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7 April / Indianapolis

A flat bone-colored plain with sparse trees growing out of it like public hair from brown wrinkled skin, the grey sky above it through which moved a few grey clouds like trucks along the grey road....

A terrible dinner in a public dining room at a U-shaped table, with thirty or forty teachers. Apparently no one reads in Indianapolis and the teachers had the discouraged air of vegetarians trying to convert to cannibalism.

9 April

Anyway I had two mornings undisturbed in which to work. Afternoon two to four talk with students. Dinner, then my lecture on the thirties. It went well but really I was completely without confidence. Somehow I have in my own mind no contact with an audience when lecturing. It is as though I were behind a glass screen gesticulating, and everything I say somehow keeps them attentive but is almost meaningless to me. When I am reading poems I do have confidence or at any rate can become absorbed in the problem of trying to read them effectively. After half and hour I broke off and said I would answer questions. Rang B. and told him how appalling I found Indiana. He said, 'It is the most awful state in the union.'

From Journals 1939-1983, 354-5. This was in the 1976-9 section, precise year unlabeled.

I think he exaggerates.

I like what he says about lecturing, as I feel that way sometimes--particularly when teaching something I cannot get into myself, and when I can't make it conversational. Even when I do feel connected to the students, my performance is opaque: I cannot really control what I do. Those higher levels of self-awareness must be shut down in order for me to act.
apolliana: (Default)
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gives an allegedly circular account of what makes an action virtuous:

(1) An action is virtuous if it is the one that the virtuous person would do.


(2) The virtuous person is one whose actions bespeak the right amount of all the good qualities of character.

This, as it is, is not circular. The alleged circularity lies in the interdefinition of 'virtuous person' and 'good action': the good actions are those the virtuous person would do, and the virtuous person is the one who does good actions.

The latter circularity need not be a problem for a moral theory, unless we want a moral theory that defines what is morally good in non-normative terms (i.e., in the way that utilitarianism aims to do). But it also bespeaks the objection most commonly made to Aristotle's ethical theory, as well as to similar theories: that we must already know what is virtuous according to the moral theory in question in order to be able to apply this moral theory. That is, it doesn't define virtue in such a way that an amoralist, or a skeptic about normativity, could understand it.

One worry about Aristotle's moral theory is that it takes a great deal of not simply intellectual but social and emotional perceptiveness to see that x might be too much bravery, or might be boorish, etc. And clearly not everyone is capable of perceiving these differences. The theory cannot equip a virtue-blind (or mean-blind) person to suddenly see virtue, or the mean.

That said, its non-reductiveness might be part of the--in my limited teaching experience, huge--appeal of this theory. ("Why has ethics even continued? Did Mill and Kant not read Aristotle?" they asked. "Yes, I'm sure they did," I replied.) It does not try to reduce rightness to pleasure or to the non-logically self-contradictory. Yet it does explain what makes right actions right: they express 'mean' character traits (which are themselves virtuous). 'The mean' is actually a very clever way of giving concreteness to--if not quantifying--the normative element in virtue without eliminating it.
apolliana: (Default)
I really need to find or make a questionnaire measuring specifically moral disgust, as only 2 of the items on this one could conceivably be read as moral (the two with the highest ratings--bestiality and incest; though incest is harder to explain).

Sample size: 15.
Highest score: 22
Lowest score: 4.
Average 13.

Part I
(Number who said they were disgusted by the thing described.)
(1.) 4 messy food
(2.) 12 cockroaches
(3.) 7 phlegm
(4.) 14 bestiality
(5.) 3 preserved hand
(6.) 3 walking through graveyard
(7.) 2 public toilet seats
(8.) 11 soup stirred with washed flyswatter
(9.) 4 monkey meat
(10.) 5 rat
(11.) 9 vomit
(12.) 3 gayness
(13) 7 glass eye removal
(14.) 3 touching dead body
(15.) 7 sick cook
(16.) 7 death in hotel room you’re staying in

Total possible: 15.

Part II
(Total disgustingness points--0-2--for each, summed)
(17.) 13 ketchup in ice cream
(18.) 18 maggots
(19.) 11 pee smell
(20.) 16 30/80 relationship
(21.) 4 fishing hook in finger
(22.) 12 picking up dead cat
(23.) 2 unintentional drink sharing
(24.) 4 poo-shaped chocolate
(25.) 18 spoiled milk
(26.) 13 stepping on worm
(27.) 19 unflushed public toilet
(28.) 28 incest
(29.) 15 seeing exposed intestines
(30.) 7 touching someone’s ashes
(31.) 23 infrequently changed underwear
(32.) 6 blowing up condom

Total possible: 30

Sleeping with old people: just slightly less disgusting than maggots. Brilliant.

I continue to not understand the high ratings for #31. Cannot get myself to care how often anyone else changes their underwear.
apolliana: (Default)
At the start of my ethics course, in the hopes of rousing students from their relativistic slumbers, I've been assigning a paper evaluating Bernard Williams's argument against relativism. Briefly, it is that the 3 tenets below are inconsistent. In particular, (1) conflicts with (3) because while (1) defines 'right' only within a given societal context, (3) uses 'wrong' (an analogue of 'right') in a trans-societal sense. Therefore relativism cannot consistently imply a universal policy of tolerance/non-interference.

1. 'Right' means 'right for a given soclety.'
2. 'Right for a given society' means 'right in a functionalist sense.'
3. It is wrong to interfere with the values of another society

I've said before that I think the problem of how to define 'society' is a red herring. Let's read 'society' in an indeterminately limited way, roughly similar to 'idiolect.'

A student pointed out recently that according to Williams's argument, it's hard to know what position the relativist (who wants to remain so) can take when interacting with other societies. She cannot say "it's WRONG to interfere"; but nor can she say "it's RIGHT to interfere." She has to remain neutral on tolerance--and it's hard to see what that could amount to. The relativist would seem to have a position based on the possibility of alternate value systems that she can never interact with in any way.

This is either a far more serious problem with relativism than the first, or a flaw in Williams's argument. But a map of the possible positions helps to clarify things.

The argument seems to leave us with three options:

(a) Keep relativism (1), and reject tolerance (3). Relativistic engagement.
(b) Keep tolerance (3), and reject relativism (1). Dogmatic disengagement.
(c) Reject relativism (1) and tolerance (3). Dogmatic engagement.

Option a
If we take this option, we'll have many different definitions of 'right' without the command to be tolerant of them. In practice, this might entail that when Society A meets Society B, they (i) fight, or (ii) converse productively. When they converse, they de facto belong to the same society, there being no private language and all that.

This is the way around Williams's conclusion that first sprung to my mind.

Option b
If we reject relativism but keep tolerance, our motivation for tolerance would be purely practical, which I suspect in reality it often is.

Option c
We all know what option c entails. I'd rather not think about it.

In reality people often adopt these positions successively, for the situations they suit--which is eminently pragmatic. In any case, I think the apparent absurdity of the fact that either a pro- or con- position on claim (3) conflicts with (1) is resolvable.


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