The Disappointment of Thanos

After watching the film “Avengers: Infinity War” I was disappointed.

Not by the action, of course.  That was spectacular.

And not by the acting.  Even the CGI tears were moving.

So what was it?  Thanos was disappointing.

Sure, he was an imposing figure.  Sure, he was menacingly calm and ruthless while dealing with all who were attempting to stop him in his quest.  He brutally killed his adopted daughter, of whom he was clearly very proud, to reach his goals.  That was true evil, and exactly the kind of thing we need from the big bad villain.

And yet, I think it could have been better.  I would have preferred it if his motivation had been to win the love of Lady Death.  Then we could have really seen something!  A villain who is driven by a wild, irrational, head-over-gauntlet love for the ultimate unattainable woman.

After all, Lady Death gets you.  You don’t get her.

This change of motivation would have changed the story in an important way.  Thanos would not be a boring consequentialist philosopher.  He would not merely have the mundane technocratic goal of trimming the branches of the tree of life by 50% to improve short-term galactic resource allocation efficiency.

There are many delightful ways in which we see Thanos as a villain: master manipulator of events from afar, ruthless killer up close, toying with his opponents, and even showing a certain amount of sympathy for them.

And yet his motivation was… boring.

In the blazing light of such a grand thing as pursuing the love of his life, his extraordinary will to power (it would have so enthralled Nietzsche!) would have cast an even larger, deeper shadow of villainy.  That’s my take on it.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe Thanos is the better villain precisely because his motivation is so boring.

In our world, the big bad villains are often technocrats.  They think that if we change this one regime cog in the world political machine, people will be better off.  Or that other little regime cog.  Or we add this set of tariffs, or a trade agreement.

Maybe it’s the eugenicists who believe that we’re better off sterilizing the people deemed to less worthy.  Or they think that if we have more aborted babies, the world will be better for everyone else.

We all know how this plays out.  The winners are the rich and well-connected.  Those who are sacrificed on the altar of quality-of-life are the poor and vulnerable.

In a way, Thanos is more moral than they are, our real-life technocrats.  He at least took pains to make sure that the culling would be random, not favoring the rich or powerful (aside from himself of course).

He recognized that if suffering is evil, then the ultimate good is to eliminate suffering by ending enough lives to end the suffering.  And he went about it as fairly as possible.

Granted, it was a very short-term solution.  Given the growth rates of the populations of many species, re-doubling the population wouldn’t take all that long.  So his solution is, well, short-lived.

Maybe this is an ever deeper disappointment.  Maybe, even in the end, Thanos was really just a strong-willed technocrat, doing what was necessary to bring a saving bureaucratic efficiency to the galaxy for a short time.  How dull.

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Fair Questions: Why should men be chivalrous to women?

Recently, I opened the door for door for a nice lady who appeared to be from the Baby Boomer generation, and she exclaimed in apparent shock, “Chivalry is not dead!”

Either she has missed a lot of the articles authoriatively proclaiming its death in recent years, or she was shocked to discover that not every instance of chivalry was gone.  Still, many people agree that chivalry is dead, at least as a social standard to which to aspire.

Chivalry’s much-vaunted death was, in a deeply tragic twist, not a noble one.

Chivalry, in the way that it’s meant by those who are proclaiming its untimely or timely demise (depending on their perspective), was a set of social structures in which men as a group were lead to aspire to treating women with more care than they treated men.

It died when those social structures were torn down and then promptly supplanted by new social structures.  The new social structures didn’t encourage men to treat women with more care, but rather as equals.

And this proposed equality wasn’t just a matter of men and women having equal value in society, it was a matter of women gaining access to the privileges that men had generally held in society.  It was also a matter of putting a stop to the ways in which men were socially incentivized to serve women.

It wasn’t women gaining access to the privileges commonly held by men that killed chivalry.  That was just a blow to patriarchy, and chivalry can survive without patriarchy.  What chivalry cannot survive without is a profound purpose which motivates men to serve women, and it is that purpose which was left to rot.

A new purpose took its place, and it was proposed as the most important purpose for men and women: pleasure.  This was to be the new incentive for both and women.  Though their ways of reaching it might be different, the purpose was to be identical.

No more would men and women have bifurcated roles; they would strive for the same goal in a world where both men and women have identical opportunities.

In this world, why should men be chivalrous to women?

Some contemporary activists have proposed that men ought to go out of their way to do kind things to women for reasons of social justice, that if men as a class were to support women more, we could mitigate the disadvantages and obstacles that women face in our societies.

That’s not a bad idea, though I suspect that for most young men today, it doesn’t sound like a very compelling reason given that, not only does it look like young women are doing better than they are economically and socially, their assumption is that equality of treatment is mostly attained already.  So from their point of view, what’s the point of special treatment for women?

There’s a very practical reason that men as a group should serve women as a group: men are of far better character when they develop habits of serving those they might otherwise be inclined to dominate or exploit, and societies are far more stable (read: better for men and women and children) when more men are of excellent character.

Men who cultivate a habit of service to women become better men, mostly because they become less selfish men.  And less selfish men are generally happier and healthier men.

I know this from experience, and other men can too.  If you need a better reason to be chivalrous, then I have a proposal: be chivalrous to women because it gradually makes you a man of better character and a happier man.

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Fair Questions: Why am I sympathetic to people who self-identify as non-binary?

One of the exercises I find quite valuable is taking someone else’s perspective with the assumption that they are basically rational.  None of us are perfectly rational, but most of us do make an effort to live in accord with our beliefs, and our behaviors can often be traced to our beliefs.

Unfortunately, many people who criticize those who identify as being a gender other than the one that straightforwardly matches their sex organs do so in a way that just kind of assumes that they’re fundamentally irrational.  I think that’s the wrong approach.

I think we need to genuinely try to understand where young people are coming from by examining their explicit and implicit beliefs about the world and about themselves.  And specifically that we need to try to honestly understand the implications of their beliefs about gender.

If you were a young person operating within the constraints of contemporary beliefs about gender, you would have some important rules that you have to follow to maintain those beliefs.

  1.  You can’t determine the gender of a human being based on their sex organs.  That’s biological essentialism, which is a big no-no.
  2. You can’t determine the gender of a human being based on their social performance of gender roles or gendered expressions.  Those are just social constructs, and using stereotypes about the way people behave is a bad way to try to determine a person’s gender because it’s not reliable and reinforces harmful stereotypes.
  3. You can only determine the gender of a human being based on what the person tells you it is, and you can only know that what they’ve told you about their gender is correct in that moment.

Let’s consider what happens when you attempt to determine your own gender in light of these beliefs.  There are 3 possible sources I can think of for a human being to use to determine one’s own gender.

  1. The information provided by the material world, namely the body.
  2. The information provided by the social groups one inhabits.
  3. The information provided by the subjective experiences in one’s consciousness.

The epistemological assumptions that are setting the boundaries for how we can determine our gender identity mean that Source #1 cannot be used, because it would violate Rule #1 above to do so.  Also, Source #2 cannot be used because it would violate Rule #2 above.

That leaves you with Source #3.   And understandably, if you are a person who persistently feels strongly drawn to the idea of one’s self as a woman while having male sex organs, you can’t use Source #1 or Source #2 to determine your gender as male, so you would probably go with using Source #3, which means that identifying as a woman is your most obvious option.

That said, there are very practical reasons to doubt that source #3 can be calibrated properly.  Though there is a way that we could use our subjective experiences within our own consciousness to accurately determine our gender.

A person who could experience several lifetimes as a woman, then experience several lifetimes as a man, then another set of lifetimes as a person with one kind of intersex experience, and then more lifetimes as a person with a different kind of intersex experience, and perhaps yet another lifetime as a man with Klinefelter syndrome, and another lifetime as someone who experiences their gender as fluid, and so on… could compare those experiences within consciousness and assess what their current lifetime’s conscious experiences match most closely.

That’s probably the best-case scenario for using your subjective experiences to determine your gender.  I am doubtful that most of us are in a position to do that kind of thorough comparative assessment in order to determine our gender identity.  Which leads me to consider that under Rules #1, #2, and #3, there may not be any reliable way for most people to determine their own gender.

And for a person operating under those epistemological constraints, identifying as non-binary makes a lot of sense.  After all, you can’t put yourself in a gender identity category if you have no reliable way of knowing what it is, and if you have no reliable way of knowing what your gender is at any given moment, how would you even know when it changes or when it becomes stable?

So when someone tells me that they are still figuring out their gender identity, I can sympathize.  The epistemology of contemporary popular philosophies around gender severely restricts the possible sources of information that they can use to determine their gender, and I’m not sure how I could determine my gender under those constraints either.

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Collected Aphorisms 2017

Editorial Note:  I have been asked by a small number of people over the last few years if I were going to write a book with my pithy thoughts and aphorisms.  I probably won’t because books are expensive to produce and I would like what I’ve learned from my mistakes to be freely available to anyone who wants to use it or to critique my youthful and not-so-youthful stupidity.  So I’ve collected some of my thoughts from the past year for those who are interested to review them and ponder or laugh at how silly I am.  Whichever.  See my thoughts from 2011, 2012, 201320142015, and 2016 if you care to.  I have not written much this year, but I hope that what little I did will be useful.

 

February 23rd, 2017 – In a few days, it will be Forgiveness Sunday for my brothers and sisters in many of the Eastern churches. May we all forgive the sins of others as God forgives ours: with an infinite divine mercy.

March 16th, 2017 – In the desert, it is not the billions of grains of sand around you that cause you constant irritation, but rather the few that are tumbling around under your foot in your boot. How quickly we stop to pour them out if we are wise!

In the same way, when we are in the spiritual desert, it should not be the many evils around us that constantly irritate us, but rather the ones we carry with us. And how quickly we stop and seek to rid ourselves of our own evils if we are wise.

May 2nd, 2017 – In the garden, we seek the counsel of the experienced gardener and follow the advice we are given by the gardener who has been cultivating and harvesting for many years.

In the same way, we should seek the counsel of the experienced cultivator of the garden of the spiritual life and follow the advice we are given so that the spiritual harvest may be abundant for us and for all those we love.

August 5th, 2017 – In the past couple of years, I have begun to learn what a gift suffering is. The gift of suffering is not the weight of it, the agony of it, the resignation we feel while enduring it, or the rage it ignites in us…the gift is that suffering slowly separates us from our selfishness if we simply accept it is a gift, suffering for the love of others and entering into their suffering to bear their cross with them.

November 16th, 2017 – In much the same way that logic is the beginning of wisdom rather than its end, empathy is the beginning of love rather than the end of love. Empathy helps us to begin to learn to love because when we can empathize with an individual it helps to temporarily relieve us of our selfishness and open us up briefly to self-giving love. The end of love lies not in this temporary opening up to self-giving love, but in a profound compassion that no longer relies on a sense of empathy for an individual.

The end of love is to react with profound compassion even when we have no sense of empathy whatsoever, when our compassion becomes so universal in its embrace of all our human family members and so rational in its desire for their greatest good that we transcend the need for empathy as a mechanism by which we are temporarily relieved of our selfishness.

The end of love is a radical self-giving which is liberated from the constraints of our all too limited capacity for empathy.

December 17th, 2017 – The fullness of truth is ever scandalous to the human mind; we refuse to accept that it cannot fit into the overly simplistic categories used by our tiny hominid brains. It is the little pieces of truth that we find acceptable, usually the ones that don’t make us change our minds all that much.

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Profound Insight from Cosmo (Again)

As I’ve mentioned previously, about every six months someone will link to a Cosmo article, and I’ll grudgingly read it, hoping against all evidence that their usual approach has been replaced with something more substantive.

This time, the title “Why Guys Get Turned on When You Orgasm, and Why That’s a Bad Thing” seemed to indicate that it was directly related to a piece I had written about before.  In the previous article, it was proposed that a man should care about making sure a woman orgasms during sex because “You = your orgasm” in the pithy equation proposed by the author.

I tend to think that’s a very dangerous belief.  When we regard the achievement of orgasm as the fulfillment of what it means to be human, and learning how to provide women with orgasms via clitoral stimulation as a critical part of working for women’s equality, then we’ve just perpetuated the myth that the value of women is primarily in their sexuality and specifically in the transient pleasure it brings them.

As we’ve seen over the past few decades, this is not a belief that seems to do much to make practical strides in leading women to be valued more.  In fact, if anything, it seems to be the opposite trend.  But in the newer article, an important caveat is brought to light for those who do believe the myth.

The core insight about how men tend to make women’s pleasure about themselves is a valuable one.  There’s an underlying ethical principle that’s important to understand, which is that when we make doing something for another person about ourselves, it’s no longer virtuous.

For example, if I give money to homeless people while walking around with a camera crew behind me so they can include the footage in my political campaign video, that’s not virtuous.  It might benefit the individuals who receive the money (a very good thing!) and it may be very smart political campaigning, but it does not build the habits of loving others which lead us to the true fulfillment we most need.

Instead, it builds the habits of regarding other persons (often not consciously) as the objects which are used to meet our own goals.  And treating persons as objects is inherently degrading.

This same principle applies when men use women to achieve their own ends, even when they provide those women with temporary pleasures in the process.  These men are degrading the women they provide pleasure to briefly.  That should be enough of an incentive to stop doing it, but there are also other reasons for men to stop degrading women in this way.

These men are losing out on an opportunity to build genuine habits of loving another person.  And instead, they are training themselves to live in such a way that the true fulfillment they most need, the fulfillment reached at the heights of sacrificial love, can never be reached.

But there is hope.  It is possible to re-shape our attitudes, to regard women as having intrinsic dignity, and to build habits that allow us to learn to love radically.  Get started today.

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The Once and Future Abortion Dilemma

Recently, a friend of mine shared a link from ScaryMommy regarding a dilemma posed to illustrate that not even people who take pro-life position on abortion actually believe that the embryo’s life is of equal value to a more developed child.

So what’s the dilemma?  Here are the essentials:

You’re in a fertility clinic that’s on fire.  You have time to save a crying child in one corner, or 1,000 viable human embryos in another corner.  Your choices are…

A.  Save the child crying in one corner and live

B.  Save the 1,000 embryos chilling on the shelf and live

C.  Try to save both and die in the process

I’m not sure where this hypothetical scenario originated.  I first heard it posed by Sam Harris quite a while ago.  In this case, it was posed by a writer named Patrick S. Tomlinson.

What if it’s true?

One of the interesting things about how the argument is framed is that the author claims that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A.”  Perhaps it’s my philosophical training making me instinctively skeptical, but I’m not sure that we all do.

And even if that were true (for the moment let’s assume that it is true), it wouldn’t really tell us much.  By and large, human instincts are finely-tuned mechanisms for survival.  One of those really useful instincts is that we are more likely protect beings that look and act more like us and less likely to protect beings that look and act less like us.

Some of the same cognitive errors that lead us to identify more closely with beings who look and act more like us (in-group bias and so on) are also factors that lead us to instinctively prefer to socialize with people who have the same skin color as us, or the same kinds of clothing, or the same hair and eye color.  Our instincts in this area can and do lead us to dangerous and unfair treatment of other beings.

For those of us sitting in our armchairs pondering moral dilemmas, we may be experiencing a bit of an empathy gap.  We might be thinking that what we would do in this scenario reflects our rational assessment of the relative value of the life of a child and the quite different value of 1,000 embryos on a shelf.

But in most cases, we’re wrong.  In survival scenarios, we generally function on instinct (which includes a large dose of cognitive errors) rather than reasoned judgments intended to mitigate the problems with those cognitive errors in arriving at accurate moral assessments.

Even if Tomlinson is correct that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A” and every human being agrees that they would take the actions described in A if they were in that situation, it wouldn’t tell us anything more than that our instincts lead us to that action.

Why would anyone choose option C?

Tomlinson goes on to claim that “There is no “C.” “C” means you all die.”  I can understand why Tomlinson would make this claim.  Instinctively, I think most of us would choose to find a way to live if possible.

But I also know that there are people who jump on grenades to save the lives of others, or run up into collapsing buildings to save others knowing that they will eventually die on one of those runs.  Some of us do in fact manage to choose option “C” in which we die trying to preserve the lives of others.

Let’s suppose that as an environmental activist, I were actively trying to save both the glaciers and the cows from being wiped out by global climate change.  What if I fail to save either and die in the process of doing my best to save both?  Was that the wrong choice from a moral standpoint?

At the very least, it’s not clear to me that option C, which means dying while trying to save as many people as possible, is clearly the wrong answer.  Or that we should a priori rule it out as an option.

If anything, dying while trying to save as many as possible seems to me, upon reflection, the most noble course.  And we honor those who give their lives in such a heroic manner in other circumstances (such as described above).  We don’t berate them posthumously for their awful grasp of utilitarian moral calculus.

I hope that I could choose the heroic option, but I don’t know that I would.  Instincts are powerful things, especially the survival instinct.

Why is it hard for pro-lifers to answer A or B?

I’m really not sure why Tomlinson hasn’t gotten any clear answers.  I’ve seen people who are pro-life answer either A or B to the dilemma.  Some after a great deal of thought, or reluctantly, or while undergoing a great deal of cognitive dissonance.  Maybe some people just haven’t thought about it.  I’m reluctant to assume their motivations.

Personally, the reason I don’t play his game is that I don’t agree with the assumptions being made.  As someone who has been on both sides of the abortion debate, I’m very familiar with the sorts of convenient moral dilemmas employed by both sides and how they’re framed to make the other side look stupid or dishonest or uncaring.

My experience has been that there’s a lot of irrationality on both sides, but also many compassionate and honest and intelligent people who just happen to be reasoning from different premises about a difficult moral issue.

I know this is really unpopular right now, but maybe we can try to spend less time trapping our ideological opponents with arguments that aren’t nearly as clever as we think they are, and spend more time questioning our own assumptions productively.

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The Sexist Science

Recently, I was reading an article over at VICE that contained many good points amidst the tangled web of editorial notes and reviews of a book entitled Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini.

I found myself in agreement with many of the points being made, including:

  • It’s a bit ridiculous that 3 male scientists concluded that menopause makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because older women are not attractive to older men.  The amount of sex that happens in nursing homes suggests that this is simply not true.
  • Science has been used throughout its history to reinforce gender stereotypes and keep women in subservient roles, and women have been excluded from it too often, and also frequently haven’t been given credit for their discoveries or innovations.
  • Science is popularly seen as far more impartial and certain in its proclamations than it actually is.
  • There are a lot of conclusions unsupported by evidence that are conveniently drawn by folks who want to perpetuate narratives about female inferiority, albeit only loosely based on the findings of evolutionary psychology.
  • The strength of women in various areas (physically, mentally, emotionally) has been undervalued by biological scientists on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Saini does some leaping to conclusions unsupported by the evidence as well.  Her speculation that men might be physically stronger on average not because of role differentiation and sexual selection in primates (the most likely cause), but rather because women spend more of their energy on menstruation and childbirth, doesn’t make much sense.

Our musculature’s upper limits are determined by our genes, not our energy costs.  If every man and every woman were to achieve their maximum muscular strength, there would still be an average difference in strength between the sexes.  See the Olympic Games’ results in various sports for evidence of this.

Now, higher energy costs will definitely reduce the ability to build muscle, but men and women do not on average have the same potential to build muscle because of the typical genetic differences.  Men and women are equal, but we are not interchangeable, not even in the aggregate.

Given that many people who have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men based on reactionary cultural values or religious views have used it to support their imperatives to keep women subordinate to men, and that MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) have used it to support their views about women’s excessive power in our culture that operates to the detriment of men, it’s completely understandable that any feminist would look askance at evolutionary psychology.

For a fair number of contemporary feminists who are vaguely familiar with evolutionary psychology, it’s true that they often recognize that the scientific endeavor has historically been and is now tainted by sexism, but it’s also true that evolutionary psychology is the scientific discipline that is not infrequently seen by feminists as THE sexist science par excellence.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion.  I think that evolutionary psychology can be very useful and often is very useful in understanding important things about ourselves as homo sapiens.  It would be a shame to miss out on really valuable knowledge because of the uses to which evolutionary psychology is put by reactionaries or MRAs.

Sadly, I suspect that there will always be some feminists who reject evolutionary psychology wholesale.  Some may do so because there are so many historical and contemporary examples of its misuse.  Others may do so for the less appealing reason that evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology contradicts their dogmas about the interchangeability of men and women and the causes of differences between the sexes.

For the latter group, evolutionary psychology, no matter how it changes and even if sexism is eliminated in the discipline, will always be seen as the sexist science.

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