The John Locke Lectures 2014: ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ by Martha Nussbaum (Part 2 of 5).

Once more, this post summarises my notes for those who could not attend and may find them of interest. I hope my reporting is reasonably accurate and focuses on salient arguments. My summary of the first lecture is available here.

You can request a draft of Nussbaum’s manuscript here, subject to the conditions laid out. Note that this lecture skipped some related sections of the manuscript, such as those on God’s anger, and the relation between anger and other negative emotions like contempt.

This second lecture is titled ‘Anger: Down-ranking, Weakness, Payback.’ The abstract reads:

This lecture (a very short form of the chapter 2 available on the website) analyzes the cognitive content of anger, starting from, but not totally agreeing with, Aristotle’s definition. With the help of an example, I argue that anger is almost always normatively flawed in one of two ways. Either it wrongly supposes that punishing the aggressor could make good a past damage – an idea of cosmic balance with deep roots in the human psyche but nonsensical – or, in the case where the angry person focuses exclusively on offense to relative status, it may possibly make sense (a relative lowering of the offender does effect a relative raising of the victim), but the exclusive focus on status is normatively problematic. Although anger may still be useful as a signal, a motivation, and/or a deterrent, its flaws compromise even this instrumental role. I then discuss a concept that I call the Transition: a constructive segue from backward-looking anger to constructive thought about the future. And I identify one species of anger that I do consider normatively unproblematic, which I call Transition-Anger. I also discuss the connection between anger and a displaced sense of helplessness, and examine a possible role for empathy in extricating oneself from the trap of anger.

I leave personal comments until the end.

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The idea that anger threatens human relations is common throughout history. But recently, the idea has waned. One example is Strawson’s treatment of it. He sees anger as a reactive attitude without need of justification.

But analysing anger to identify its cognitive content seems crucial. Analysis will show that retribution, or Payback, is a key part. But Payback is problematic. Either it focuses on further injury, which does not address or remove the harm already done. Or it seeks gains in relative status. It may achieve this, but this achievement is built on distorted values.

However, there is a borderline species of anger which is not defective in these ways. It will be discussed later.

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Anger is clearly cognitive. It involves appraisals, evaluations and beliefs which are eudaimonistic. That is, it involves beliefs which register views about what matters in life. It is related to subjective feelings and bodily changes, but these are too inconstant to be part of a definition.

So what is distinctive about anger? Aristotle’s analysis is too narrow, but as psychologists have often recognised, it offers a great start. Anger involves slighting, or down-ranking. It involves believing harm was done to you or those close to you. It claims the harm done was wrong. It is accompanied by pain and a desire for retribution.

Where grief focuses on the loss or damage itself, anger focuses on its infliction. An example brings this difference out. There is losing a child to illness. But then there is losing a child due to murder. The latter event causes a specific sort of pain.

The psychologist Richard Lazarus gives the example of a store worker who ignores a customer because he is on the phone. The customer may feel slighted, but if she learns the phone call concerns an emergency, she realises this is legitimate. The anger is dependent on perceiving wrongdoing. 

Does anger at inanimate objects provide a counterexample? The Journal of the American Medical Association noted the phenomenon of ‘vending machine rage’ amongst men, which proved fatal when the machine toppled and crushed them after they kicked it. The best explanation here is that we temporarily irrationally believe the object is acting wrongly, as if it were a person. We quickly realise our error.

It is common for Aristotle’s talk of down-ranking to be dismissed. It is seen as reflective of an archaic culture obsessed with honour. But the self-congratulatory idea that such societies are primitive is comical given its continued importance even in the United States. Studies show insults, condescension – in short, status concerns – remain widespread in the West. 

And indeed, status injury is often central to anger. But this has a narcissistic flavour. It focuses on one’s own standing. As Aristotle and Lazarus both note, it reflects personal insecurities. Anger only achieves an illusion of control. 

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Let’s consider Payback. First, note that it does not necessarily involve a wish to inflict harm oneself, nor does it involve a wish for violent revenge. The wish can be far subtler than this. It can just involve wanting unpopularity or misery for the wrongdoer. So the claim is instead that anger involves a wish for things to go badly somehow for the offender. Again, there is one exception to this account of anger which will be discussed in due course.

The claim that Payback is essential to anger is popular throughout history, but we can check it anyway with the following example.

Suppose Angela’s friend is raped by a young man. She could react in a variety of ways.

  • First, she could feel her friend’s pain. Her circle of concern is damaged and the damage is wrongful. She supports the friend and attempts to help mend her life.
  • Second, she could do all this but also feel a special pain about the wrong act. She subsequently forms a group for victims, leads a campaign and so on.
  • Third, she could also decide to focus on the offender. She could want something bad for him.
  • Fourth, she could also see the offender as insulting her through the wrongdoing against her friend. She feels humiliated and down-ranked as a woman, and she believes inflicting pain will rectify this.

In the first case, Angela shows compassion, not anger. The focus is on the loss to the friend, not the wrong act or the criminal.

In the second case, is Angela angry? There is a forward movement in her action aimed at rectification. It is close to what Nussbaum wants to refer to using a technical term: Transition anger. This is a special type of anger. The offender is still not the target. The focus remains on the victims.

But in the third case, it is clear that she is angry. She seeks pain to compensate for the damage done.

But the question is why Angela would mistakenly desire Payback. A non-cognitive account can just say we are wired this way, but Nussbaum must explain the mistake better. Angela’s thinking seems magical. Inflicting pain won’t ameliorate the situation. She might feel less helpless and it may restore a sense of control, but this would be illusory.

When Michael Jordan was asked if he wanted his father’s murderer to be executed, he rejected the suggestion. He observed it would not bring his father back. He could get away with this because his masculinity is unquestionable. Contrast it with Dukakis’s rejection of retribution in relation to the hypothetical rape of his wife. It significantly harmed his campaign for the presidency because affinity for this flawed idea of cosmic balance remains deeply ingrained.

In the fourth case, Angela slips from eudaimonistic concerns to being motivated by pride. And this common focus on the value of one’s own status explains the appeal of Payback. 

But suppose Angela only goes as far as the third case. She wants something bad to happen to the offender, wrongly thinking this sets things straight. But this fantasy is unlikely to last. Insofar as she wants to help the victims still, she is likely to slip back into the focus of the first and second cases.

Now, the second case could involve punishment for the offender, but not as a matter of Payback. Instead, Angela will view it in terms of the future good it will do: reform, deterrence and so on. This is rational. It reflects an ameliorative spirit, instead of the perpetual obsession with status.

Status anxiety impedes the achievement of intrinsic goods. The wrongness of rape isn’t solely about down-ranking. Other harms need attention, which concern one’s absolute status. Similarly, it is true that gender and race discrimination involve down-ranking and humiliation; a denial of human dignity. But lowering the injurer isn’t rectifying. It substitutes one inequality for another.

To the surprise of many, the path for Angela that Nussbaum is recommending may seem utilitarian. Perhaps. But this conclusion arises naturally from analysing anger. Bentham had good insights here. Nussbaum no longer believes anger is constructive and essential as a response to injustice. By now, she thinks the proper concern is for future welfare.

Consider a political example of Transition anger, which resembles Angela’s reaction in the second case and avoids Payback. King’s I Have A Dream speech exemplifies this. The starting point is past injustice and harm caused. But the next move is very significant. He doesn’t illicit rage or demonise the wrongdoers. He talks of white people having written black people a ‘bad cheque’. Here he shows Transition anger. It isn’t retributive. He thinks ahead to improvement without Payback.

He mentions the risk of rage only to repudiate it: 

[T]here is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

His dream looks forward. He asks his audience to imagine brotherhood with their past tormentors. There is anger in his speech. But he reshapes retribution into hope. There’s also no talk of grovelling and forgiveness because this isn’t genuinely restorative. 

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In the Questions and Answers session, Nussbaum registered her disapproval of the practice which allows victims to articulate their pain in the courtroom before sentencing. Criminal trials should not be showcases for retributive sentiments. 

She further noted that a key question we should be asking is how we stop crime in the first place. But we don’t ask it. She speculates that this is because in America, at least, the punitive macho culture embraces the opportunity for Payback. In particular, they want to imprison African Americans.

In response to a question about the nature of the wrongdoing intrinsic to rape, Nussbaum emphasises her belief in the special status we all hold as equal bearers of dignity. This requires respect, and rape certainly violates it. However, she still insists it does not follow that the right response is Payback. This does not vindicate one’s own dignity. 

Nussbaum sees no problem with aiming to make the offender understand wrongdoing. The Truth and Reconcliation Commission was appropriate and helped rebuild South African society by restoring trust and showing openness. But the Commission separated accountability from Payback, which was one of its central virtues. 

Nussbaum explained the case of a penologist called Braithwaite who works on restorative justice. He experiments with conferences between victims and juvenile offenders, but he ensures the wrongdoing is always separated from the harm caused. The emphasis is on the offender’s impact on society. Victims were not retributive. They wanted improvement.

An audience member offered an anecdote of a woman he knew who was raped, and who did not leave her university precisely because she was angry. She wanted the young man to be held accountable. This was so she could suffer less, not so he would suffer more. This could be shown by the fact that offenders sometimes suffer less when they are held accountable, because otherwise they experience guilt. But the woman’s desire for accountability would not wane if she learnt this was true in this case.

Nussbaum grants that accountability is extremely important. But this is because we want a society with less of these offences. It need not involve Payback. Nussbaum suspects the woman in the anecdote has Transition anger, which is very noble. It is also rare. The emotionally harmed normally desire the offender’s suffering.

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I personally have two observations which there wasn’t sufficient time for me to ask as questions.

Firstly, by now I think we have a muddled picture of Nussbaum’s take on our ability to overcome anger. On the one hand, she claims anger is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary heritage. The logic of Payback is natural and people instinctively pursue it. She claims it takes a rare individual like King or Mandela to be able to instead look forward.

On the other hand, this second lecture invoked the case of Michael Jordan as evidence of someone overcoming any primitive desire for Payback. Presumably Jordan isn’t as special as King or Mandela. Is this evidence that progress here is not so hard after all?

Second, we are also receiving a muddled picture about the relevance of gender. Again, on the one hand we are told that anger is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary heritage. But Payback was also described on several occasions in this lecture as an especially masculine or macho desire. Yet Nussbaum also emphasises how women regularly employ Payback logic in cases of rape. There’s at least a little tension here. How are these claims to be reconciled? Is the view that men push a social norm that women then succumb to? Or is it naturally embedded equally in both male and female minds? But if the latter, in what sense is Payback a particularly masculine attitude? And what empirical evidence is there on these issues?

Finally, I was struck by Nussbaum’s comment about America’s possible desire to allow crime simply to fuel the Payback system, and how this targets African Americans. If you haven’t seen it already, I strongly recommend the documentary The House I Live InIt is certainly corroborative of such claims. Here’s is the blurb I wrote the other term when we screened it at Magdalen Film Society:

From across the Atlantic comes this new documentary brimming with insight into the socio-political foundations and failures of America’s ongoing war on drugs. Featuring extended interview footage with David Simon of The Wire fame amongst other experts, prepare to be taken through both macro-observations about the absurdities of current policy from a legal and policing perspective, and micro-studies of the havoc it wreaks on local economies, families and communities whilst the whole approach is tinted with the rancid smell of racism. Be prepared to leave informed and angry, exactly as the filmmakers want.

The John Locke Lectures 2014: ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ by Martha Nussbaum (Part 1 of 5).

[Update: When I posted this, I didn't foresee the audience extending beyond the friends I sent it to and a handful of my Twitter followers. Leiter linking to it attracted much more attention than that. In light of the doubts since raised about the ethics of blogging unpublished work, I'm removing my notes. I may repost them and continue blogging, but only if I receive Professor Nussbaum's blessing.]

[Update 2: Professor Nussbaum has kindly given her blessing, so I've restored the post below.]

This post summarises my notes for those who can’t attend and may find them of interest. I hope my reporting is reasonably accurate and focuses on salient arguments. You can request a draft of Nussbaum’s manuscript here, subject to the conditions laid out. The abstract for this first lecture reads:

Anger is not just ubiquitous, it is also popular – even among philosophers. Many people think it is impossible to care sufficiently for justice without anger at injustice. Many also believe that it is impossible for individuals to vindicate their own self-respect adequately without anger. These lectures will argue that anger is conceptually confused and normatively pernicious. It is neither normatively appropriate nor productive in either the personal or the political life. The first lecture introduces the core ideas, using as a metaphor the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which goddesses of retribution are transformed into guardians of social welfare. It also introduces a sub-argument concerning forgiveness: rather than being the normatively benign alternative to anger that many people believe it to be, forgiveness (at least as standardly defined) all too often proves a covert form of anger, extracting humiliation as a condition of forgoing angry attitudes.

I may add comments in future weeks, but the first lecture only laid the foundations.

The following debate was presented as arising in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. I omit references to the plot and characters to focus on the themes alone.

Legal institutions exist to replace blood vengeance. Reasoned argument rises up. Still, the legal system must incorporate and honour the dark retributive passions. Resentment retains its nature and place, but a new house is built around it. It becomes moderated by law.

In contrast, perhaps retribution belongs to barbarians. It is uncivilised. It exists only for evil’s sake. It is a passion that does not speak, but ‘only moans and whines’. It is destructive because it only exists to inflict ill. Joseph Butler later commented that the end of such a passion is the misery of others. It is thereby inhuman. These cannot be part of the rule of law.

So perhaps these dark forces can only be compatible with law and civilisation insofar as they are transformed. They must become human, good, benevolent. They must listen to the voice of persuasion. They aren’t contained. They must be profoundly reorientated.

Political justice does not just put a chain around resentment. It transforms it to be forward-looking and become a measured judgment.

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From Eumenides onwards, Greek thinkers generally opposed retribution. Law was seen to close the door to retaliation and open the door to reciprocal good will. Aristotle describes the mean virtue with regards to the emotion of anger as ‘sympathetic understanding’. Much later, Strauss’s Electra emphasised how revenge makes love impossible.

These lectures take inspiration from Aeschylus, but they go further. Law indeed transforms anger. But anger is also always pernicious and problematic.

Central to the concept of anger is that bad must be done to the wrongdoer. This is the ‘Road of Payback’. The beliefs involved here are false. Payback does not reverse the damage. Or, when it does and anger can level things, it can only do so in an ugly and narrow-minded way that focuses on relative status.

Anger is deeply embedded in our evolutionary heritage, but it is flawed. It is useful as a signal of injustice, as a motive and as deterrence. But this is not enough to justify it. It impedes the generosity and empathy that revolutionary justice requires. Revolutionary leaders have to be strange people. They must be stoics, overcoming anger and leading others towards doing similarly. Their drive is to ‘build something better than what exists already’.

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The concept of forgiveness is strikingly absent amongst the Greeks, but it is central to modern literature on anger. It is claimed to be a central virtue. We live in a culture of apology and forgiveness. No-one seems interested in criticising it.

Yet Mandela never employed the concept, and for good reason. The problem with forgiveness is that it is too inquisitory and disciplinary. It is too close to the anger it is supposed to replace.

Griswold maps out the process of forgiveness. It involves a moderation of anger from the harmed and a cessation of future wrongdoing from the harmer. Responsibility is acknowledged, deeds are repudiated, and regret is expressed. Reform is committed to in words and through deeds. Empathy is shown, and an explanation of how the wrongdoing occurred is offered.

This is a transactional account. It has a long Judeao-Christian history. The model is analogous to how God is supposed to keep a record of all our errors. If enough weeping, apologising and self-abasement follows, the errors will be written off. But self-abasement is a precondition of elevation.

Yet there is something remarkably unpleasant about the idea of grovelling to God, and even moreso to friends and family. It is narcissistic. It is also hard to reconcile with unconditional love.

Nietzsche was spot on in seeing traditional forgiveness as a concealment of anger and resentment. The key Judaeo-Christian virtue of forgiveness is not gracious. As Bernard Williams said in another context: it involves one thought too many. The list-keeping mentality is something generosity and love should eschew, preventing such procedural thoughts from taking shape.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

Yet some Christians – including Butler and Smith – improve forgiveness by ditching this score-keeping mentality. There is an alternative Christian tradition of love, generosity and humanity. So let’s look at the Christian counter-tradition. It is sometimes called the ethic of unconditional forgiveness and love. It does not involve contrition.

Note, however, that Jesus does not show clear support for it. For instance, in the case of the adulteress he tells her to go forth and sin no more, which looks like a condition of forgiveness.

But the Sermon on the Mount is very clear: love your enemies; pray for those that persecute you. Do good to those who hate you. There are no conditions here. There isn’t a footnote that says ‘if they apologise’.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is even clearer. Here’s the jist of the parable. A son resolves to confess to his sins and express contrition. It is unclear if he is sincere. He has ample ulterior motives. But anyway, the focus of the parable is on the father’s reaction, which emphatically does not follow the model of forgiveness.

He cannot foresee what the son is going to say. He simply sees he is still alive and experiences extreme emotions of love. The translation of the metaphor could literally refer to his guts being ripped out. The father embraces the son without any questions. Even after the son’s statement of repentance, the father goes straight for celebrating without acknowledging it. He just says he is happy the son is alive.

We need to put aside the idea of conditional forgiveness to understand the story. The lack of calculation is what is great about the father.

Jesus here is speaking of God’s greater relation with humans as sinners. He is explicating the nature of God’s unconditional love.

The case of Mandela befriending the South African rugby team – without any rituals of forgiveness – is not far from the Prodigal Son.

In response to a question about self-directed anger and Nussbaum’s possible treatment of it:

Bernard Williams thought guilt was a form of self-anger which was destructive, whilst shame was productive. Nussbaum originally thought guilt was constructive to help seek reparations. Now, she sees the wallowing it encourages as hindering doing anything good about the wrongdoing.

When she initially outlined emotional capabilities in an earlier work, Cath McKinnon asked why anger was absent. Nussbaum bowed and included it on the grounds that she might have a blind spot on this. But now, she is sure she was right to have ignored it. Feminists often argue that anger is key for the oppressed. But Nussbaum is sure that women don’t need it to vindicate their self-respect. They do need to be conscious of their adaptive preferences in response to an unjust world. But this is a different matter.

In response to a question about whether central to anger is not so much Payback, but being noisy; demonstrating communicative persistence. It says we won’t look away from the wrongdoing. It says we will deal with it:

Nussbaum concedes this is one aspect of retributivism – expressing the gravity of a wrongdoing – which is worth retaining.

Leek and sprout sauté with lemon and pistachios.

A friend cooked with sprouts for me recently and I realised I hadn’t worked with them once since I began to take food seriously. That’s probably explained by the fact I grew up experiencing them as bland and boiled to be super-soft as part of Sunday roasts.

The idea here was to retain their natural nutty and crunchy qualities whilst adding another working class vegetable – leeks – and a posher touch in the form of pistachios and flaked almonds. Lemon, garlic and soy sauce ensured a flavour extravaganza. This one secured nods all round.

Serves four generously.

750g sprouts, trimmed and roughly sliced.

2 medium leeks, thinly sliced.

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

200g pistachio kernels, lightly toasted.

50g flaked almonds.

1 tbsp soy sauce.

Half a lemon, zested and juiced.

30ml extra virgin olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

Warm the olive oil on a medium heat in a heavy saucepan or wok. Add the leeks, which should sizzle. Season generously. Stir regularly for three minutes, at which point they should have significantly shrivelled.

Now add the garlic and stir for another two minutes. Then add the sprouts, lemon juice and half the soy sauce and season very generously. Stir for another three minutes.

Turn off the heat. Add half the pistachios and the flaked almonds and season and stir once more. Finish with the lemon zest, the rest of the pistachios and a drizzle of the remaining soy sauce.

Vegan umami risotto.

After making this one, I can testify that folk wisdom about the need for butter and Parmesan to make risotto sufficiently creamy is utterly false. If you have the patience to perfectly caramelise the onions, the creaminess takes care of itself.

The idea here was to mix as many animal-free sources of umami flavours as possible, so my refusal to eat asparagus during winter – Peruvian, out of season – was temporarily suspended. I added pine kernels to compliment the mild nuttiness, along with earthy chestnut and portabellini mushrooms. Further greens in the form of fried kale and peas rounded it off nicely.

It’s important to prepare the risotto’s ingredients separately and in advance, and not only to preserve their independent flavours. Stirring risottos is tiresome and tricky to avoid sticking and burning at the best of times, but it’s made a lot easier if you keep the ingredients in the pan at a minimum until the very last minute.

As always, though, equally important to making or breaking such dishes is the stock. I used ten ingredients to empower mine. You could get away with less than that, but don’t go too low, and definitely stay clear of the Oxo cubes. When you see the rich green colour after half an hour of simmering, you’ll understand why.

Serves four.

For the stock:

1 white onion.

2 garlic cloves, peeled.

A bunch of parsley.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

A handful of kale.

1 carrot.

1 celery stalk.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 bay leaf.

1 kaffir lime leaf.

 

For the risotto:

240g arborio rice.

1 large white onion, finely chopped.

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped.

1 garlic clove, crushed.

150ml white wine.

750ml vegetable stock.

125g fine asparagus spears, cut into thirds.

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered.

200g portabellini mushrooms, quartered.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

50g garden peas.

60g pine nuts.

40g kale, very finely chopped.

150ml olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

First, prepare the stock. Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan, add a litre of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour. You should have around 750ml at this point. Discard all the ingredients and transfer the liquid to a measuring jug, ready to be slowly added to the risotto later, a ladle at a time.

Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the risotto.

Heat 25ml of olive oil in a frying pan and toast the pine nuts for a few minutes until golden. Add sea salt. Remove the pine nuts to a plate for later, and add the same amount of oil again. Once hot, add the crushed garlic clove and fry the kale for a few minutes, until it turns darker green and slightly crispy. Also remove to a plate for later. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 50ml of olive oil in a saucepan and add the chestnut mushrooms, before rustling the thyme sprigs over them. Stir well so the oil covers them, and sauté until they turn dark brown and release their nutty aroma. Remove to another plate, then do the same with the portabellini mushrooms, topping up the oil if need be. Season both with salt and pepper.

Drop the asparagus spears into a saucepan of boiling water on a medium heat, and blanch for two minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse in cold water. Season with salt and pepper.

Now, for the risotto. Heat the remaining olive oil in a saucepan on a medium flame. Add the onion and stir constantly, ensuring it’s fully coated and doesn’t burn. Keep stirring until the onion turns soft and slightly golden, releasing its sweet smells – around five to six minutes. Add the chopped garlic and fry for another two minutes, before adding all the rice and stirring until coated, around another minute.

Here’s where the hard and tedious but most important work begins. Pour in the white wine and begin to stir vigorously. It should sizzle and evaporate fairly quickly. Now introduce the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring it is all absorbed before adding more. Continue for around twenty minutes, at which point most of the stock should have been added. You may need to adjust the heat depending on whether the rice seems to be sticking.

Transfer one final ladle of stock, turn the heat to very low and begin to introduce the other ingredients. Add the peas, pine nuts and kale and stir. Add the mushrooms and asparagus and stir again. Once the thick consistency returns, turn off the heat and serve. Finish with salt and pepper.

Struggle for Survival.

I took part in a poverty simulation event organised by Global Hand this evening. I think the offer reached my inbox through the Giving What We Can mailing list, and little detail was given in advance other than beaming endorsements from Ban Ki-Moon and Richard Branson.  It seems these folks shook up Davos slightly by attempting to demonstrate to millionaires how the Bottom Billion get by. The living we experienced was making and selling paper bags, using fingers as brushes and a messy flour-water concoction as glue, before bartering with local shop-keepers and buying basic necessities accordingly.

There are, of course, inevitable limits to the realism any such project could achieve. I knew I’d leave after two hours capable of buying ample food, and resorting to selling a kidney to pay a slum-lord is obviously much easier to just say than actually do. And that’s why I left feeling some scepticism about the organisation’s ambition to foster empathy. It certainly seems a stretch to think people will immediately imagine anything resembling despair or degradation – nevermind hunger – when the tasks at hand are made into practical, competitive games. On its own, this surely couldn’t spur moral reform and action.

It seems to me that the project is instead still promising for different reasons. It is plausible that by learning the facts about the obscenely scarce economic conditions so many people must operate in by playing them out first-hand, people will process and appreciate them more. There just is a real sense in which when we’re supplied with photos of people building paper bags and we’re informed they must make 22 of them in order to earn a measly 1.5p, actually proceeding to boringly build the damn things and see how little they go to succeeding in the context of the game – that does bring things to life in a way simply reading such facts might not. So the groundwork for achieving empathy later might be laid, rather than that emotion actually arriving in the course of the experience.

Supplement it with sufficient information of the kind Giving What We Can tends to provide, not only about how comparatively rich we all are, but also just how much good as individuals we can do, and there could be potential for persuasion there.

But my suspicion remains that it will be powerful only for those who already have their eyes at least half open. No amount of creativity can conjure up motivating compassion out of thin air.

Enough Said.

I saw it yesterday on the off chance the critics were right and this really was an authentic rom-com. I was a touch worried people’s critical faculties – not least my own – would have been lowered out of nostalgia for Gandolfini, but having reflected on it for a day now, I’m fairly convinced. The film certainly achieves significant emotional and ethical maturity. It manages to muster humour out of what is, on reflection, a pretty deceptive and sinister set-up, but it does so whilst still giving due attention to the harm the protagonist causes when her secrets inevitably unravel. There’s a great moment when she pleads, in apologising, that she didn’t know what to do, only to face the reply that she did know; she just didn’t do it.

And Gandolfini is, of course, wonderful. I suspect the film benefits greatly from the fact that the couple are middle aged and one of them is so non-stereotypically attractive. Half a dozen clichés are thereby avoided immediately. And his softness – helped, perhaps counter-intuitively, by the addition of a beard – is really far too convincing in the contrast it creates with the obnoxious, explosive Tony Soprano that we’d grown to know him as. It’s worth a look-in, at least until Cuaron’s Gravity arrives next week.

Ed Schultz at the Union.

Alas, nothing to see here. I’m quite used to speakers being underwhelming in person by now, but that’s normally because they’re sports-people or artists ill-suited to engaging in penetrating debate. You’d expect journalists, and especially those whose medium is television, to be far better. Schultz seems to have a good liberal heart, but it’s masqueraded under an all too American obnoxiousness. He’s far too inclined to shout in crude generalisations and condemnatory platitudes before simply invoking freedom and justice, rather than relying on composed empirical claims. In that sense, he comes across more like an angry grandfather incapable of carefully constructing arguments. In no real sense did he seem like a journalist. The contrast on MSNBC between the likes of him and Lawrence O’Donnell versus Maddow and Hayes is just so stark.

And my hunch that he’s barely a journalist was confirmed when we did briefly drag him through questions onto more substantial territory. A woman brought up the Snowden saga and I followed up by asking him what he would have done if he’d been asked to air the NSA leaks. His answer? He firmly believes that reform and checks on this abuse of power could have been more constructively dealt with through private, conventional channels. He would have refused to air any information on The Ed Show, instead swiftly directing Snowden towards the Senate Intelligence Committee. He justified this in terms of putting his role as a good citizen ahead of his role as a journalist, so I followed up by asking if he really thought there was a tension here. Isn’t it essential to the tenets of journalism that a functioning democracy is dependent on freedom of information, and insofar as one facilitates a vibrant public debate by airing secret abuses of power, one is performing an unparalleled civic duty? Again, denial ensued. He’s all for information distribution, but only to those that need it. So once more, the Senate Intelligence Committee would have done the trick.

Oh, and he really doesn’t worry about the NSA’s powers, because he trusts that Obama isn’t interested in our phone calls. I noted that one doesn’t need to claim that high government officials intend to exploit such powers to nevertheless concede that the system could end up being abused. ‘Point taken’, he said. If only he could similarly see the insanity of a someone with his platform hypothetically refusing to air some of the most important political revelations in recent memory.

Quotes for the day.

If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals.  I hope most other people would have done the same.

Jeff McMahan, stating what should be obvious. And even more bluntly:

Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild.  From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice.  To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw.

These both form part of an Opinionator essay which concludes that we “have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species”.

The ‘meaning’ of life?

John Horgan has quite a philosophically messy post full of meta-reflections on this classic question over at Scientific American (hat tip to Zack Beauchamp). But that’s okay – there’s enough there to work with and take as a platform to spur further thought. What struck me most is the way he – at least at first – interprets the question about the meaning of life as a request for an explanation of what makes life valuable for you. So insofar as I’d be inclined to answer the latter question by listing a variety of sources of goodness which bring me enduring happiness – philosophy, film and cooking; friendship, love and altruism – I’m also implying that these things are the key to the meaning of life.

That would be a conveniently simple analysis that allows me to answer the question quite naturally. It also fits a few basic linguistic intuitions insofar as we say things like ‘this gives my life meaning’. But the suggestion sadly seems like quite a stretch to me. To ask what the meaning of life is isn’t to ask what gives life meaning. The former question seems to have far deeper metaphysical presuppositions. It’s asking what is true for all, not what you’ve personally decided fulfils you. Normally, such questions are surely trying to request some far grander explanation of what our purpose is that is ‘written in the stars’, so to speak, that we’re obliged to somehow discern and follow. And that question is, for me and surely most non-religious people, pretty unintelligible. I don’t think any such answer exist, nor do we need or should we want one to. We should instead be content with a more modest account of happiness that Horgan hints at, without getting carried away and thinking we’ve discovered any special facts about the operations of the universe. Phrases like ‘the meaning of life’ seem to lead people astray like that. In that respect, we’re probably better off rejecting the question altogether.

None of this is to say, though, that we thereby can’t rationally debate what the stable sources of happiness are, instead being left alone as individuals to disagree and pursue our own paths. The fact that we’re all similarly constituted with shared experiences, emotions and social conditions means that we should expect a significant and perhaps surprising amount of agreement about what works best, irrespective of whether this reflects any great Truth. And once more, that should be sufficient to intellectually satisfy us.

Chickens, vegetables and badgers.

I’ve got to rush off to a practical ethics class shortly and there’s a few things I intend to post on soon at greater length. But in the meantime, a few things left over from the weekend to quickly clear off my to-note list:

  • Another week, another Nick Kristof column in the NYT which basically amounts to chastising the moral bankruptcy of our current attitudes and actions towards animals before conceding he’s complicit and will continue to be anyway. It was only a few months ago that he used his prestigious platform to practically say the same thing, and he said it in 2008 too before that. This guy has got almost as much gall as Andrew Sullivan, who similarly blogs on a regular basis, and with apparent passion, about our unforgivable treatment of pigs, despite confessing that he has no intention of letting such facts redirect his diet. Here’s a hunch: most people will think your claims ring hollow if the person espousing them isn’t even willing to live by them. The easiest way to dismiss otherwise credible claims is to casually point out that they’re predicated on hypocrisy. It would be nice if we had prominent journalists with more integrity on this issue.
  • Also in the NYT, Tara Parker-Pope explores the literature on whether we should boil, blanch or bake vegetables when aspiring to maximise vitamin absorption. The upshot? Raw foodism is a radical fad that hits on some truths whilst missing significant others. Stick to folk wisdom and social norms by adopting a mix – fresh salads, but also Sunday roasts – and you’ll do just fine. But your grandparents could have told you that. We didn’t need nutritional science to verify it.
  • It seems that the British government didn’t murder enough badgers quick enough, and now faces legal challenges to the entire program. My position on this remains as defiant as before. It reeks of ad hoc utilitarianism and exploitation. Again, I eagerly await the day that the legally-mandated mass shooting of everyone with gonorrhoea is deemed socially and morally acceptable. It seems quite a way off.

Alison Howarth RIP.

I was shocked to learn today of the death of my former politics teacher at the ripe age of sixty, entirely unexpected after a few weeks of non-critical bad health. I posted something roughly like this on Facebook, and it’s really true: I think it’s probably far too easy to underestimate and under-appreciate the impact teachers can have on us during our formative years. All I know is that her teaching me coincided with my rise from being utterly politically ignorant and indifferent to having the knowledge and passion (especially of and for the often infuriating United States) that I do today. Who knows how many seeds were sown and which flowers blossomed out of those very early days. My successful admission to Oxford? My eventual deep affection for Springsteen? I’m sure I’ll be more subtly indebted to her influence than I’ll ever know.

I saw her for what turned out to be the final time outside Waitrose one afternoon this August, and she was keen to hear of my career plans. If I’d known I wouldn’t see her again, I would have conveyed what I’ve written here. It really shouldn’t take death for us to explicitly recognise our appreciation of people. I hope that I learn from this regret.

Artistic defects in “Forrest Gump”.

There are plenty, I’m sure, and I say this as a huge fan of the film. But when it was trending on Twitter last night whilst being shown on TVa friend made an observation that shone new light on a major moment and really recoloured my possible perception of things. She was referring to the scene in which Jenny climbs into bed with Forrest, they make love and their son is conceived before her death from cancer follows in due course. In light of Forrest’s evident mental limitations, is there not at least something mildly disturbing about the ease with which Jenny – and the film – decides it’s perfectly permissible and natural and loving for her to come onto him in that way? Yes, they have a deep historical bond of friendship, and if there’s anyone he romantically loves it is her. But that’s what might make it only the more exploitative. A significant impression is created throughout the film that Forrest is an inherently asexual being, most probably incapable of processing the meaning of such intimate activity. I’m not looking for a probing philosophical analysis here of the necessary conditions for the exercise of consent and whether the mentally handicapped qualify. Nor do I expect such insights from any film. But the way an event so essential to the narrative and the audience’s emotional responses is passively portrayed, not provoking us to wonder about the ethically ambiguous terrain here, is undoubtedly a defect. I’m amazed that, from a quick Google, nobody seems to have explored this before.

Too much for too few.

Mark Bittman grapples with how we manage to live in a world where people still don’t get the food they need:

The world has long produced enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, more than enough to meet the United Nations projection of a population of nine billion in 2050, up from the current seven billion. There are hungry people not because food is lacking, but because not all of those calories go to feed humans (a third go to feed animals, nearly 5 percent are used to produce biofuels, and as much as a third is wasted, all along the food chain).

The current system is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable, dependent as it is on fossil fuels and routinely resulting in environmental damage. It’s geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible.

While a billion people are hungry, about three billion people are not eating well, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, if you count obese and overweight people alongside those with micronutrient deficiencies.

Paradoxically, as increasing numbers of people can afford to eat well, food for the poor will become scarcer, because demand for animal products will surge, and they require more resources like grain to produce. A global population growth of less than 30 percent is projected to double the demand for animal products. But there is not the land, water or fertilizer — let alone the health care funding — for the world to consume Western levels of meat.

And what’s staggering and so frightening about this is that, as a friend noted, in the short-term the current system is perfectly viable. And that strikes at the heart of the problem here. Something is just far too fucked up about the global economic system we’ve constructed when it makes rational sense for corporations to gut the earth of natural resources and pollute the planet to such an extent that future people will most probably face insurmountable climate-related problems, all in the name of cheap meat. The sooner the global political will is found to legally mandate the internalisation of the costs of carbon within traditional market mechanisms, ensuring the harms are finally penalised and thereby sensibly avoided, the better our chance of not being the greedy generation that played Russian roulette with humanity’s future for too long. Unfortunately, the chances of things changing soon enough currently seem as slim as the likelihood that pigs will be politically empowered with representatives and rights, enabling their simultaneous suffering in all of this to be finally recognised and remedied.

Owen Jones at the Union.

My friends were reasonably suspicious of sarcasm being expressed on my part when I left the Union the other night claiming the problem with Owen Jones is that he’s far too conservative. But I was, believe it or not, being sincere. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which he’s the sort of public thinker on the left that aggravates me for appearing too naively ambitious, eager to endorse proposals for overhauling socio-economic set-ups with no apparent eye for feasibility. How, exactly, the democratic socialist ‘solution’ of collective ownership and management of public utilities by workers and customers would pan out seems entirely without historical precedent, and so remains simply beyond me. But on the other hand, there’s something frustrating about the way his otherwise intricate understanding of types of oppression and exploitation seems totally limited to creating concern only for conditions within Britain’s borders. There is certainly a place for analysing and opposing the socio-economic inequality directly around us, and Jones has that arena of injustice mastered. But when the time arrives to recognise the fact that in global terms, he’s picking fights between the privileged and the ultra-privileged, the worldview that’s left over appears far from compelling. He talked briefly about his alleged “internationalism”, but the upshot of it is only that he wants the changes he advocates here to happen in nations everywhere. I saw no concern for or recognition of global poverty as the moral crisis of our time that calls for action from us. And nowadays, I just struggle to see the pull of an ideology that’s so blind to the big picture. Because let’s not forget what that picture looks like:

Yes, even a family of four with one adult working on the minimum wage in Britain earns enough to put him or herself in the wealthiest fifth of the planet. That’s adjusting for Purchasing Power Parity, and that’s before we factor in the benefits that arise from living under a stable state with well-functioning public services and so on. Such considerations only compound the comparative privilege. I see little in the monolithic campaigning and political passions of people like Jones that pay due respect to this fact.

Perhaps this is far too harsh. The public, after all, has little appetite for global egalitarian advocates in the media, and if Jones pursued such a career path then his social clout and capital would have never grown to the extent that it has. Perhaps it’s best to emphasise the smaller injustices because they’re the only injustices that the press could potentially push people to effectively address. If that’s genuinely the case, I guess Jones can be understood and forgiven. And insofar as he’s managed to create a personal brand through social media that’s made him border on being a household name, perfectly capable of carrying readers with him wherever he decides to write, he’s a rare breed of British journalist who is using his new-found power in an understandable and commendable way.

Rob Mather of AMF.

Giving What We Can: Oxford brought the founder and director of the Against Malaria Foundation to St. John’s College last night. For those that are unaware, AMF is rated by both the American charity evaluator GiveWell and by Giving What We Can‘s own research team as the most effective charity in the world at reducing suffering. They distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which go a long way to combating the toxic physiological, social and economic effects that malaria cripples Third World communities with on a daily basis. By now they can guarantee a bed-net will reach a family for around every $5 donated.

I say they, but the biggest insight gained last night was the extent to which AMF is a mere two-person show running an international aid operation from Mather’s home-office in Fulham. He could teach state departments a thing or two about keeping costs down and running programs like clockwork. Granted, AMF’s success and ability to work in such conditions is currently largely down to the goodwill of Citigroup, Microsoft and many other private firms that offer the free infrastructure their distribution chains depend on, but for the central organisation itself to be so minimalist is still an impressive feat.

A lot of the discussion centred around AMF’s key claim that 100% of donations are guaranteed to be spent on their direct development work, rather than at least partially contributing to their small operational costs. This isn’t a lie, but it is at least mildly deceptive insofar as it conceals the fact that AMF obviously does need some operational financing to function, and this money is still sought in donations. But Mather decided that for now it is best to seek the latter sort of funding from special private benefactors, in order to preserve the truth of the key claim for the general public that their donations will only do real work. He’s convinced, after much experience, that this is the best pitch to get people on board with AMF’s work, given the level of cynicism that dominates public perception of charities.

And cynicism about charities is something Mather has explicit sympathy for, though I suspect the phrase ‘healthy scepticism’ better reflects his attitude. It’s not that most charities are fraudulent, so much as that the job of checking one’s good intentions succeed requires a level of obsessive scrutiny and self-criticism that few have the humility to manage. He told many stories of early AMF failures, and how difficult it is to recognise and overcome the hurdles of ensuring political corruption and black market forces don’t pollute the distribution network for the bed nets. When dependence on the good will and skill of others multiple connections away from you is inevitable, the potential for systemic malfunction is also worryingly high. The rigour of AMF’s mechanisms for checking that what they say they do is done is undoubtedly the most impressive thing about them, and it goes a long way to explaining their unconditional endorsements from the world’s leading charity evaluators.

My allowance for the term arrived in my account this morning. I’ll be donating a tenth of it immediately, which amounts to around £300. I’ve decided to split it such that AMF receive half, and then the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and GiveDirectly get a quarter each.

You can read more about AMF here, and donate to their fund here.

Drunk-murdering?

Another odd case of the law struggling to deal with killing. A guy got so plastered in the States that he found himself recklessly driving a car and causing two people to die. He got hit with a long jail sentence accordingly, but was formally convicted of murderNow his lawyers are appealing on the grounds that to murder someone requires an intent that one can only have if one isn’t totally off one’s face after binge-drinking beer for ten hours.

I’m strongly inclined to just say, look, perhaps our idea of murder is used to designate those acts where there is sufficient forethought of the kind that is clearly not possible when someone reaches mental states like these. But that’s fine. We just have to call the act in question something else which better captures the fact it was sheer inexcusable negligence rather than actively planning evil. That does nothing to show there isn’t a similarly stringent responsibility that we all have not to put ourselves in states where such catastrophic consequences materialise so effortlessly, and so nor does it do anything to show the law shouldn’t come down equally hard on his ass to enforce a norm against behaviour that can be as destructive as strict acts of murder. And that’s true even when we see these things are most probably conceptually distinct.

Once that’s kept in mind, there shouldn’t be too much room for disagreement here. We just need to cultivate our emotions to react more strongly to killing through negligence, rather than reserving our moral outrage mainly for murderers.

British law and assisted suicide.

This case reported in The Guardian on Friday is very worrying. I almost want to put it down to bad reporting and say some salient facts must have been omitted, because as things stand, the law and court come across as absurd.

To sum up: a man bought his drunken ‘friend’ petrol in the knowledge that he intended to use it to burn himself alive. He was subsequently convicted for assisted suicide, and has been sentenced to twelve years in jail. The judge complains in his statement about a clear lack of compassion in the choice to buy and deliver the petrol.

The problem here is pretty obvious. We don’t generally consider it the role of the state to enforce the duty to be a good friend. If I treat you badly in spite of a long-standing bond between us, that may make me a bad person. But short of physically assaulting you or something similarly clear-cut, the police don’t knock on my door just because I act like a dick. Someone can’t call 999 and have me fined if I stand you up when we’re supposed to meet for coffee.

Okay, you might think, but the act in question here was evidently far graver than something trivial like missing a drink. This ‘friend’ facilitated attempted suicide.

Well, indeed, but we’ve got to remember that irrespective of a longstanding social norm against the acceptability of this act, it is, in law, perfectly legal, and presumably not only for practical reasons. We do tend to think that under rights to self-determination and so on, if someone wishes to make such choices then they are to be left alone, however ill-advised those choices may seem.

So what this boils down to is the law prosecuting someone for being a bad friend that facilitated the performance of a perfectly legal act. Insofar as the law is as indifferent to someone’s decision to burn themselves as they are to my decision to eat kale in the morning, why doesn’t it ignore the petrol-deliverer in the same way it doesn’t impede my Ocado delivery van?

Perhaps this just strikes at foolishness inherent in the law against assisted suicide. Even if you think that there is some place for such a law, you could and should still worry about ‘assistance’ being read so loosely here that we’re no longer talking about feeding pills to people (or analogously in this case, ourselves pouring the petrol and lighting the flame). Now, assistance means just knowingly buying the tools which the person then uses entirely independently. So if I claimed to be suicidal and simply ask you to buy me a rope, British law is now saying you could be setting yourself up for a decade in jail. And again, this in spite of the fact that my use of the rope to hang myself would be legal.

Are there any other examples of laws which forbid us from facilitating further legal acts, other than on this one issue, where all coherency and common sense seems to evaporate?

A Springsteen bucket list.

I’ve been thinking about which songs are left for me to experience live before Bruce becomes too old and packs up for good (quite a while yet, I trust). After twelve concerts (ten in little over a year), I’ve ticked off far more rarities than most. In the six gigs this summer I think I worked out I heard over ninety different songs performed. I’ve heard DarknessBorn in the USA and Born to Run all the way through, early gems like Lost in the Flood and Wild Billy, plenty from Tracks like Cynthia, TV Movie and Roulette after that mad night in Cardiff, and River rarities like I’m A Rocker and Ramrod for the same reason. And Man at the Top, Save My Love and Reason to Believe. I’ve also seen everyone from Tom Morello and Paul McCartney to John Fogerty and Eric Burdon join him on stage.

Still, much greed remains. I’m still to even hear the guy’s greatest song (listed last here), and some of my very favourites are yet to make a spontaneous appearance. I managed to trim things down to a special seven. Here’s hoping for a return next summer.

Blinded by the Light.

I’m only interested in hearing this acoustic, as heard above. Something about the quietness really brought out the playful absurdity of the lyrics.

Crush On You.

I made signs this summer for this quick throw-away, but no luck. “You’re a walking, talking reason to live” is a really lovely, under-looked romantic line.

Fade Away.

Just one other River request, and quite a contrast with the last one. A real soul-crusher.

Better Days.

Have a couple of verses ever better captured the energising thrill of the rediscovery of romantic love?

Kitty’s Back.

Kitty is very rarely back, but when she is she must steal the fucking show.

Ain’t Good Enough For You.

Yeah, like hell this is an outtake. It’s one of those classic bittersweet Springsteen paradoxes, where the joyful tempo just utterly jars with the self-flagellation inherent in the lyrics. I hope I hear it at a time when I can laugh it off. It looks like ecstasy for the crowd.

New York City Serenade.

Any true fan’s Holy Grail. Hear this live and I would die happy, drowning in my own tears.

Various matters.

Two days before term starts is an odd time to feel the urge to (at least briefly) blog again, but I thought it was worth penning some updates on various things, so here goes nothing. Take this as a quickly and loosely written recent academic and activist diary.

1 – My summer essays on the problem of evil and the paradox of tragedy are all done. They’re online here and here, but I’m not sure if I’m endorsing them yet. It’s immensely difficult to judge, after spending so long dwelling on such specific problems, whether what you argued is any good. My position on and solution for the paradox inherent in our enjoyment of tragic artworks feels especially banal and obvious to me by now. I guess it’s over to others to decide whether my claim that it’s all about psychological insight is plausible and useful. The philosophy of religion essay is far more controversial and daring, perhaps foolishly so. I basically conclude that theists are logically compelled to deny the existence of evil, believe there is sufficient reason for tsunamis, rape and so on, and be rationally glad for their existence accordingly. But again, I did think the arguments for that are clearly there. To deny it would be to somehow claim an all-loving and powerful being exists who allows events to obtain for which there are no good reason. The theist has insufferably big philosophical bullets to bite either way.

2 – Since I will have met by distribution requirements by Christmas, my last essay can be a bit more daring and defy the ordinary categories. They can allocate it wherever they see fit once it’s done. I intend on making full use of this situation by – gasp – writing on romantic love. I think it speaks volumes about philosophy that something so integral to the lives and aspirations of most people tends to be totally sidelined in studies of ethics. So re-tilting the balance there slightly and exploring an under-studied sphere of value seems especially worthwhile. There’s a whole host of questions to be considered here. Some of the key things I’m keen to explore:

  • Is the value of romantic love, insofar as people tend to understand it as seeking some sort of union with the interests and desires of another, in tension with the value of individual autonomy that tends to underpin liberalism?
  • What do people mean when they say they want to be loved not for any particular reasons, but just because of the fact that they are who they are?
  • What do people even mean when they talk of romantic love!
  • What distinguishes romantic love from parental or familial love?
  • What distinguishes it from mere friendship?
  • If you love someone because they have certain properties, what happens when you meet someone who better instantiates those properties? Are you rationally committed to loving them more?
  • Given love is understood as a union, how are we to accommodate the thought that it can also be a feeling that isn’t reciprocated?
  • Can we love animals?
  • Insofar as romantic love causes one to have a warped perspective on the world – we become blind to another person’s flaws – do we not have an epistemic duty to avoid such feelings, so we can judge the world more objectively?
  • Is romantic love necessarily exclusive, or at  least very limited?

It’s amazing that I haven’t touched on any of these fascinating and important questions after four whole years of studying philosophy. I’m really excited to just plough through my historical Hume supervision essays this term and get on with this final paper as soon as possible.

3 – I met my thesis supervisor today to discuss what direction I’ll be taking things in next year. Having decided last term on the title ‘Liberalism and Education’, he suggested there were two routes I could go down. I could either write a modern analytical paper on the various technical strands of modern liberalism, and see which ones can be best reconciled with my intuitions about how things like state neutrality should colour the content of the national curriculum. Or, I could delve into the great historical thinkers and texts and bring their neglected insights to bear on modern debates. Obviously, it’s the latter possibility that has finally got me excited about studying again. It’s practically a licence to spend my final six months as a student just reading the likes of Dewey, Aristotle and my beloved Rousseau (and finally, Emile!), before explaining what lessons we can and should learn about how our conception of education should be framed accordingly. Awesome.

4 – Moving on to activist rather than academic matters, I’ve met with the guys running Oxford Students for Animals this week and helped out on their stall at the Freshers Fair. Plans for the year are taking shape. I should be sending off for leafleting resources from Animal Aid, Compassion in World Farming and so on soon with an eye to regularly campaigning on Cornmarket Street on weekends. The campaign to increase vegetarian and vegan options in college dining halls will continue. I’m also keen to find out information about the meat suppliers of various restaurants in Oxford, so rather than only listing vegan and vegetarian-friendly places on OSFA’s website, ethical meat offerings could be listed, and those using clearly factory-farmed products could also be flagged. Since some people involved are likely to be strict vegetarians who think no meat-eating is permissible, though, the ‘ethical meat’ listings might be a difficult sell. I’ve also started to make contact with local Christians who seem keen to help draft letters to churches requesting transparency about their meat suppliers, and demanding an end to their complicity in factory farming if it exists as expected.

5 – I may have mentioned previously that I wrote a briefing paper for Giving What We Can last month on the problem of micronutrient bioavailability, which may mean that their recently endorsed charity Project Healthy Children – which mass-fortifies food with basic vitamins and minerals – is sadly nowhere near as effective as was previously thought. It looks like my worries will be aired on the GWWC blog very shortly – I’ll link to it once that’s up. The research paper is here, in the mean time.

6 – With little need of persuasion, Magdalen Film Society is now in principle on board with donating profits at the end of the year to the Against Malaria Foundation - GiveWell and GWWC’s #1 rated charity. This is wonderful news, and by far the best thing I’ll be responsible for after four years on the committee there.

7 – I’ve got a 9am start for a six hour day at the Careers Service tomorrow, learning tedious information about navigating the world of job applications. My CV is taking shape as I aim to shoot for a few big media opportunities, but more likely settle for more important and secure non-profit work. If anyone has comments on how it reads and looks, please get in touch. Any and all criticism will be much appreciated.

That’s that. I’ll end with some Springsteen. I finally got around last week to downloading a bootleg of the Cardiff gig from back in July. This one has practically been on repeat on my iPod ever since:

The first time I heard it – then knowing nothing about Eric Burdon and the Animals, and thinking when the guy walked on stage that it was some sort of joke – I remember thinking that “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is basically the bottom line of every big song Bruce has ever written, from Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win”) to Dancing in the Dark (“There’s something happening somewhere”) and more obvious candidates like Born to Run and Land of Hope and Dreams. It was reassuring, then, to find Bruce admitting as much in his SXSW keynote speech, whilst also offering quite a tribute to what their music meant and still means to him. I retrospectively feel so, so privileged to have witnessed this one.

Night, all.

Swiss chard, leek and lentil stew.

A busy week accounts for little posting recently, but I wanted to get this dish up that I’ve been tweaking for a while now. It’s certainly comfort food full of savoury flavours and soft textures, but the dill, orange zest and lemon juice help to freshen it up. You can save some time, money and effort by using stock cubes if you wish, but with due disapproval from yours truly. Serves two.

For the vegetable stock (include four or more of):

1 carrot.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 garlic clove, peeled.

1 onion, peeled.

A handful of parsley, thyme and dill.

1 bay leaf.

Half a celery stalk.

500ml water.

For the stew:

500ml vegetable stock.

1 leek, finely chopped.

100g Swiss chard, roughly shredded.

100g puy lentils.

100g green lentils.

15g dill, finely chopped.

15g parsley, finely chopped.

Zest of one orange.

1 tbsp lemon juice.

1 tbsp olive oil.

Salt and pepper.

First, prepare the vegetable stock. Place the vegetables and herbs in a saucepan, add the water and bring to the boil. Simmer for thirty minutes and then discard the ingredients.

When the stock is ten minutes from finishing, heat the olive oil in a saucepan and fry the leeks for the remaining time. Add the chard, lentils and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for another twenty five minutes.

Drain any remaining stock. Now add the orange zest, lemon juice, dill and parsley.  Stir and season to taste.

Every chef is an activist.

I love that line from Dan Barber in this El Pais article about sustainability movements. It’s more true than most will appreciate. As Michael Pollan likes to put it, in the world of food politics we get to vote three times a day: each time we eat, we send a signal about our preferences, and convey either a disregard for health – our own and the environment’s – or due concern for it. And there’s no better way to take control of one’s diet and the world around you than to stop surrendering the work of cooking to the supermarkets by buying their hyper-processed meals, and instead doing the assembly of natural ingredients ourselves. I truly believe our civic duties in this realm are greater than they’ll ever be in the ballot box.

Shannon’s success.

Some readers may remember my support for Damien Shannon’s case against Oxford earlier in the year. Damien emailed me late last week to bring to my attention the following change on Oxford’s website:

When you complete your Financial Declaration, you will be asked to:

  • Show that you have sufficient funding to cover the University and College fees for Year 1 of your course, by providing financial evidence such as a letter from your scholarship sponsor or your bank
  • Give your assurance that you are able and willing to meet all University and College fees beyond Year 1, if the duration of your course is longer than a year (no financial evidence is required)
  • Give your assurance that you are able and willing to meet your living costs for the duration of your course (no financial evidence is required)

This is a huge retreat and success. It unfortunately comes too late for Damien, whose financial situation has changed such that he can no longer take up his renewed offer of a place. But he Damien can be immensely proud of the good he has done on behalf of all future less privileged applicants. No longer will people have to prove they have the foolishly high figure of £13,000 a year to live on, and the cash on hand from day one to fund the entirety of their forthcoming course. Damien writes:

Under the old system a PhD applicant would have had to prove prior access to at least £55,000 of liquid capital. As of tomorrow that figure will reduce to first year fees (circa. £6,000). Huge difference. I can only imagine this will do a great deal to facilitate access.

Indeed, and the University’s application process will be much fairer for it.

[Correction: Damien wrote to confirm he could in fact now take his place, given the latest changes.]

Don’t mention meat, continued.

Okay, let’s add a little to that recent post. I forget a friend brought to my attention the other day this good news from Germany. The Green party there has called for Meat Free Mondays in canteens across the country. It isn’t clear, but this indicates it would apply to public sector institutions:

The policy has already been tested in several cities. In the north-western German city of Bremen, office, school and kindergarten canteens have already introduced a weekly meat-free day. The city’s Social-Democrat mayor said it represented a chance for each person to “make a personal contribution to environmental protection.”

Even more promising, though suspiciously optimistic, are these poll results out of the country: 45% support a “Veggie Day”. 36% believe the government should promote vegetarian diets.

Don’t mention meat.

Screenshot 2013-09-03 at 22.06.44

Back in 2009, Ezra noted the major hole in current climate activism:

The visceral reaction against anyone questioning our God-given right to bathe in bacon has been enough to scare many in the environmental movement away from this issue. The National Resources Defense Council has a long page of suggestions for how you, too, can “fight global warming.” As you’d expect, “Drive Less” is in bold letters. There’s also an endorsement for “high-mileage cars such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids.” They advise that you weatherize your home, upgrade to more efficient appliances and even buy carbon offsets. The word “meat” is nowhere to be found.

It was no surprise, then, to see Greg Mankiw follow the trend this weekend. His NYT column is all about reducing carbon emissions, but no mention is made of the livestock industry that the UN deemed “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” But more surprising and disturbing is that the President’s Climate Action Plan which Mankiw links to seems to be similarly silent. I searched the White House’s own chief document detailing its approach to tackling climate change for the words ‘meat’ and ‘livestock’, only to find zero results returned.

It doesn’t look like this awkward truth will be publicly recognised any time soon.

Graph via the Environmental Working Group.

Put your phone down.

The writer of the above viral video comments on its inspiration:

I came up with the idea for the video when I started to realize how ridiculous we are all being, myself included, when I was at a concert and people around me were recording the show with their phones, not actually watching the concert… It makes me sad that there are moments in our lives where we’re not present because we’re looking at a phone [...]

I have mixed feelings about the role of phones at concerts. I’m quite a leech in this regard. As this blog regularly shows, I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit moments from Springsteen shows. On the other hand, I’d never miss the moment by recording it myself. I feel like it is worth someone recording at least the occasional special song. It’s the pissed people taking blurry, distant and pointless photos every minute for the entire three hours that need to heed the lessons here.

But as far as general life is concerned, the video seems spot on. We simply are allowing phones to encroach upon and impede regular social interaction. From now on, I’ll be turning my phone off if I’m meeting someone for a meal or drink. And though I’m as strong an advocate as anyone for the practice of photographing food which so many find irritating, there’s an etiquette to this too. I only photograph my own creations, rather than whatever I’ve ordered in a restaurant, and I snap it straight away before I sit down for the meal, and only upload the result once the occasion is over.

By the way, the video’s idea isn’t exactly new. The New Yorker was there a year ago:

No home, no job, no peace, no rest.

Yesterday was Labour Day in the States. Krugman explains its origins, and notes how far away they appear today:

In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.

It’s all hard to imagine now. Not the bit about financial crisis and wage cuts — that’s going on all around us. Not the bit about the state serving the interests of the wealthy — look at who got bailed out, and who didn’t, after our latter-day version of the Panic of 1893. No, what’s unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity.

The day provides an excellent opportunity to share Springsteen, which I’ll gladly take. Two songs seem apt. A year ago on Labour Day, I was fortunate enough to be at his Philadelphia concert, where he opened with an acoustic version of Factory:

But even better, I thought, was the acoustic opening of The Ghost of Tom Joad at Coventry this June:

My favourite verse from the latter:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

I think there’s a great irony intended in the chorus of this one. When he writes ‘the highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes’, he’s surely making use of the most common image of hope, liberation and empowerment in his music – the road out of whatever hell-hole you’re in – and just this once making it bluntly clear that there’s no such prospect in this song’s world, where the struggle is there to stay.

Boss Time.

I realised that in the Springsteen quote I posted on Saturday about Orbison, a clue was included about how to interpret one of his songs:

[Roy] was the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded, and knew was coming after the first night you whispered, I love you, to your new girlfriend. You were going down.

That last line is, with grammatical adjustments, the name of a crowd favourite on Born in the USA. And all this time I’d taken it as an innuendo.

Anyway, I heard it played once this summer at the Olympic Park. Check that divine opening riff.

Ad hoc utilitarianism.

That is, I think, the appropriate way of viewing the British government’s decision to run a trial badger cull. The short story is that these animals are suspected of causing the spread of tuberculosis among cattle, so the government has decided to kill five thousand of them.

I don’t want to take a stance on whether this is sufficient reason to justify the blanket state-sanctioned butchering of an animal’s population. I just find it extremely noteworthy that we would never, ever make political decisions this way when humans are concerned, and it is only the absence from law of animal rights (except for pets, derivatively protected as human property) that allows this logic to arise. We can’t begin to imagine a world in which governments respond to the rise of a dangerous disease by unilaterally wiping out the humans that spread it, and our world is surely the better for it.

But it’s badgers we’re dealing with here, not members of our own smug and allegedly superior species. Only humans apparently have lives worthy of recognition and respect. And the move is doubly repugnant insofar as the only reason we’re even interested in protecting the cattle is obviously so they can later be put to human use.

The whole thing reeks of exploitation, on every level.

Nutritional nudging.

Who knew it could be so simple?

In one early test at a store in Virginia, grocery carts carried a strip of yellow duct tape that divided the baskets neatly in half; a flier instructed shoppers to put their fruits and vegetables in the front half of the cart. Average produce sales per customer jumped to $8.85 from $3.99.

When I noted the other week that I agree with Brooks about the legitimacy – and indeed the desirability – of nudging people towards good behaviour, it was with cases like this in mind. Let’s get this going in Britain, please.

Fifty years on.

Okay, was I alone in not knowing MLK’s speech was improvised? I’m still reeling from that revelation in the NYT yesterday. Michiko Kakuktani locates the sources of the speech’s power:

The entire March on Washington speech reverberates with biblical rhythms and parallels, and bristles with a panoply of references to other historical and literary texts that would have resonated with his listeners. In addition to allusions to the prophets Isaiah (“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low”) and Amos (“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”), there are echoes of the Declaration of Independence (“the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”); Shakespeare (“this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent”); and popular songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (“Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York,” “Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California”).

Bombing versus bed nets.

In a deliberately provocative piece, Yglesias makes a striking comparison:

What [the Against Malaria Foundation] do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

And then this gem of a sentence:

[I]t’s worth interrogating the larger political and ideological construct that says that spending a few billions dollars to help foreigners is a thinkable undertaking if and only if the means of providing assistance is to kill some people and blow some stuff up.

I see why this take on the Syria situation will irk many people. It could indeed lead our logic astray insofar as it puts forward a possible choice which isn’t actually on the table. If we really could pick between buying malaria nets and impeding Assad, the comparison would be appropriate and his implicit conclusion the correct one. But given our socio-political climate, it’s not the case that foreign aid will rise if we don’t bomb Syria. So if we have the chance to do good, it should be embraced even if it’s a sub-optimal use of resources. (I don’t, incidentally, doubt that Yglesias can see and accept this; it’s just not the intention of his piece).

To continue to play sceptic, then, we’d have to invoke extra evidence of the historical inefficacy of liberal intervention that justifies wondering if we could really do any good at all. I’m no longer an international relations student, but I certainly recall enough to know such a case could easily be made. On this question, it seems to me that the Onion nails it.

I mainly like Yglesias’s post, though, because of its exposure of the naivety lying behind popular altruism. Washington is so narrow minded that the only way it knows how to (possibly) do good, and the only way it regularly wants to, is when dropping bombs is involved. That says a lot, and what it says doesn’t reflect well on the human character. Those that suddenly find themselves with a desire to do good when seeing Syrian suffering should wonder why this suffering is so special and whether we should help those that need aid more generally, especially given it is within the power of each of us to do so at the click of a button, with no real cost to ourselves.

Chermoula aubergine with bulgar and yoghurt.

Recipe here. I have to say, I’m rating my photography skills above the Guardian’s right now. This one’s a must try for the appearance alone. The chermoula paste sounds crazy-hot, but by the time you’ve dolloped the yoghurt on top to counter it I think it’s fine. Preparing the wheat mix is very rewarding when the various greens and red sultanas come together. Half a slice per person suffices as a starter, or a very light main course.

Photo from my Instagram.

Thoughts on Jamie Oliver.

I’m slightly sad, but not surprised, to see the reactions to the chef’s latest talking point on our food culture. In a sense, he brought it on himself with the foolish framing of his message in terms of poor people having widescreen televisions. If there was a way to get the class warfare sirens ringing and the public to stop listening to you, that was it.

But if you read the rest of the quotes in that Guardian article, it seems clear that his core message isn’t one that anybody has reason to shy away from. It’s perfectly consistent with an endorsement of his position and project to rightly believe that factors far greater than any individual’s decisions contribute to a culture in which people eat badly. Blaming parents rather than social structures doesn’t have to be the takeaway here. All Oliver is asking us to acknowledge is that, yes, affluent people tend to eat far healthier food than poor people, and face less problems later on in life because of it. But the key point is that this is emphatically not down to healthy eating being expensive. As Oliver notes, Mediterranean nations have equally if not more impoverished social pockets, and yet they manage to follow traditional cuisines and cook good food on small budgets. So the problem is cultural, not financial. Education has a lot to answer for. Why, exactly, do the institutions responsible for raising us to maturity have nothing to teach us about food? Universities nowadays only exacerbate the problem by offering dining halls which delay further the arrival of the day on which people need to start caring for themselves. Other factors I can’t so easily spot are no doubt equally crucial here. But whatever they are, Oliver is only trying to call for a diagnosis of the real problem, whilst doing his best through his platform to tilt the educational balance on television and shift the public debate in the right direction. If only he could ditch the belligerent, counter-productive style, then perhaps people would start listening.

Butternut squash with lemongrass yoghurt, coriander and lemon zest.

So there’s an incredibly refreshing salad dish that’s been knocking around Ottolenghi’s London delicatessens for a while now that no recipe has been published for, and I decided to have a go at replicating it.  I made quite a few changes (they use sour cream, not yoghurt, for starters, and obscure “Urfa” chillis), but my mouth’s memory seems confident that the result was in the right spirit. Anybody know much about the application of intellectual property rights in the culinary world? Can I expect to be charged with plagiarism by the patent authorities? Here goes nothing, anyway. Serves two.

1 medium butternut squash

300g natural yoghurt (I used soya, to stay ethical. Greek is fine otherwise, if you insist).

Half a red chilli, finely chopped.

1 garlic clove, crushed.

1 lemongrass stalk, finely chopped.

1 lemon, zested and juiced.

A handful of flaked almonds.

A handful of mixed seeds (I used sunflower and sesame).

20g coriander, finely chopped.

salt and pepper.

olive oil.

Heat the oven to 220C. Deseed the squash and cut into roughly 2cm by 6cm wedges. Mix in a bowl with 2 tbsp olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Place skin-side down on a roasting tray and cook for thirty to forty minutes. You want it sufficiently soft, not still starchy – the time will depend on the squash.

Pour the yoghurt into a mixing bowl and add the lemongrass, chilli, lemon juice, 1 tsp of salt and the crushed garlic clove. Whisk together.

Let the squash cool for five minutes. Divide it between two plates and spoon the yoghurt over. Now sprinkle with the flaked almonds and seeds. Finish with the coriander and lemon zest.

Photo from my Instagram.

The impossibility of polyamory?

Busy few days. I’ve been juggling preparing to return to Oxford, reviewing papers for the forthcoming Graduate Philosophy Conference, setting up the infrastructure for an ethical eating outreach campaign next term, researching concerns about the bio-availability of micronutrients in fortified food for Giving What We Can (more soon), and trying to plough on with the reading for my second essay on Hume and the paradox of tragedy! On that last note, though, this quote from a paper by Margaret Paton struck me as a touch nuts:

When Hume states that love is unable to subsist in its full force without the painful passion of jealousy and conversely that too much jealousy will extinguish love, he is not describing a pattern of behaviour but is rather making conceptual points. A certain degree of jealousy is appropriate in the context of romantic love. If a young man were wholly indifferent about his girl-friend’s friendships with other young men, we should hesitate to say that he was in love.

I acknowledge that polyamorous people are statistically rare, and so the phenomenon is unusual. But there’s a much stronger claim being made here: that it’s impossible, premised on a conceptual contradiction and misunderstanding of the meaning of love. And that seems very bold. There will, after all, be polyamorous people who claim not that they learn to tolerate jealousy, but that it ceases to be felt at all. Some people do truly deny that love entails exclusivity, and indeed, that part of loving someone is to manage to be glad for one’s partner if they find further people that fulfil them. If that’s true, then jealousy isn’t love’s bedfellow. It would be love’s enemy.

The coolest uncool loser.

Springsteen on Roy Orbison is too great:

Then into my thirteen–year–old ears came 60’s pop. Roy Orbison, besides Johnny Cash, he was the other Man in Black. He was the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded, and knew was coming after the first night you whispered, I love you, to your new girlfriend. You were going down. Roy was the coolest, uncool loser you’d ever seen. With his Coke bottle black glasses, his three–octave range, he seemed to take joy sticking his knife deep into the hot belly of your teenage insecurities.

Simply the titles, “Crying,” “It’s Over,” “Running Scared.” That’s right, the paranoia, oh, the paranoia. He sang about the tragic unknowability of women. He was tortured by soft skin, angora sweaters, beauty, and death – just like you. But he also sang that he’d been risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony.

And for those few moments, he told you that the wreckage, and the ruin, and the heartbreak was all worth it. I got it, my young songwriters, wisdom said to me: Life is tragedy, broken by moments of unworldly bliss that make that tragedy bearable. I was half right. That wasn’t life, that was pop music.

Boss Time.

At some Springsteen concerts, after a whole day of standing and patiently waiting, the sound of the first few songs is the sweetest. This was especially true in Kilkenny when a little known out-take from Tracks called My Love Will Not Let You Down was played. I’ve never seen the pit bounce and sing in unity like it did here. The casual fans further back will have had no clue what the fuck was going on. Check what can only be described as possessed drumming from Max at the 4.20 mark.

Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs.

So much drama here. I’d cut down on the green onions – half the stated amount suffices. The seasoning of the wedges also tastes excessive to me. One teaspoon of salt should work. Otherwise follow the recipe carefully. You can buy balsamic glaze pre-prepared in most supermarkets, if you’d like. It’s essential that the figs are ripe. The NYT recently had some tips on telling if that’s the case:

With figs, ripeness is everything. A ripe fig (the object of your desire) is soft, yielding, beginning to crack, nearly wrinkled. When you cut into it, the flesh is bright and juicy and the taste is ethereal.

Because most figs come to market underripe, the percentage of truly ripe ones in your purchase may be small. Here’s what to do: Line a tray with a kitchen towel and lay out the less-than-ripe specimens, making sure they don’t touch. Leave the tray at room temperature and pray. With luck, your figs will soften in a day or two. (Hard figs may never ripen, and you will probably lose some figs to mold.)

Photo from my Instagram.