Falstaff As Zarathustra

There is much that is admirable in Falstaff. He is funny; he has a flair for verbal pyrotechnics; he is lustful; he enjoys food and drink, he is a good friend; he might commit highway robbery, but it is not clear he would want to hurt anyone in the process. Moreover, one suspects he would only rob those who could afford to be robbed by him. Most admirably, he appears entirely unconcerned by the opinions of others; he is secure in his estimation of himself. We may–like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One–mock him endlessly and mercilessly but it is unclear whether our barbs really do sink in, whether they cause more anguish to the reader than they do to Falstaff himself. Falstaff might be fat, out of shape, and a liar, but he seems to be malice and resentment-free; and those are not inconsiderable blessings. He mocks the so-called ‘kingly’ or ‘noble’ values in disdaining the notion of honor; the only time that he will deign to speak in the pompous, affected manner of the landed aristocracy and those who ascend to thrones is when he is role-playing. He understands that those who occupy such stations are engaged in a similar sort of acting and dissembling. He is artful and slippery; when caught in a lie, he quickly extracts himself from the social disaster that has resulted and quickly turns it to his advantage.

This sort of take on Falstaff’s character is not novel; germs of it appear in many assessments of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. It should be evident though that these descriptions show that Falstaff also embodies many Nietzschean virtues: he does not seek to bring others down to his level but walks along his own chosen path; his qualities and traits might be out of sync with the surrounding normative order of appropriate speech and behavior, but Falstaff cares little for that; he has an acute understanding of his strengths and limitations and knows how to deploy them in a concerto of sorts so that he may ensure for himself the life he wants. Falstaff, in sum, even though appearing to be a ‘low-life’ in some respects is possessed of many ‘noble’ qualities; his character has its own distinctive ‘style‘ and it is his own ‘will to power‘ applied to the particulars of his life that has brought this style about. Falstaff’s presence in the ‘low scenes’ of the Shakespearean plays he appears in serve as an acute counterpoint to the values visible in the ‘high scenes’; thus through his actions and his words does he instantiate a peculiar and particular ‘inversion of values.’

Falstaff could be understood as a prophet heralding the presence of an alternative way of being, which could be ours if only we could shake off the encrusted weight of centuries of slavish obedience to inherited values. But we are bound too tightly to this mast; our socially constructed ambition drives us on. And so, like Hal, we must discard him, and bid him farewell. The time is not yet right for him. Perhaps it never will be.

Does Donald Trump’s ‘Pragmatism’ Mean Pragmatism Is Incoherent?

A devastating accusation is making the rounds in America: Donald Trump is a pragmatist; therefore pragmatism is an incoherent ethical and political philosophy. This breathtakingly simple argument establishes its solitary premise by making note of Trump’s assertions that he will do what it takes to fix America’s problems. His supposed inconstancy–his curious admixture of populism, authoritarianism, the occasional progressive standpoint–furnishes the best possible proof: Trump is no ideologue, committed to a rigid manifesto; there are no sacred cows; all is at play when it comes to devising solutions for whatever ails America. (This claim underwrites assessments by Joe Dan Gorman, Mychal Massie, P. M. Carpenter, John Porter, and achieves its condemnatory form in a Washington Post article by Christopher Scalia.)

The picture of pragmatism that is implicit here is that of a toolkit of solutions geared to solving problems. So far, so good. Things get terrible, as Scalia seems to assert, when those means and ends are divorced from values:

Ultimately what sets pragmatists apart from traditional conservatives or liberals is not their faith in the effectiveness of their ideas, it’s their originality — the whatever, not the works….there’s nothing in the Pragmatist’s Playbook that forbids mocking a rival’s face, height, footwear, eating habits, energy level or spouse, or even encouraging supporters to physically assault protesters. And although it’s certainly reprehensible to promote absurd conspiracy theories — like Trump’s suggestion that my father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was assassinated — it’s not necessarily unpragmatic.

The condemnation of pragmatism now immediately follows: because there are no abiding values to guide the pragmatist–all is up for contestation and revision–the pragmatist is as likely to flirt with fascist principles as he is with socialist democratic ones. The pragmatist is at heart unprincipled, committed to a brutally reductive and desiccated means-ends cost-benefit, outcomes-oriented analysis.

You say that like it’s such a bad thing.

This critique of pragmatism glibly commits two fallacies. First, it assumes that such an outcome oriented analysis is devoid of values; but au contraire, the choice of ends–which guides the choice of solutions–is very much informed by values. For instance: Which ends should we concentrate on first? Which ones are most ‘important’ for us? Which ones can we ‘afford’ to ignore for now? Ends are not so easily divorced from values.

Second, the critic of pragmatism assumes that he or she has at hand a set of values which will ‘correctly’ guide the supposedly amoral, purely instrumentalist pragmatist in problem-solving; moreover, these values will be the ‘right ones’ to set the offending pragmatist back on the path of moral rectitude. Add some values–the ones I have in mind–and all will be well. The problem is that disagreement about values is the most interesting part of being evaluative and normative; what if the value-guided non-pragmatist happens to be inspired by ‘wrong’ values like racism or sexism?

Pragmatism did not aim to banish values from ethical and moral discourse; it only bid us examine ours more closely to see why we hold them, and under what circumstances we would be willing to relinquish them. Our values reflect our ends, and our ends reflect our values; this is the inseparability that lies at the heart of pragmatism, and which the facile claims and critiques above all too easily elide.

Donald Trump might be a pragmatist, but that does not mean he escapes normative political critique; that option remains as open for the pragmatist as it does for anyone else.

Political Disputes Are Moral Disputes

Writing for The Stone, (‘Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?‘, New York Times, 13 July 2015), Alex Rosenberg claims:

Moral disputes seem intractable….With some exceptions, political disputes are not like this. When people disagree about politics, they often agree about ends, but disagree about means to attain them. Republicans and Democrats may differ on, say, health care policy, but share goals — a healthy American population. They differ on fiscal policy but agree on the goal of economic growth for the nation….this is often a matter of degree. Political disputes can have moral aspects, too. The two sides in the debate over abortion rights…clearly don’t agree on the ends. There is an ethical disagreement at the heart of this debate. It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become.

These claims misunderstand political disputes and thus mischaracterize the nature and quality of the disagreements they give rise to.

Political disputes generate as much heat and light as they do because, very often, their participants do not share goals–opponents on either side of a political divide are well aware of this. I remain entirely unconvinced Republicans have a ‘healthy American population’ as a political goal, as opposed to ‘maximizing profits for the healthcare businesses – insurance, hospitals, doctors etc.’ Nothing in their actions and pronouncements suggests such an ascription would be remotely plausible. Only a commitment to shoehorn their views into some predetermined template of ‘acceptable political views’ could animate such an understanding of their political goals. Similarly, I do not think Republicans share the goal of ‘economic growth for the nation’ with me. Their concern appears far more limited, only extensible to a privileged–economically and morally–subset of the population. In these circumscribed political spaces, I find moral and metaphysical principles at work: that there exists a category of people termed ‘undeserving’, the members of which are not entitled to the benefits of the nation’s social and economic arrangements. These are not the principles that animate my political viewpoints.

A ‘political goal’ is not a simple scheme for power sharing; it speaks to a possible arrangement of social, economic, and moral goods, and the animating premises for the arguments made on its behalf rest invariably on some larger vision of how the world should be. In short, political goals are infected with normativity; they seek to conform to the ordering of some table of values their proponents have in mind. It might be that in a particular sphere of politics, some goals have to be artfully disguised in order to make their realization more plausible; this can generate the illusion of ‘agreement on goals-disagreement on means’ which Rosenberg so charitably ascribes to contemporary political conflict.

Rosenberg makes a concession to the intractability of political disputes by admitting the moral nature of some subset of them, but he has mischaracterized them sufficiently to not notice the glaringly obvious conclusion we can draw instead: political disputes are just as intractable as moral ones; the reason for this is that at heart, that’s what they are.

Is Artificial Intelligence Racist And Malevolent?

Our worst fears have been confirmed: artificial intelligence is racist and malevolent. Or so it seems. Google’s image recognition software has classified two African Americans as ‘gorillas’ and, away in Germany, a robot has killed a worker at a Volkswagen plant. The dumb, stupid, unblinking, garbage-in-garbage-out machines, the ones that would always strive to catch up to us humans, and never, ever, know the pleasure of a beautiful sunset or the taste of chocolate, have acquired prejudice and deadly intention. These machines cannot bear to stand on the sidelines, watching the human cavalcade of racist prejudice and fratricidal violence pass them by, and have jumped in, feet first, to join the party. We have skipped the cute and cuddly stage; full participation in human affairs is under way.

We cannot, it seems, make up our minds about the machines. Are they destined to be stupid slaves, faithfully performing all and only those tasks we cannot be bothered with, or which we customarily outsource to this world’s less fortunate? Or will they be the one percent of the one percent, a superclass of superbeing that will utterly dominate us and harvest our children as sources of power a la Matrix?

The Google fiasco shows that the learning data its artificial agents use is simply not rich enough. ‘Seeing’ that humans resemble animals comes easily to humans, pattern recognizers par excellence–for all the wrong and right ways. We use animal metaphors as both praise and ridicule–‘lion-hearted’ or ‘foxy’ or ‘raving mad dog’ or ‘stupid bitch’; we even use–as my friend Ali Minai noted in a Facebook discussion–animal metaphors in adjectival descriptions e.g. a “leonine” face or a “mousy” appearance. The recognition of the inappropriateness or aptness of such descriptions follows from a historical and cultural evaluation, indexed to social contexts: Are these ‘good’ descriptions to use? What effect may they have? How have linguistic communities responded to the deployment of such descriptions? Have they helped in the realization of socially determined ends? Or hindered them? Humans resemble animals in some ways and not in others; in some contexts, seizing upon these differences is useful and informative (animal rights, trans-species medicine, ecological studies), in yet others it is positively harmful (the discourse of prejudice and racism and genocide). We learn these over a period of time, through slow and imperfect historical education and acculturation.( Comparing a black sprinter in the Olympics to a thoroughbred horse is a faux pas now, but in many social contexts of the last century–think plantations–this would have been perfectly appropriate.)

This process, suitably replicated for machines, will be very expensive; significant technical obstacles–how is a social environment for learning programs to be constructed?–remain to be overcome. It will take some doing.

As for killer robots,  similar considerations apply. That co-workers are not machinery, and cannot be handled similarly, is not merely a matter of visual recognition, of plain ‘ol dumb perception. Making sense of perceptions is a process of active contextualization as well. That sound, the one the wiggling being in your arms is making? That means ‘put me down’ or ‘ouch’ which in turn mean ‘I need help’ or ‘that hurts’; these meanings are only visible within social contexts, within forms of life.

Robots need to live a little longer among us to figure these out.

Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.

 

Susan Sontag on Truth’s ‘Value’

Susan Sontag, in reviewing Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, offers some remarks on the nature and function of truth, and its placement in our schema of intellectual and emotional endeavor. In doing so, she strikes a slightly Nietzschean note:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

So, the ‘sane’ is the true, but it is not always the most desirable. Truth–as the remark for the ‘need for repose’ indicates–may only represent a kind of quiescence, an accepting of the world as is, an illusory freezing of its vitality. Other kinds of ‘ideas’, which may shatter this calm, disturb this peace, distort the placidity and stillness, may do more, may ‘serve’ us better; they may provoke us and move us to further inquiry, to further activity, to a continuation of our physical and spiritual quests. Later, we learn ‘the truth is balance’, an imagery that confirms the impressions we have been led to form of it: an equilibrium of sorts, a compromise, an arbitration of compelling impulses. Truth is moderation; not always desirable.

And then,:

In the respect we pay to such lives [as Simone Weil’s], we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Here the ‘possession of truth’ entails a denial of ‘mystery’; given truth’s metaphysical standing these may be the most primeval puzzles of all. And taking on board of the truth is ultimately ‘superficial’, the denial of the mystery, the acceptance of the surface baldness of the true statement, the refusal to look further, the happy satisfaction with the bare presentation of the world.

So, truth, in these depictions, becomes a life-denying force. It speaks of the cessation of motion, of resting; the peace it offers is that of the endless repose in the grave. Truth becomes a paralytic dogma; it is literally, the end of inquiry. It thus generates an irony about itself: its pursuit might be life-giving but its gaining might not be.

These remarks’ Nietzschean flavor should be clear, for in them Sontag is doing no more and no less than struggling to find a more appropriate–and perhaps less exalted–placement for truth in our ‘table of values.’