarily harmful to you, and vice versa.” (142). Wait: but if harm is pain and sadism and masochism involve pain, do they also involve harm? If they do, they’re immoral.  But you’re trying to tell us how they aren’t necessarily immoral.  Is all harm pain, but not all pain harm?  I guess I don’t understand what harm is after all.

So, is there any objective basis we can use, Bering? “The best predictor of subjective harm—past, present, and future—he found, is the minor’s lack of consent.” (145). Well, that sounds like you’re saying that doing things to a person against their will and where they find this harmful is objectively harmful, especially with relation to children and sexuality.  That does sound like the beginning of a moral principle.  Do you have anything else to say about morality? “Morally, all that matters—and allow me to reiterate that because I feel it’s quite important, all that matters—is whether a person’s sexual deviancy is demonstrably harmful” (166). You’ve really got me confused now!  Is there or is there not an ethical principle at work here?  Are we ethical nihilists?  Is there any meaning to “harm”? I guess we need to press on. Surely we’re about to arrive at an answer that will clear all this up.

In arguing against the idea of using normalcy as a standard for what is moral in sexuality, Bering says: “I hope you’re able to see clearly now, by the way, why the issue of ‘normalcy’ is so morally vacuous and why the question of harm must instead prevail before we can ever hope to make any real ethical progress in these debates” (199).  While we can agree that normalcy is a problematic term in morality and that it cannot be a real standard (consider that if were, if Jews were “non-normal” in a population, then they would be immoral and you could take action against them), we have to worry about how real the idea of “harm” is when what that is has not been elaborated at all!  It is harm of one’s relationship with the christian magical sky-friend?  Is it harm of one’s purity?  Is it harm of one’s shiny soul?  Is it harm of one’s body?  Is it harm of one’s mind?  Is it harm of one’s long-term interests in life?  Without an ethical framework in which to ground harm, the concept is meaningless.

It’s clear that Bering wants to rule out at least some of these, saying: “In adopting a patently false but stubbornly clung-to mythology of human sexuality [from christianity] that makes demons out of natural drives, we’ve entered a stage of moral sickness, not of moral health.” Agreed.  But you’ve yet to elaborate what moral health would be.  At the very best, you’ve given us some of what it is not and a vacuous principle that we might or might not be supposed to believe, depending on if we take your comment about moral nihilism seriously.

Unfortunately, that’s all Bering has to say on the matter.  This leaves us terribly unsatisfied in his second major enterprise in his book.  I don’t know what harm is, I don’t know what moral framework Bering wanted to tap, and I’m not even sure he thinks that morality is a thing, although he frequently argues for it and against different kinds of it.

While there is not much to justify this, I get the idea that Bering believes that as long as perversion don’t cause harm, then they are moral.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know.  Are these perversions simply morally acceptable (they don’t hurt me, but neither do they help) or are they actually moral (they make my life better)?  This “harm” he talks about, what kind of harm is it?  Is it simply bodily pain?  Is it economic harm?  Does the harm have to be real harm or can it be only apparent harm?  That is, does it actually have to harm me (whatever that is) or do I merely need to think I was harmed?  Does the harm have to be to others or is self-harm a problem? Does my consenting to self-harm change anything?  There are simply too many questions here that come from Bering’s failure to define what harm actually is.  Simply telling me that perversions are fine when there is no harm is not particularly instructive if we can’t understand the core concept.

While you might think this criticism is misplaced, given that Bering was writing about perversions and not the morality of perversions, the latter is a recurrent theme that he relies on in order to argue that perversions should be more socially acceptable. If it turns out that his principle is flawed, that’s a problem with one of the major themes of his book.

Now, I think that Bering can still save his enterprise, but he needs to commit himself to one of two things: creating a new moral framework that can account for a theory of what a good life is (in order to understand an account of harm) or to explicitly commit himself to an established moral framework and ground his theory of harm there.  You simply can’t use the word “harm” outside of the context of a moral framework without ending up with an empty term, as we’ve seen.  Either way, once he grounds his idea of harm, his enterprise will be much improved.  He could also argue for moral nihilism, but then he would have no reason to object to me rounding up all the perverts and executing them: after all, if there is no morality, such a thing wouldn’t be immoral.  And, yet, Bering does seem like he wants to resist at least this outcome and so he must choose a moral framework to ground his enterprise and give it some substance; substance that it so desperately lacks.

If I can make a suggestion, I think that you take on the position of Eudaimonism, which, if you’ve never heard of it, I could hardly blame you.  The position, though, insists that it is the good and rich human life that is the goal of morality.  This is fleshed out through an account of human nature and of the ways that this is achieved, which we call virtues.  When it comes out, my own book Eros and Ethos will give a full account of it, especially as it relates to sex, but in the mean time I’d be happy to talk with you about it.  You can also see the origins of Eudaimonism in Aristotle, especially his Eudemian Ethics.  But, on the basis of eudaimonism, you can give a full account of harm in the context of the agent’s life and how even bodily pain, as in BDSM, can be perfectly consistent with a good life.  You can also fully elaborate how harmful christianity has been and give a robust alternative to it.  After all, you cannot successfully tear down the old idols until you have new ones to raise in their place, as people need to believe in something.  If we’re lucky, the new thing will be something real: their own happiness and rich lives.

Overall, I still recommend Perv and found it very interesting.  Unfortunately, the depth it was striving for was just unrealized.


by Jason Stotts

I don’t do a lot of book recommendation on here.  But, sometimes a book is so good that I just need to comment on it.  That book is Mindset by Carol Dweck.  The basic premise is that there are two fundamental mindsets in life: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.  In the growth mindset, you believe that growth is possible, that if you apply yourself you can continually improve, no matter what the subject.  In the fixed mindset, you are what you are and you can do your best, but your best is a fixed quantity that cannot be changed.  This may not sound like an earth-shattering idea, but think about how it operates in your life.  Do you think intelligence is a fixed quantity?  The very idea of IQ was developed to measure changes in intelligence.  Do you think your moral character is a fixed quantity?  It’s not and the role of ethics is to help you in developing your character in the ways you want.  I seriously recommend reading this book and applying the ideas to your life.  I think you’ll be surprised, like I was, in how this very simple idea is having big impacts in your life.

If you want a more thorough review, check out: Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives by Maria Popova.

The Hunger Games

by Jason Stotts

The movie The Hunger Games has been doing exceptionally well in the box office and it’s no surprise.  The Hunger Games are poignant, dramatic, and moving.  It is the story of children caught up in the machine of an all powerful government who controls the very lives of its citizens and kills them for sport and to keep the others in line.  It is the dramatization of what happens when the state gains absolute power.  But, this post is not about how The Hunger Games is all too apropos to the direction our own government is heading.  No, this post is about something entirely different.

In The Hunger Games, we see the viciciousness of a world in which children have to murder each other for sport, to appease their government, and to help keep the subjegated masses under control.  We watch these children murder each other on screen, much as the ficitious residents of Panem do and we think about what a good shot Katniss is with her bow or how powerful Cato is.  But, do we wonder about how we are so used to violence and death that the idea of even children killing each other as pets of their government doesn’t faze us?  Do we not worry what has become of our humanity when children killing children is not absolutely shocking?

Moreover, do we not realize what is suspiciously absent from the film?  In the book, Katniss remarks that the height of fashion for tributes is often nudity and she is relieved that her stylist Cinna doesn’t just make her go out naked or perhaps covered in just coal dust.  There are scenes of her showering in the book, of being worked on naked by her prep team to look good for her death, and even of her bathing in the river during the games.  These scenes are absent in the movie.  Why?  Because they contain nudity.  Of children.  And that is unacceptable in our culture.  It’s fine to watch them murder each other, but god forbid we see their nude bodies, whether they are being sexual or not.  And let me point out that I say “god forbid” very pointedly, becuase it is the christian preoccupation with the evil of the body, the sinful nature of the flesh, and the very evil of our “coroporeal prison” that has brought us to this day when to see children murder each other is fine, but to see their exposed bodies is not.  And to think that the christians call us immoral.

If you haven’t considered why you think it’s okay for children to murder each other, but not to be naked on screen, please pause and ask yourself that now.  There was no nudity in the movie because that would have moved their rating from PG-13 to R.  Not the murder of children by other children. Simple nudity.  Nudity in context of a story, nudity because it is part of life, nudity because it is natural.  Not even sexuality, not even gratuitous nudity, just simple nudity can move the rating from PG-13 to R, whereas the murder of children cannot.  What an interesting time we live in.

Our culture, corrupted with the taint of christianity, is so perverse that murder is more desirable to see than the natural state of our bodies.  I can think of no more obvious sign that everything about christianity is set up as the opposite of what is good and fine in life.  I can think of no more telling example than this that christianity is truly the great inversion of morality, the turning of morality from being an aid to achieve a good life to being nothing more than a path to perversion and death.  That christianity is nothing more than the worship of death.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The day is not too late.  We are still alive.  We still have our minds.  We are still free to act, to think, to write.  We can reconsider our positions, reconsider why we believe the things we do.  We can throw off the shackles of irrationality and look at things anew in the light of reason.  We can regain our humanity one person at a time and retake our culture.  And what a culture it was at one point, the American Dream: Freedom, Independence, Ingenuity, Mastery over Nature, Self-Reliance, a Government that is Servant and not Master.  A dream that reasonable men and women would be able to live out their lives on their own terms, free to succeed or fail on their own merits.  The dream began to fade because the philosophy on which is was based was not yet ready.  And make no mistake, culture is only a reflection of philosophy, of ideas.  Without the right ideas upon which to build, the structure slowly collapsed in on itself.  But it is not gone yet and the philosophy is now ready.

We can start again in this noble land where the ideals are good and true, even if they are beginning to be corrupted.  We can replace their poor foundations with strong ones made from good ideas and begin to build again.  Through reason and human intelligence, we can reraise our flags of virtue and rebuild our society in the light of reason.  We will have to throw off all scraps of faith, of desire to control the lives of others, of the desire to live off of others, of weakness and frailty, and replace these things with reason, productiveness, independence, and self-reliance.  We can do it.  The day is not too late.  The sparks are lit.  The only quesiton that remains is are we willing to commit ourselves fully to reason and fans the flames to immolate this culture corrupted by faith and religion and build anew through reason to the glory of man?

Review: Crosspoints

by Jason Stotts

Crosspoints: A Novel of Choice
by Alexandra York

In Crosspoints, Alexandra York weaves the story of three people whose passion for their work may or may not be the result of unacknowledged premises: Leon, whose artistic fame is rivaled only by the price of his commissions; Tara, whose passion for archaeology is driven by her need to find gods to look up to; and Dimitrios, world famous archeologist, and Tara’s mentor, whose interest in the past is being eclipsed by his desire for the present. The novel revolves around the events that will change the lives of all three people and will introduce each to himself.

I found the book to be a dramatic portrayal of the consequences of ideas. York’s characterization is superb and I couldn’t help but feel anguish for mistakes, anticipation for resolution, and joy at achievement. York has achieved the all too rare distinction of having written a true novel, with characters I’d actually be interested in meeting in real life.

I strongly recommend this book.