Sophistication Beyond Measure: The Limits of Railton’s “Sophisticated Hedonism”

It is a long and storied objection that moral philosophy is only a form of hostile autobiography- a way of dictating rules for the world without embracing it. Meta-ethical debates continue, but it is at least some proof against this claim that contemporary moral philosophy concerns itself deeply with how we live our lives, how friendships, relationships, and the demands of everyday life can be attended to while continuing to be moral. Alienation is just one obstacle among many in such efforts, but it is this obstacle which Railton believes he can dissolve by reworking the way we schematize and apply morality. Railton establishes a subjective/objective duality in interpreting a given moral philosophy and posits that by adopting the objective and dismissing the subjective we become sophisticated and avoid the problems of alienation. While Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism is an innovative and structurally sound approach, it fails to defeat alienation by being impracticable: no human being constrained by the limits of ordinary psychology could possibly live such a life.

If only for a fleeting moment of believability, let us admire Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism. His motive here is a worry that the moral points of view, being necessarily universal and impartial, tends to alienate one from life itself, to create “a kind of estrangement, distancing, or separateness resulting in some sort of loss” of that which “compels his allegiance to life itself” (Railton 134, Williams 18). The strict and upright consequentialist might do all the right things for all the right reasons, but he is still going through life as if following a handbook and a (very undependable) calculator- he has lost touch with humanity.

The solution to this alienation then, is to bridge universalized moral principle (in this case consequentialism) with actions that fully (emotionally and otherwise) acknowledge one’s “special relations” within the world (Railton 136). We begin on the starting embankment of moral law- Railton specifies a pluralistic consequentialism aimed at maximizing a set of goods but notes that the bridge he aims to construct “could be made, mutatis mutandis, by a deontologist” (148). From the bank of ideology we … Continue Suffering

Art’s Sense and Importance: Tolstoy and The Human Value of Art

“It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self… It is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace’s account of depression:  a solemn display of artistic mastery. From his body of work and biography, we know that the depression Wallace describes is one he himself often felt- and yet, experience with depression is no prerequisite in feeling the power behind his words (Weber). Somehow, through Wallace’s artistic expression, we are able to gain sudden insight into a way of being, a way of feeling, that we may never have comprehended before. This perspective sharing enables us to understand something important about life (depression is, after all, a real thing, which real human beings suffer with) and is a fascinating component of art. Sadly, our study of art often fails to investigate this connection between life and art. The purely formal (“art for art’s sake”) and institutional approaches which can dominate our study do have their own merit, but they never seem to explain this profound link between art and our individual lives.

Broadly speaking then (for details will be forthcoming), our aim here is to utilize Tolstoy’s What is Art?, … Continue Suffering

Aesthetic Self-destruction: Ugliness as Entropy and the Disruption of Order

If, as Socrates wished us to believe, Philosophy is a field of questions, then aesthetics must be the field which asks the question of art. Yet, any study of art leads inevitably to considering art as an exploratory form itself seeking answers, as itself a form of questioning. Perhaps then the concern of the aesthetic philosopher should not be “What is art?” but “What is art asking? What does it seek to explore?”. In the realm of the positive, the beautiful and the pleasing, these questions do not seem to diverge: art is that which is beautiful (or some other positive quality) and its intention is to explore that beauty. In the negative, however, in the manifestation of ugliness and the unappealing, we see art complete its exploration but find as answer something wholly disturbing or unacceptable. We know this unsightliness when we encounter it (a sudden aversion, a headshaking revulsion, a disgusted frown, a provocation to righteous anger- ugliness always manages to engender a response), but what exactly is this negative aesthetic answer? What is ugliness? Taking Ruth Lorand’s account as our guide (with supplements from Michael Carmichael and Frank Sibley) we will attempt to prove here that negative aesthetic reactions, generally, arise from a disruption of order and that ugliness, specifically, is the manifestation of chaos and its inevitable conquest of order (i.e. entropy).

Beginning, as Lorand does, with straightforward ugliness, we can identify the foundational role of disorder quite directly. Lorand equates beauty with order by telling us that already the concept “is implied by many aestheticians” when they say beautiful art is “constructed of parts… fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction” or that the object is “well organized [with] every element is in its right place,” but here we can conceive of order even more broadly (402). Order, taken without specificity, merely implies the existence of some system, some way for the presented elements to be organized. In this sense, both a philosophical theory and a city are orderly, while a dice roll or an explosion are not (or, at least, are less orderly). In essence, … Continue Suffering

Partiality As Life-Philosophy: Reconciling Morality with Life

First, a story. Not mine, Plato’s.

Socrates faces the end of his life. The Athenian jury condemned him to death months ago, the sacred rite during which executions are prohibited ended yesterday, and he has so many times refused to allow his friends to aid in an escape that they no longer bother him with it. But they still come. They come to do what Socrates has always taught them to do: question, postulate, discuss, question again, question again. Phaedo, Apollodorus, Simmias, and Cebes have come, even Crito has found a place to sit and rest his aged legs while he farewells his old friend. The guard, Ctesippus, must come soon, but in the many months of Socrates’ stay at the jail he has come to know Socrates well and wishes to delay his duty as long as possible.

Here at the precipice of his death, Socrates is visited by his family: Xanthippe his wife, Lamprocles his teenage son, and the two babies. Pheado, the teller of this tale, is pre-occupied with the philosophical dialogue at hand and so we do not know what Socrates said to his grieving wife and children. There was speculation (primarily from Xenophon) of much animosity within the family (specifically, that Xanthippe was a harsh mother and argumentative wife), but this is largely believed to be apocryphal (if she disliked him so much, why would she be with him on the eve of his death?). Nevertheless, Plato tells us that Socrates neither labored for money nor visited home very often, preferring the company of his students and the public marketplace- it is unlikely this state of affairs was very conducive to a healthy family atmosphere (especially in ancient Athens, where women could barely leave the house without their husbands). When Socrates returns to the dialogue, he tells his friends “I sent the women away, to avoid unseemliness, for I am told one should die in a good omened silence:” he did not want the grieving of his family to disrupt the discussion and respect of his death (Plato 117e).

If one has come to the … Continue Suffering

Neutrality vs. Power Bias: A Power Analysis of Linguistic Change on the Internet

[Some unusual territory for me: An amateur linguistic analysis of some recent trends on the internet.]

The internet, glorified in the abstract like much of modern technology, is often idealized as a universal medium of communication that promotes globalization, convenient and cheap education, community cohesion, and a host of other social goods. John Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claimed

“cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications… We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth… a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs… We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge… The only law that we recognize is the Golden Rule” (Barlow).  

The assumption being made in this veneration, is that humanity, if somehow able to achieve perfect communication, will naturally recoil from all evils- that communicative unity can only bring about good. A powerful counter-example can be found in Orwell’s 1984, in which an all-powerful totalitarian central government enslaves the minds of its citizens by enforcing universal patterns of speech. “Newspeak” it is termed, and it “was intended to make all other forms of thought impossible… a heretical thought- a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc [the totalitarian government]- would be literally unthinkable” (Orwell 300). Certainly, in this case, the universal communication established in the fictional Oceania is not for the good. It illustrates that communication, no matter how universal, is ultimately modified by the dynamics of power, for better, worse, or neither.

This principle is not limited to fictional exemplification: it is embodied in the very creation of the internet. An analysis of the development of the internet, from ARPANET in 1969 to the dominance of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, leads us to abandon any traditional narrative of a communication network novel in its neutrality, in favor of an internet that, while explicitly striving for neutrality, is deeply seated in an English language bias … Continue Suffering

A Time Traveler at Plato’s Symposium

It really was ridiculous, the entire thing was ridiculous. Nearly one and a half hours in, everything was ridiculous to Henry. The lights were too bright, the makeup too itchy, the table too big and too short, the marble floor too uncomfortable, the couches even, so luxurious to look at, were itchy and lacked proper back support. But it was almost over: that was what most consoled Henry, but also what most concerned him.

If he failed, if he jumped over a line, if he stuttered, even if he said a sentence or two out of order, the entire thing would have to be redone. Lord Above! Whose crazy idea was it to shoot an entire damned two hour movie in one take?!? Probably that “artsy” director’s idea, accused Henry. He was some famous foreign director, long Greek name that didn’t make any sense, thick indecipherable accent, curly mustache, even that ridiculous beret; he fit the fancy director archetype to a T. Yet, he couldn’t really hate the director too much, Henry was no film critic, but he understood the importance of his own role. The director had taken liberties with the source material; Henry’s character was a new addition to the classic Symposium, endowed with the knowledge and expertise of the modern philosopher. His character was meant to represent the modern attitude, to breathe new life into a work that many believed had lost its relevance. On the other hand, Henry wasn’t one of those ridiculous “method” actors; he didn’t know and didn’t care how he was supposed to bring about this modern spin.

Henry continued his reflection, until he noticed something had changed. Some constant noise that had been droning on for the last 25 minutes had transformed into what sounded like… applause?! Smacked with an overwhelming tide of anxiety, Henry realized that Christopher (who was playing Socrates) had finished his speech and that he, like his companions, should be clapping. Henry froze. He couldn’t move. Thousands of thoughts raced through his head. Without his will, his body stood erect. He looked at the director, saw his concerned … Continue Suffering

Why Video Games are a Danger to Art(ists)

No doubt you are expecting this to be an impassioned polemic piece (read: rant) about how video games threaten our society and our oh-so-inviolate morals. Though incorrect, given the climate of rhetoric on video games and “interactive entertainment” you would be hardly remiss in making such an assumption. Years ago, in 2010, Roger Ebert, the renowned movie critic, made a controversial blog post on a similar topic, and for his opposition to video games as art he was bombarded with comments upon comments, the most of which were of the same tone as the very first: “Roger- you just don’t get it.”

Such a line-drawing, “them vs. us” mentality is common in this debate, as is the refusal to engage in serious conversation. Video game fans and developers seek legitimacy for their creative medium, art “fans” seek to guard their Canon and dismiss video games as children’s entertainment- compromise would be fatal to either. Whatever camp you may fall into, I do not seek to sway you here: only to caution that part of you which demands expression. If you are an artist or writer, you know of what I speak; If you are not, merely think of the last time you truly loved something, when you felt like finally, something in this world was truly for you, when something was right, just right and that was the end of it. I aim to caution that, if you play games, this part of you is being slowly enfeebled, not from malnourishment, but, in fact, from overindulgence.

What drives us all to creativity and expression is the search for personal validation and perfection. Like a lovelorn Narcissus, we stumble around the world, desperately looking for a reflection of our own perfection. What good video games offer us is a way to cheat to such perfection. No matter the potency of your feeling, the work (writing, painting, reading, watching, understanding, talking) is difficult and the results often inaccurate. The painter tears his canvas, the writer has a block, the reader cannot penetrate the density of language, the movie-goer is cheated … Continue Suffering