Brushing off the dust


A Continent Is Bridged – Franklin Booth (1940)

Now that I’m a fully graduated bachelor of political science, I can justify spending time writing things that I won’t be graded on. While not the best excuse I could come up with for not updating my blog in nearly a year, it will have to do for now. So instead of tackling complex moral issues, rambling about space, or ranting about stuff most people don’t even think about, I’m going to briefly give an update on what I’m reading, and what my thoughts on that are. I don’t remember exactly how I heard about Debord, but I found myself enraptured by his text La Société du spectacle, or The Society of the Spectacle.

Considered by many to be a landmark text in Marxist thought in the later half of the twentieth century, Debord effortlessly exposes and critiques the material conditions that have defined social relations in the modern capitalist era. I’ve read up to chapter 5 and it already has  altered the way I interpret media. Without going into too much detail, Debord believes that capitalism has invaded relations between individuals by reducing our mutual interactions to a mere exchange of images. This modern state of affairs is a direct byproduct of the class struggle according to Debord, and it functions to render impossible the proletariat revolution as predicted in the materialist account of history. It is very theoretical sounding, and I don’t think I possess a robust enough Marxist background to provide a summary that gives it justice, but having read lots of Marx and Engels as an undergraduate, it is refreshing to read Debord’s response to their works. I will post a more thorough collection of my thoughts, but as of now I don’t feel like I can give this text the review it deserves having only read a third of it. It’s free online (see the link above) and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in such matters.

On a less arcane note–actually, I’ll just save that for the next post.

But What About the Children?

Now I promised myself I wouldn’t use my blog to spiel on topics pertaining solely to applied ethics, but this idea struck me a few days ago, and I’ve a ton of browser tabs open that I need to get closed. In this post I want to challenge our societal conceptions of entertainment, and our collective inability to consider the moral costs we subsequently incur by engaging in said entertainment. Now I could look at all sorts of disturbing or obviously ethically flawed forms of entertainment, and many already find themselves in very dire straights in regards to public perception (take bullfighting for instance!). I won’t deny that our general moral sentiments regarding entertainment have improved immensely since antiquity, but that is not to say that there isn’t work to be done. No, what I seek to challenge is the exploitation of children in the film industry, particularly in television. A lot of this discussion hinges on a wider cultural critique that seeks to highlight widespread exploitation, hypocrisy, and perhaps denial of the extents to which our entertainment industry furthers their own profit motivated aims. Likewise, it’s important to remember that I’m restricting this criticism to our societal conceptions of entertainment, and entertainment in and of itself is a highly expansive term when considering its history and esoteric subdivisions.

First, it is important to remember that the means used to retain the attention of an audience (Wikipedia’s oh-so-reliable definition) more often than not come at some cost to a provider. If I for instance sold you a board game I myself invented, it would have cost me the time and effort to produce said game, which when stacked against the average price of a board game to the average consumer, usually pales in comparison. More elaborate forms of entertainment are examples of mass collaboration, and require a great deal of time, effort, and energy in order to both retain and appease the attentions of a mass audience. Yet, the structure of a society determines to a very large degree, the cost, type, and appeal of certain forms of entertainment. Gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome is an excellent example of how the pursuit of entertainment often came a great cost in an ethical sense, but provided a very strong stream of revenue, both in terms of political and public appeal. However, distinct from a pure capitalist motivation, gladiatorial combat in Rome was much more politically motivated, as rulers needed to provide tangible and lavish spectacles in order to demonstrate their ability to appease and rule over the masses (Commodus even went as far as to call himself “Hercules Reborn” while performing staged battles in the Amphitheater fighting ostriches). The point though, is that despite some ethical concerns by philosophers and thinkers of the time (Cicero in particular), the public as a whole largely fascinated and amused by the brutal blood-sport. The average person today would likely reel in disgust at the notion of watching slaves kill and maim each other in an arena for amusement (although millions of viewers tune in to watch fighters beat each other).  The overarching theme I’m trying to tease out of this, and eventually connect to modernity, is the systematic exploitation that is required in order to maintain these sorts of entertainment spectacles.

Modern society on the other hand has largely avoided “Thunderdome” style amphitheater battles, we still retain forms of entertainment that come at a cost to the performer– the very definition of exploitation. In this particular case, I want to briefly tackle the issue of child actors, and how putting them on industry treadmills leaves them more often than not deprived of the essential rights and benefits we as a society agree all children ought to have. Many child stars in the last few decades have committed crimes, engaged in illicit hard drug use, and ended up leaving their short acting careers inexperienced, uneducated, and unfulfilled. What’s more is that the United States in particular lacks any thorough legal barrier that prevents studios from essentially evading labor laws, forcing their child-stars to work long hours and face harsh psychological conditions. Despite this, we as a society have already determined that all children regardless of class, race, intelligence, and talent deserve an equal opportunity to attain an education, and through that experience an actual childhood. Prior to this standard, lower class children were often employed in factories and farms, working long hours and with little to no pay– their only reward being the minuscule wage they brought home to help feed their impoverished families (Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist comes to mind).  One however might object and say that child-stars are well compensated for their efforts, and that their talent is duly rewarded. To that, I would only remind them again of the objective and serious psychological damage inflicted by being both deprived of the aforementioned universal education and labor rights, and of the mass scrutiny and stress imposed by having an entire nation of viewers judging their every move. Mara Wilson (Ms. Doubtfire, Matilda) points out a lot of these pressures and expectations studios impose on children, and quite frankly, it’s hard to justify it beyond the financial gain a studio gets from exploiting their young talents. What’s worse is that we as a consumer culture largely drive this demand for child talent, and demand it to the point where it often becomes detrimental and deleterious to the child in question. Again, this doesn’t apply to all child actors, and many are lucky to escape it, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t common or likely given the circumstances they’re subjected to.

Again, it seems likes the blame falls back on the viewers though, if we all collectively wanted to reinstate gladiatorial combat as it was in Ancient Rome, and likewise lacked the moral fortitude to reject it, it would be commonplace on both television and in the general public. We however, have rejected this form of exploitation and violence largely; most people don’t wish to watch two men kill each other for sport in an arena, and it’s morally correct to not want to do so. But in light of the moral and personal costs to the many children who have fallen victim to an entertainment industry that has deprived them of any opportunity to seek out education and personal development, what does our moral compass tell us here? Is it really worth it? The bigger question I think is how do we solve it?

The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts (part two)

In my last post, I dug into the Euthyphro Dilemma, and extrapolated the second prong which states that “What is good is good because it is commanded by God[s].” Having thoroughly discussed the philosophical implications of holding a divine command theorist interpretation of ethics, I will now seek to address the first prong of the dilemma (yes I know I did it backwards, so what?), as well as using the distinction to springboard into a brief analysis of modern religious precepts, and the subsequent weight of their moral worth.

“God[s] command it because it is good”

While seemingly unassuming, this statement bears significant metaethical and theological implications that need to be discussed in order to get our footing for looking into the moral limits. On the other side of the fence from the divine command theorists, those that accept this claim are often referred to as moral objectivists, as they believe that morality has objective truth apart from the authority of God. While I won’t go into the deeper metaethical territory of moral realism, know that individuals who hold onto this theory believe that (according to the ever helpful Wikipedia) ethical statements are propositions with a true or false value– and thus they reject a subjective interpretation of ethics. This is important for religious folks who hold this view, because in order to do so, one must confront a few philosophical roadblocks along the way.

So why would it be troublesome as a Christian to accept an objectivist conception of morality, in light of the objections to divine command theory? Firstly, one would have to accept that due to the existence of moral truth apart from divine command, God’s omnipotence is in question. The notion of an all powerful God is at direct odds with an objective moral standard, as he would be incapable of acting out of accordance with it. By buying into moral objectivism, God is therefore subject to moral law, and no longer the “law maker.” And if you take this further and introduce the omnibenevolent property of God, you’re left with a God that merely acts out of accordance with moral law. But remember, God is also the creator, so we’re left with a case of God having created a rock he himself cannot lift– objective moral standards. At this point, God is seemingly reduced to merely conveying moral law, a moral messenger as it were– a significant challenge to traditionally held notions indeed.

Another interesting angle to approach this issue from is found in scripture, particularly the “Sermon on the Mount,” where Jesus tackles many pertinent moral questions. In Matthew 5, Jesus essentially lays out a sort of “expansion pack” for the moral law found in scripture, and he does so by addressing issues of moral motivation, rather than mere rule-following. Take for example his claim regarding murder: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:20-21).

He later goes on to expound upon other moral issues involving the old law, and hearkens to the congregation to consider their reasons for acting, beyond their mere adherence to the law. What Jesus wanted us to consider were our moral motivations– issues of the heart as it were. In the New Testament especially, many of Jesus’ followers seemed to have this fascinating association between morality, the law, and God’s commands. This attitude was a shock to his contemporaries because any expansion of moral instruction under theological pretenses seemed to bring into question the validity of God’s moral authority. If up to that point morality was incomplete (remember virtually all religious folks back then were divine command theorists), how were any of those who lived prior to Jesus morally accountable? Pontius Pilate, himself not even a Jew, washed his hands publicly in order to absolve himself of any blame for the mob-lynching Jesus subsequently received before crucifixion. There was this idea that physical purity, law adherence, and cleanliness were indicators of moral worth– and I think that this issue has a great degree of relevance in modern times.

So to conclude, if we are to assume an objectivist moral position, and attempt to retain theological notions, what sorts of religious virtues remain morally compelled, and what becomes of ones that bear no moral relevance? The bible is rife with many commandments, some having deep moral applicability, others having seemingly no moral relevance. Remember though, for the divine command theorist, all commands issued by God have the full weight of morality, which means that violating the two seeds per hole rule (Deuteronomy 22:9) is as immoral of an act as any of the other 600-some commandments. When, however, the moral objectivist attempts to morally assess a person who does not adhere to the faith, he must be careful to not construe religious precepts with morality. This applies especially to lawmakers who seek to promote public values, but fail to see the gulf between those values, and their own religious convictions. When lawmakers attempt to prevent access to birth control under a pretense of ‘purity’ or in the hopes of protecting the innocence of women, they often commit this fallacy of equivocating their religious precepts with that of moral values. Granted, most adhere to a divine command theory interpretation, so the distinction between the two is quite muddied in their minds. Ultimately, this is why we need to constantly examine the paradigms we use to justify our moral values. It’s not enough to simply hold a set of moral values, but we must be capable of defending the metaphysical basis thereof, otherwise we risk washing away our entire moral framework, “…like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:49)

Have a nice day!

The Moral Limits of Religious Precepts

To kick off my foray into writing short pieces on applied ethics, I thought I’d first look to lesser discussed topics in the field. When one thinks of applied ethics, concepts like animal rights, international aid, and charity normally come to mind. Certainly these phenomena have much more weight in modern times than they have had in the past (Descartes after all had a pretty horrible track record with the animal rights bit). And while these examples of applied ethics have a great deal of importance in the modern moral discourse, I myself have a particular interest in the role religious precepts play in shaping (or perhaps distorting) one’s moral intuitions. This is not likely to be the last post I write that directly confronts the issue of religious dogma’s moral applicability, as I think that it is important to challenge traditionally held notions with firmly established conceptions of moral truth. In doing so, religious practices can be refined to better reflect moral values, while at the same time revealing the limits of ethical systems whose paradigms are hedged on theological grounds.

I usually like to retrace my steps in the metaethics before jumping into criticisms and analysis, so bear with me as I lay out a brief theoretical framework to work with. Religious folks, Christians in particular, usually fall under two broad categories when it comes to their beliefs on the basis for morality. One can start with Plato on this issue, where in the Euthryphro dialogue, Socrates essentially asks, “Is what is good commanded by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by the gods?” What Plato seeks to demonstrate here is that there is a fundamental question for those who couch their moral basis in the authority of a deity. When we try to take either position, clear problems emerge. To start, let’s look at the second half of the “Euthyphro Dilemma”

“It is good because it is commanded by God[s]” 

This is the position held by “divine command theorists,” who hold that the source of morality is in the authority of a deity. For Christians, this position is assumed by both Calvin and Luther, and by a great deal of the Christian population (but not all, as we will see). For divine command theorists, all of God’s commands bear the full weight of moral duty, regardless of the recipient’s own intuitions. A clear Biblical example of this can be found in Genesis chapter 18, where after being told of his plan to smite Sodom, Abraham pleads to God saying,

“Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

Abraham’s moral intuitions seemed to be at direct odds to God’s intentions in this instance, and it drove Abraham to bargain on behalf of those in the city, and to even tell God that destroying Sodom would be “Far from thee.” As it turned out however, none but Lot and his wife were deemed righteous, and the city was subsequently destroyed by God. This story’s full context has a much richer theological interpretation, but the point I’m trying to get out of it is that there are cases in the Bible where God’s commands (which under Divine Command Theory have the full force of moral law) seem to cut against the moral intuitions of individuals.

Another issue with divine command theory that I find to be the most compelling reason for rejecting it, is the tautological problem with having a deity serve as the principal moral authority. If what is good is good because it is commanded by God, then what purpose does praising God’s moral virtue serve? Just reading the first five lines of “Amazing Grace” illustrates this philosophical problem plainly. It seems redundant to make claims praising his moral stature if morality comes from him. Take for instance Psalms 36:6-7 “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O Lord, thou preservest man and beast. How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.” I mean to show that due to this problem in claiming that God is both good, and that what is good is such because it is commanded by god, one seems to strip the significance of his moral qualities to a mere redundancy. Metaphysically speaking, there is a great deal at stake for divine command theorists.

Relating this back to my original topic regarding religious dogma, one can clearly see the advantage holding this position would have if religious law was meant to be upheld to the utmost. Dietary law, rules regarding the planting of seeds, cultural customs, and the like are all in the same camp as moral law under divine command theory. This means that things that seem utterly amoral to nonbelievers have the force of moral duty to the believer. This is why the Christian evangelist is confounded by the secular moralist’s belief that he can be moral without having to appeal to a deity. It is an issue of moral paradigms, and for my next and final post on this matter, I’ll explore how the shift in paradigms can yield troubling problems for religious precepts that lack any conceivable moral force.

Have a nice day!

Stay tuned for part two… (probably tomorrow)