The history of our intellectual climate and conventional wisdom is marred by those who have “read the manifesto but not the book,” by sheepish critics whose greatest achievement in attacking theories they so dislike is the mere erecting and burning of strawmen. Their attacks are impassioned but tend to stem from a misunderstanding of the theory itself. Such is the subject of this section. Having covered the four major theories of human nature in Part One, (Locke’s Blank Slate, Rousseau’s Noble Savage, Descartes’ Ghost in the Machine, and briefly the Judeo-Christian theory informed by the Holy Bible) along with their implications and implementations, Pinker now looks to analyze advocate and critic alike for each of these theories. Continuing our series on Pinker’s Blank Slate, let’s take a look at Part Two, “Fear and Loathing.”
So, we’ve covered Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, Mill’s Utilitarianism, and Kant’s Deontology. All of these ethical systems seemed pretty viable—Aristotle emphasized the importance of habituating a temperate character and utilizing phronesis to find the golden mean between a universal law and a particular circumstance, largely through politics and familial means; Mill endorsed consequential and empirical eudaemonism, stating that everything we do is a mean to the sole end of happiness, thus we must maximize happiness in our every interaction; and Kant introduced his absolutist, rationalistic, deontological system, which elevated the categorical imperative as the ethical, stating we must only act in such a way that we would will others to act, and that we must always treat people as ends in themselves.
Bear with me as I preface this soon-to-be series on Steven Pinker’s five-hundred-page epic, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The book is quite long for (meta-)scientific nonfiction, and, boy, is it dense! I would be doing all of my readers a disservice by skimming over its valuable insights–so let’s break the one-review-for-one-book structure I’ve maintained for so long. And let’s trade it in for a more suitable structure for this book, which is quite deserving of special treatment. So, instead of cramming five hundred pages into a quick post, let’s take it part by part. With that, this is part one of a six-part series on Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate:
The happenings of the past centuries have torn gaping wounds into the once-thick skin of Marxism. Though it once strode about the world with confidence, promising revolution, it now limps and struggles to find support of the same fervor. These wounds are of the making of its faulty predictions–that capitalism [i] will thin and eventually end the middle class, and [ii] that it will further impoverish the poor while enriching the rich. Not only were these predictions wrong, but complete inversions of what has actually occurred: capitalistic societies have experienced a thickening of the middle class, and the poor have grown much wealthier compared to the “paupers” of Marx’s time. These wounds, however, say little about communism. Though I cannot support the ideology, I must admit, it has earned stigma not completely justified. After all, “true” communism, as Marx and Engels envisioned it, has never been attempted. We have but the murderous, tyrannical versions of it implemented by different men, or we have quasi-communist implementations that violate its core principles but still use the name. So, I cannot humor Marxism; too much rides against it. But communism, though I suspect it is deeply misled, has had no “pure” implementation which we can judge.
“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.” – Arthur Shopenhauer
On the Suffering of the World is a fourteen-page essay filled with insights from our de facto pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer. The man can’t be beaten–he’s like Morrissey with a Ph.D. and a harder life, Hitchhiker‘s Marvin with a depressive short-circuit. He’s an all-around good time.
I’m convinced John B. Watson plagiarized this book to found behaviorism. Good on you, John.
So, we’ve covered Mill’s utilitarian ethics (a post that did surprisingly well) and Kant’s deontological ethics (which was a lazy post, I admit), now for a very different approach: Aristotle’s virtue ethics, straight out of his Nicomachean Ethics. I’ve found that when I’m reading philosophy, I cannot help but blindly agree with everything the author says, like a faithful child to his prankster parents, like a star-struck fan to his idol. I trade criticism for intellectual submission, never doubting their claims for a second–until I read another philosopher, that is, and grow shameful and aghast at my past susceptibility. How could I possibly believe that? Clearly, this is right! And then I read another philosopher and the cycle continues. I suspect this will be the case until I get an understanding of each major philosophical schools, and then perhaps I will see where I fit! Regardless, this blind faith in the author makes for a great, deep read. Let’s jump into Aristotle.
There is something beautiful about Immanuel Kant’s book The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Stylistically, it is dry and, by all accounts, it is over-complicated. But it has moments of clarity in which Kant’s moral edifice, his deontological ethics, loses its murk and becomes crystal clear, moments where his heavy and knotted penmanship adopts a light and untangled character that just gets to the point. We all know those “aha!” moments, those times when everything clicks into place and we feel as if we truly understand something. In Groundworks, I had four of those moments, each concerning a different foundational feature of Kant’s ethical theory. Through these four features, we can understand the essence of his argument.
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfed than a pig satisfied.” – John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Mill has one hell of an opening for his now immortalized book Utilitarianism: not only does he claim that there exists a single infrastructure, as it were, upon which the entire superstructure of morality sits, but that this single “first principle” has been self-evident throughout our entire history. For these thousands of years in which we’ve argued over moral philosophy, hungering insatiably for a guiding principle which will let us be certain, moral beings, it has been right there, so he claims, dangling before our faces. Within the first few pages, the pressure is on—and Mill delivers.
A peculiar man, one of stocky build and bulging eyes, once walked the streets Athens. A group of eager young men trailed behind him like ducklings, waiting for him to choose his next prey. This man was Socrates, who wandered the streets of Athens in search of its “experts,” be them of religious, legal, or intellectual matters. Upon finding them, he would inflate them with fawning and praise before very gently and very politely bringing them to the conclusion that they know nothing of their trade. Among these eager ducklings was a young man named Plato. He was not yet known, but these debates would lead him down an intellectual rabbit hole from which he would forever change the world. Continue reading Euthyphro – A Book Review
What if I were to tell you that the most successful men and women were not so because they were the best and the brightest–that all of our favorite rags-to-riches stories were incomplete and misleading? Well, our author, Malcolm Gladwell, is convinced that this is true, and he makes a moderately convincing case.