Archive for the ‘Random Thoughts’ Category

I’m often slow at doing things. Maybe another way of saying that is I’m lazy. Months ago I read The Story of Hong Gildong and decided it would have been better as science fiction and that I should write a blog post about that. The book has been on my floor ever since, waiting for me to write this.

Unfortunately, I’m no longer entirely clear what I meant to write. The main idea was that Hong Gildong would have worked better as sci-fi. The book is an early Korean novel about the son of a concubine. It’s fantastic*: Hong Gildong learns magic and becomes unbeatable, first as a bandit fighting evil officials and then ruling his own island country. One of the weaknesses of the book was Hong Gildong’s loyalty to the throne. That’s because the book supposedly takes place during the reign of an actual Korean king.

Somehow I thought Hong Gildong showed the necessity of sci-fi: that some stories don’t fit well in the present or the past but can be set in the future.

I don’t doubt I had a genuine insight. I just don’t remember what exactly it was.

Also, I’m still lazy. It took me months to finish this blogpost.

*as in the sense of “unbelievable” or “fantasy.” It’s a pretty good tale too.


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With Trump’s election, an increasingly common argument you will hear is “I voted for Trump, but not his racism.”1 I will not examine the accuracy of this claim. Instead, I will argue this can be understood as an appeal to the doctrine of double effect.

The doctrine of double effect is often used to justify actions which are foreseen to harm innocents, e.g. bombing military targets or abortion, but are intended to produce some good. In this case, it is used to justify voting for someone who has promised to enact policies that will harm Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, and countless others.

To justify an action by the doctrine of double effect four conditions must be met:

1. The action itself cannot be bad.
2. The actor intends the good, not the bad, effect.
3. The bad effect is not a means to achieve the good effect.
4. There must be a good reason one permits the bad effect.

One quickly sees that the first three conditions are met by our imaginary Trump voter. The action, voting, is not a bad act in itself. Ex hypothesi the voter was intending the good, not the bad, effects, e.g. “draining the swamp.”2 The bad effect is not a means to the good effect–it is the result of the same action (voting for Trump) which produces the good effect. What is debatable is the fourth condition: that the good achieved is significant enough to permit the bad.

At first, one might think that no good effect is good enough to permit the racism. But that seems unlikely. As Ira Katznelson shows in When Affirmative Action was White, racism was inextricably tied up with policies like Social Security and the GI Bill that are often celebrated. In fact, many blacks supported those policies even while knowing they were racist. Thus the predicament of voting for someone despite obvious racism is hardly unique to our hypothetical Trump voter: for most of US history, presidential candidates have catered to racism in one way or another.

I will not attempt to argue that a plausible case can be made that there is good reason to vote for Trump despite his racism. All that is argued is that the doctrine of double can be used to make a moral case for voting for Trump.

But that isn’t quite all that I want to argue. Because frankly there is little good about Trump and certainly whatever good there is does not justify voting for him. More interestingly, to me at least, is that more difficult cases existed in the past, cases that the doctrine of double effect more plausibly justifies. I do not know if anyone in the past used the doctrine of double effect to justify voting, say, for LBJ but one could have.

Finally, given how any person one votes will have obvious flaws–supposed or otherwise–the doctrine of double effect is an argument that can still be used to help voters justify their vote. The main difficulty, of course, being ensuring there is a good reason to permit the bad effects.


1. At least I hope it will become increasingly more common. Presently folk mostly seem to argue obvious racism is not racism.

2. For the purpose of this argument, what matters is that the voter believes Trump’s victory will produce some good effect(s). Put in different terms: I want to show if the argument is valid, not if it is sound.

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Philosophical Films

As someone who has a rather broad conception of philosophy, this could easily become a list of films I like. However, it is written in response to a list of Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy a friend of mine linked to. Part of what will limit me is I will try to address the flaws I find in that list. Certainly there are good, intriguing films there, but the list displeased me. First, creating a list of essential films is rather foolish. An accurate list would be quite short: there are no films that are essential for a student of philosophy. The same would be true of a list of philosophical books. There is nothing one needs to see or read to be a philosopher. Hence I will stick to films that I think are philosophically interesting. Second, his list has too many films about philosophers. Certainly there can be philosophical films about philosophers–he was right to include Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. But that is no guarantee of philosophical quality. Hannah Arendt, for instance, is undistinguished as a film and as philosophy. Third, the value of such lists is less to come up with something definitive–an impossible task–but to stimulate thought about and interest in the items on the list. Therefore I will limit myself to one film per director. That way the range of films will be broader. Lastly, his list is not terribly diverse and there is an over-representation of recent American movies. Including, say, A.I. and Little Miss Sunshine on a list of essential films instead of Man with a Movie Camera reveals more about you and what you have seen than what films are essential. Obviously I have my blindspots too (no Indian, African, or South American films), but they are different from his and, I suspect, smaller. As to how I selected these films as philosophically important? This list will display my bias to ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. Some will be tied directly to philosophies and well-established philosophical problems. But most will not. Philosophy is, to use quote William James, “an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.” It is not limited to the topics that currently are in vogue philosophically. All of these films count as unusually stubborn and largely successful attempts to think clearly on matters of great import to us as humans. So without further ado, here is a list of 45 philosophically interesting films.

1) Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera is an astonishingly modern film, one that is still fresh. It is a joyous celebration of modernity and the possibilities of the movie camera–which if you read any of Vertov’s theoretical work he thinks is more accurate than the human eye. This film is one of the best reflections on technology.

2) The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel. Any of his films could be here, but The Exterminating Angel is perhaps his most polished and perfect film, a potent Marxist allegory of how people, especially capitalists and the bourgeoisie are trapped inside capitalism, unable to escape even as it eventually causes their own destruction.

3) Bob le Flambeur is an existential action film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Samourai, which stars Alain Deloin as a hitman, is his most well-known, but this film starring Roger Duchesne as a gambler who is planning to rob a casino is perhaps even better.

4) Existential action films are a favorite of mine. There are quite a few, e.g. Runaway Train. But I’ll add only one more, Wages of Fear which is about hauling nitroglycerine somewhere in South America, not because there aren’t a ton of others, but because if I listed them all this list would soon be exhausted. I suspect film, which focuses on the external, is an ideal medium for existentialism.

5) Peeping Tom by Powell and Pressburger. An under-rated duo who probably produced the best British films of all time, this movie focuses on a serial killer who is also a photographer. A controversial flop at the time, it is a far more terrifying and profound film than Psycho, which came out the same year.* The themes it focuses on are voyeurism and self-awareness.
*As evidence that this is a somewhat idiosyncratic list, there will be no Hitchcock. He is, in my opinion, an over-rated hack. See for instance how he turned Conrad’s disconcerting The Secret Agent into a conventional, profoundly schlocky thriller.

6) Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky. One of the most beautiful films ever made, this account of the Russian icon painter examines the relationship of life, suffering, and art.

7) The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin. One of the best examinations, and a nice deflating of, dictators. And the perhaps the overly serious in general.

8) General Idi Amin Dada by Barbet Schroder. A documentary of Idi Amin, this is a nice companion to Chaplin’s film as it conveys the terrific, dangerous madness of dictators. If one is interested in political philosophy or epistemology–especially possible relations between morality and epistemology–this movie is incredibly valuable.

9) The Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir. In another mood, I would choose The Rules of the Game but this deeply humanistic film, which Renoir hoped would prevent another world war, is amazing and profound.

10) The Up Series mostly by Michael Apted. I don’t watch as many documentaries as perhaps I should, but this on-going British series that follows the lives of 14 British children who were born in 1957, checking in on them every 7 years, is one of the most revealing and thoughtful films ever made.

11) Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. A perfect weaving of humor, philosophy of art (particularly on comedies), and social commentary.

12) 8 1/2 by Fellini. Just as I have a weakness for existential action films, I like films about films. But Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 1/2 is more than that, it is foremost a film about giving up control in one’s life.

13) Rashamon by Akira Kurosawa. This is the obvious choice. I’m not going to dispute it.

14) The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed. This is not the obvious choice (The Third Man would be). And it is rather similar to Kurosawa’s film since it is an examination of truth and falsehood.* Yet its thrust is different from Kurosawa’s and it is as good as, if not better, than The Third Man. It is an under-seen masterpiece and so goes on this list.
*Quick summary: A young child idolizes the house butler, who is married to the housekeeper. Theirs is an unhappy marriage, and the butler has an affair, and the night she discovers the affair, she dies. When the police become suspicious of the butler, the boy’s testimony becomes vital.

15) Night Moves by Arthur Penn. Is the truth worth it? That is one of the themes of this film about detective Harry Moseby (played by Gene Hackman) who investigates a young woman’s disappearance as his marriage falls apart. In many ways similar to The Conversation or even Blow Up.

16) Sukiyaki Western Django by Takashi Miike. This is probably the most idiosyncratic selection. But this samurai western that draws upon The Tale of the Heike and Shakespeare is a wonderful exploration of the influence of traditions and multiculturalism. I know of none better.

17) The Man who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford. A list could probably be made entirely of philosophically interesting westerners. Unfortunately I have not seen nearly as many as I should. A western Oresteia starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.

18) Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. His entire oeuvre could be included, but this is one of my favorite films, a profound reflection on memory, aging, love, and religious belief as an old doctor travels across Sweden to receive an honorary degree.

19) Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s infamous pro-Nazi documentary of the Nuremberg rallies is outstanding. However, if I had seen it, I suspect Olympia would be on this list.

20) Tokyo Olympiad by Kon Ichikawa is an important reason why I would be tempted to put Olympia here. Responding to both Riefenstahl’s film and Japan’s imperialistic past, Kon Ichikawa tells a story of the failures and individuals in the Olympics, producing a film of rare sensitivity and one that gives a much needed re-evaluation of values.

21) Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman is one of the few films about a philosopher–or a thinker–that is very concerned with their thought. All of Jarman’s films are amazing, but given this is a list of philosophical films, this is unavoidable and a film rightly on the Essential Films list.

22) Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara that follows an entomologist as he is trapped by a community that lives in the dunes to replace a woman’s husband and has to join her in digging to keep the dunes at bay. It explores how our life gains significance through associating with others.

23) Touch of Zen by King Hu. Perhaps not as philosophically interesting as others, but I loved Stephen Teo’s discussion of this film, and its Buddhist theme of illusion vs. reality, and how many Hong Kong kung fu (or rather wuxia) films could be on such a list? And it is one of the best kung fu films–probably only Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon compare.

24) Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. Bresson’s re-telling of Crime and Punishment is a stunning film. One reason to put this here is that it sells the ending in a way that Dostoevsky doesn’t quite. It is not a mere up-dating of the novel.

25) Danton by Andrzej Wajda. Wajda is my favorite Polish director, though not as celebrated as Kieślowski or Polanski. Danton is one of his best films, and how can any movie about the French Revolution not be philosophically relevant? Actually, it is probably pretty easy but this one is not, especially since it is informed by Wajda’s own experiences in Poland.

26) Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood. This examination of violence borders on the unwatchable. But deliberately so and to a good end. Profoundly disturbing, but about something that should disturb you.

27) Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. He has better films, but this story about wrong-doing and people’s consciences is one of his most philosophical (also a good choice on the Essential list).

28) Summer by Eric Rohmer. Over the summer, a young man gets involved with three different women. Rohmer’s film explores masculinity and the self-deception sometimes needed to preserve our dignity.

29) Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage. I don’t know enough about avant-garde films, else Maya Deren among others would be here. But Brakhage’s exploration of birth, death, and our relation to the natural world deserves several viewings.

30) Forbidden Planet by Fred Wilcox. The Tempest in space, with a lot of Freud thrown in. Still one of the most interesting science fiction films.

31) 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick because how could I not include it?

32) The Discarnates by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. Another idiosyncratic choice, but the story of a man who runs into his long-dead parents–who are now his own age–greatly appeals to me. That the dead do not age, do not change, while the living do and our relationship to our dead are themes that greatly appeal to me and that I think are philosophically significant.

33) Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. Philosophy of race is something I am becoming more interested in. This film, about the racial tensions and relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is still incredible.

34) Ordet by Carl Dreyer. Perhaps more a great religious film than a great philosophical film, this is the first Dreyer I watched. It involves a man who thinks he is Jesus and a Romeo and Juliet-like romance. I have never seen a film of his that was less than perfect and chose this only because it was the first film by him I watched.

35) Avalon by Mamoru Oshii. Most of these sort of lists have The Matrix so in its place I have this similar Japanese movie from the director of Ghost in the Shell. It is thematically similar, but its slower pace and greyer, East European scenery appeals to me more. It deserves to be better known.

36) Two Men and a Wardrobe by Roman Polanski. A short film is sort of an odd man out here, but this film of two men emerging from the sea carrying a wardrobe is one of the most profound films I’ve seen, particularly on man’s inhumanity to man. I understand why people would not want to watch a Polanski film, but his films–like Woody Allen’s–are often wonderful.

37) Zardoz by John Boorman. An overambitious and messy work of science fiction, if philosophy is about thinking clearly, then this probably does not belong here. But this is unjustly mocked and is well-worth thinking about, particularly with regard to the value of mortality.

38) Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr. A beautiful, haunting, surreal film about what happens to a down when a show starring a dead whale comes to town. This is a movie about order and disorder.

39) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Either version works, though I prefer the older one. A scathing attack on conformity, it can of course relate to all sort of zombie-related questions. And zombies are an important philosophical topic!

40) Buckets of Blood by Roger Corman. Roger Corman may be the most important man in American movies. He made great films and trained many wonderful directors and actors, such as Francis Ford Coppola. This film is his account of a want-to-be artist who starts making astonishingly life-like statues while people start to go missing. Perhaps more fun than philosophical, it is still very much worth a look.

41) Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau did other, more explicitly philosophical films, but I don’t think any touch this one. It is a perfect fairy-tale, one that also has a great deal to say about relations between the sexes.

42) Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. This film of a photographer who may have taken a picture of a murder is rightfully a classic. A pointed study in the unreliableness of evidence and how we seek patterns, sense, and order.

43) Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. Sort of a token animated film, this is also my favorite anime. It is the story of an office lady from the city who goes to the countryside and falls in love. This movie says much about happiness, but also about our relationship to the natural world.

44) Time Regained by Raul Ruiz. Proust is one of my favorite philosophical novelist; this is a wonderful adaptation of his work. If you haven’t read the novels, this may be cryptic. If you have, however, it is wonderful.

45) Videodrome is David Croenberg’s exploration of how we are becoming tied to technology. A deeply unsettling film, but given that we started with a film that portrayed the glories of technology, it is fitting to end on one that portrays its horror.

Final thoughts: Done again, this list could have 45 different films. No doubt anyone who reads this could point to obvious films I missed. Such is the nature of lists. Surprising me are the directors I’ve left off, e.g Robert Altman and Sergei Eisenstein. They are some of my favorite directors, but for one reason or another I could not think of a film of theirs that is as philosophical interesting. The paltry number of silent films is also surprising. Metropolis, for instance, is a great film, but ultimately not, I think, great philosophy. What should not surprise me, but does, is how important self-deception and the value of falsehood is in the movies I recommend. There were several films I thought of adding on this theme but didn’t since I felt it was over-represented. Lastly, I’m also disappointed by my lack of female directors.

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In “Woman-Battering and Harm to Animals”, Carol Adams claims that the abuser objectifies the abused.1 At first, I was planning to deny that. Certainly that need not be how it seems from the perspective of the abused.2 But the longer I considered the matter, the more truth it gained. What it lacks, however, are two things. First, being objectified is a process. One is not so much treated like an object as made into one through activities such as gaslighting. Furthermore, becoming aware that one is being objectified is also a gradual process. Second, as one realizes one is being treated like an object, it is one’s abuser who paradoxically seems to turn into an object. An object that no longer enchants.

Before discussing those points however, I should give a quick account of objectification.

Objectification means treating a person as an object and is, unsurprisingly, a complex and disputed concept. For the purposes of this essay I will use the seven notions that Martha Nussbaum uses in her essay “Objectification,”3 which while more fleshed out that Adams’ account, is similar to hers. It also matches well with my own understanding of objectification. Her seven notions are:

1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.

5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.4

From my experience, all seven notions apply to abusive relationships, though each may have to be tweaked a bit. Furthermore, it is not clear to the abused at least that all seven are at play from the beginning. One discovers them gradually. Fungibility is perhaps the last to emerge. So instead of going through the list in Nussbaum’s order, I will attempt to go through the order in which I became aware of being objectified.

The denial of autonomy was the most obvious one, and perhaps the most important. As one does in fact have autonomy, it must be undermined. This is why gaslighting–the activity of causing someone to mistrust their own judgment–is important for the abuser.5 One effective gaslighting method is to criticize one’s past decisions, to show they were poorly chosen or even immoral. To some degree one is even allowed to act in the present (though note that it is allowed to act). However, most of those choices are ones in which no matter what you do, you choose wrongly. The effect is to further undermine one’s confidence in one’s judgment. Nonetheless, there is a second effect, one that works to undermine the abuser’s power. The second effect is that it gradually becomes clear that when the abuser is expressing how she feels, that act is aimed not at disclosing herself, but at affecting the abused. We shall see that it is by this failure to disclose, a failure that the abused (hopefully) becomes more aware of, that the abuser transforms into an object.

Violability comes next. Rarely is the denial of autonomy left to specific areas. Instead, every aspect of one’s life becomes besieged. Little is left private. This can be attractive when seen as a sign of how intertwined ones’ lives are. Since one’s decisions affect one’s partner, every aspect of your life is also part of your partner’s. This, I believe, is a thoroughly wrong-headed view of romantic relationships, though a common one.6 Violability has another much more harmful affect: it also leads to the abuser causing the abused to cut ties with family and friends. This is because it is not enough to deny the abused autonomy. The abused must trust the abuser alone. The abused must not only be inert (which the denial of autonomy in conjunction with violability causes), making few if any decisions on their own, but their possession.

While in an important sense one does not feel owned, since ownership implies one can belong to someone else, one does feel intimately connected to the abuser, as if you belong to them alone. Often when thinking about abusive relationships, it seems that the abused becomes dependent on the abuser and thinks that they cannot live without them. This is no doubt often the case, especially when the abuser is a man. That is because women are often expected to be dependent on men; in many respects the difference between a traditional male-female relationship differs from an abusive one only by degree. Marital rape, after all, is a recent idea.

But it needn’t be simply the abused who feels dependent on the abuser. An abusive relationship is (paradoxically) an extremely close, intimate, caring (if one-sided) relationship. The abuser often makes the abused feel that they are important to them and only the abused can help the abuser. The abused may feel that they truly are helping the abuser and that they are the only ones who can. The abuser is made touchingly vulnerable. It is this, perhaps, that makes leaving the abuser so difficult, even more so than distrusting one’s judgment. One’s most meaningful relationships are often those that involve care. What one cares about, and for, help constitute who one is. Moreover, care is particular: it is a particular person caring about or for a particular thing. Being in a relationship where one is frequently told that only you can help them makes one feel quite important and unique. It is for this reason that fungibility is the last notion to be realized.

Once one realizes that one is spending so much effort caring for the abuser, realizing that the abuser does not care for your feelings is a natural next step. This is the denial of subjectivity. At first it may seem to be the result of the abuser having so much to work through and one will discount one’s own needs. But one eventually realizes that one’s needs are scarcely acknowledged. The needs of the abuser always trump the abused’s. For me, it was the inability of my partner to take joy in me being happy. Instead, something would arise that would cause her displeasure and that would become the focus.7 This is the denial of subjectivity. One’s feelings and needs do matter. This also reinforces the sense of being owned.

Finally, one realizes that one is treated as an instrument. Any relationship should involve reciprocity.8 Once one realizes one’s subjectivity is denied, it is clear there is no such reciprocity. One is treated as an object that should care for one’s abuser. But here a difficulty enters: the abuser by treating the abused as an object, fails to disclose her needs. Language is used to manipulate and hurt (often unconsciously so) and not to reveal.9 But just as the abused seems most like an object, it is here that one can break out, and the abused becomes an object.

It is largely through language that we become aware of the needs and agency of others. Certainly language is not required for such awareness–we can draw inferences from actions as to what motivates people–but it is the most direct method. But when someone uses language as a tool for manipulation, speech becomes just another action. It no longer discloses their subjectivity. Therefore, the partner who one thought one knew is revealed as an illusion; a black box takes its place. One has no idea what is inside it, if anything. All one sees is what it does. In this, it is no different from a rock or a machine. There is no accessible or visible interiority. One knows it must exist, but only through analogy. One does not see the partial glimpses within that language can reveal. And thus, the objectifier becomes the object and love ends. The abused is set free with a new feeling of agency, an agency it is no longer clear the abuser has.

Finally, fungibility. Objects are interchangeable, without any real individuality, and one can only have relationships with individuals. But as mentioned before–particularly when discussing ownership–an abusive relationship feels intimate and personal. After all, even the abuse is personal. The abuser can be quite good at targeting specific weak-points. And one does feel that at times one really did mean something to one’s abuser, not as a mere object, but for who one is. Thus it is that fungibility is the last notion to be realized. Abusers are rarely abusive in only one relationship. It forms most, if not all, of their relationships. While they certainly can change, I suspect such changes are rare. Consequently shortly after separation–a separation they may have (sincerely) claimed they could not bear–they will find themselves in another relationship. One is replaced. But while this may mean the abuser from their position finally objectified you, you realize–perhaps more than ever–that you are in fact not an object.

And there I might have ended this post, on a probably hortatory point. But that feels false. That is because one is constantly changing, even while writing. It is impossible to fully capture your thoughts let alone yourself. And while that is true generally, it seems especially true of this post. Therefore a more opened-ended ending is needed. The call for action, of further acknowledging you are not an object, is not enough. For while the future is yet undetermined, so, in many ways, is the past. In “All the King’s Men” Jack Burden speaks of a memory of Anne swimming in the ocean, saying that it was full of layers that were gradually revealed over time. To some degree that feels right about my past relationship. Its significance to me will change over the years. Aspects that I never thought of may become freshly relevant. And I suspect the abuse will become less and less important. The relationship was brief enough that (I hope) no permanent damage was done, though it has probably shaped me a great deal. Already one of the ways it has affected me is by making me less moralistic and more concerned with making others feel safe intellectually and emotionally.10 And because of the relationship I finally managed to become a vegan and more of a feminist.11 That is, however, no justification for abuse. Good results can be produced by bad means, but unless only those means could have produced those results, the results do not justify the means–especially if the results were achieved unintentionally.

But the general point–that the significance of the past is undetermined–stands. It will be interesting to observe how it unfolds.

ETA: This was briefly public after I wrote it, but I quickly changed it to private. However, as it has been a number of years, I’ve decided to make it public again. (1/1/17)


1. Unfortunately I am working from memory and hope I am not misrepresenting her. In any case, it is only a jumping off point.

2. Since I am finding it difficult to keep the veneer of impersonal objectivity, I should state outright that this post is about me trying to understand a past relationship. I am unsure if it accurately captures that relationship let alone other abusive relationships. Also, to some degree I am almost certainly too harsh on her–it was, at times, a wonderful relationship, and she is in many ways a wonderful person and, like everyone, deserves happiness and care. However, for various reasons the relationship (I am reluctant to simply state “she”) became emotionally and physically abusive and the bad has driven out the good. I now feel that most of the good was in the promise of good times to come. They rarely did.

3. Found here.

4. Nussbaum, “Objectification”, p. 257

5. It should be said I do not believe that many abusers act deliberately. Certainly I do not think mine did.

6. And one that Nussbaum touches upon in “Love’s Knowledge.”

7. Mundane example: we went to watch a movie I was excited about. What should have been a pleasant trip became a disaster because the smoothie store she wished to go to was closed when the movie ended.

8. Nagel’s essay “Sexual Perversion” examines this brilliantly.

9. One suspects that the dissatisfaction that the abuser often displays at the decisions her partner makes to care for her are less attempts to deny autonomy (though that is what they cause) and more the result of not knowing or expressing her actual needs which must be known to the care giver for there to be care.

10. These were important aspects that were not part of the relationship. If I may allow myself a brief aside, I am now mostly convinced that one should not judge friends, family or lovers. Everyone needs a safe place where they feel they will not be condemned or rejected.

11. The feminist aspect may be overselling things. She brought issues to my attention, but more to condemn me for not already knowing about them and less to inform me. Most of what I have learned has been on my own.

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The Saddest Story

“In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor–a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses. It is really death to do so–that is why so many marriages turn out unhappily.”1

That statement runs counter to most of what I believe about relationships. They should be places where one exposes one’s vulnerabilities, one’s flaws, one’s failures, and they are accepted. There is of course a strong temptation not to expose them–there is no assurance that one’s partner will not be repelled or use your vulnerability to hurt one. But no such assurances are possible: one must trust one another.

And that statement may run counter to The Good Soldier. So much of what unfolds does so between uncommunicative couples. One wonders, with the narrator, if only people would talk to one another so much suffering could have been avoided. Perhaps not: John Dowell, the narrator, in his only act of passion beats his black servant thereby frightening his new wife, and the Leonora Ashburnham is Catholic and refuses to divorce Edward. But nonetheless it is hard not to imagine more forthright communication would have greatly improved matters. The strain of pretending to each other and the world at large that they were “good people” proves, in the Ashburnhams’ case at least, to be too much.

But there is a sense in which that quote may be all too true. Almost certainly one should avoid deceiving one’s partner. It is not clear, however, whether or not one can, or should, avoid deceiving oneself.

Dowell is a famously unreliable narrator. Much of the pleasure of reading the book is reading between the lines, trying to figure out what did in fact happen, what people were really thinking. But that, in a way, is a mistake. Dowell’s opening claim that “This is the saddest story I ever heard”2 is unwittingly true. The book, ultimately, is about him and not the Ashburnhams. And the deceptions that underlie the entire book are his self-deceptions, starting with his blindness that Florence is often cuckolding him and ending, perhaps, with his belief that much of what made Edward such an admirable fellow is also in him, if a bit muted. The Good Soldier is indeed one of the saddest stories ever heard, but it is sad because of what happens to him and to the end he seems oblivious to it all. The teller of the tale is perhaps the only one who has not heard the story.

And this may indeed be true. The flaws I identify in myself are often either quite small or vaguely flattering ones. That my nose is too big is a small flaw; that I read too much is a flattering one. What can be cutting about hearing about oneself by others is that so often they see you and your flaws so much better than you do. That I talk without authority, like a book; that I love being the smartest person in the room; these are some of the flaws that others have brought to my attention, flaws far more serious than any I would indict myself with despite them being plain for anyone, including myself, to see.

And perhaps it is this that fatally undermines my belief that a relationship is where one should expose one’s vulnerabilities, flaws, and failures. It presupposes one knows what they are. Far too often we don’t. The real danger to a relationship may not be in exposing one’s flaws, etc. to one’s partner, but one’s partner revealing one’s own flaws to oneself.

To this danger, I have no ready answer. Certainly I want to believe that I can live without self-deception, that my friends and partners help me learn more about myself, and that I am constantly improving. But that may be my greatest, and most necessary, self-deception.

1. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, p. 130
2. ibid, p. 5

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Most accounts of Notes from Underground focus on the Underground Man’s need for freedom and the acknowledgement of others. And rightfully so, for those are the respective themes of “Underground” and “Apropos of the Wet Snow.”  And the two themes are deeply intertwined. In my reading, the Underground Man insists on his freedom to avoid recognizing that so many of his actions were failed, bumbling attempts to reach out to others. Freedom also enables him to pretend that his actions were free, arbitrary choices that do not reflect who he is. But while he may claim to be unique and characterless, as Dostoevsky writes in his note he is really a representative of his age. The Underground Man may have amour propre but he certainly does not have amour de soi. The need for such negative freedom, I suspect, is always a rejection of one’s self, a form of self-loathing. Someone who truly loves themselves has no need for such fictions. However, to explain how love of self dissolves the need for freedom would require a discussion of The Brothers Karamozov and Rousseau. That is not what I intend at present. Instead, there is a short passage about determinism I find interesting.

Section V of “Underground” rails that determinism undermines emotions.

Before your eyes the object [of your emotion] vanishes, the reasons [for getting angry] evaporate, the culprit is not to be found, the offense becomes not an offense but a fatum, something like a toothache, for which no one is to blame, and, consequently, what remains is again the same way out–that is, to give the wall [of determinism] a painful beating…But try getting blindly carried away by your feelings, without reasoning, without a primary cause, driving consciousness away at least for at time; start hating, or fall in love, only so as not to sit with folded arms. The day after tomorrow, at the very latest, you’ll begin to despise yourself for having knowingly hoodwinked yourself. The result: a soap bubble, and inertia. (pp. 18-19 of Pevear and Volkhonsky’s translation)

The point is that the Underground Man does not know what to feel. “An emotion is a system of concepts, beliefs, attitudes, and desires, virtually all of which are context-bound, historically developed, and culture specific”1 His system has broken down and there is nothing to put in its place. He cannot simply bury his head and pretend that science has never happened, but what emerges next is uncertain. Until a new system emerges, the Underground Man is unable to feel sincerely. His emotions are driven underground because he cannot accept them. He still feels the old emotions, but from a distance, trying to observe them from “nowhere.”

Here, I think, there is no ready solution. Emotions need not be tied up with freedom, but unfortunately the Underground Man is correct in observing that in our Western, Christian culture they often are. One must free oneself from this mistaken tradition in order to overcome the Underground Man’s despair.2 There are two approaches that I find interesting.  First, there is Putnam’s The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy. We too readily believe that the world described by science is a world without values. That is not so. It is informed by values such as elegance. This is especially important with emotions since they are largely (if not exclusively) judgements. They not only invest the word with value but are how we learn about the world. Second, Michael Polanyi in Meaning observes that the mind-body problem arises because we do not realize we are dealing with two different wholes, and consequently two different sets of values and explanations. If this is so, perhaps it is no surprise that emotions and determinism (crudely understood) don’t mix. They are not supposed to.

Personally, I am in Putnam’s camp because I do see the world as value-laden. Nonetheless, Polanyi’s solution is convincing, and clearly addresses the Underground Man’s dilemma.

1. p. 87 Solomon, Robert, “Getting Angry: The Jamesian Theory of Emotion in Anthropology” from Not Passion’s Slave (Oxford, 2003).

2. Christians can do this as Dostoevsky shows. The problem is not with Christianity per se but with varieties of Christianity that insist on human freedom, often as part of their theodicy.

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Note: This was written in a hurry just to get something up. In hindsight, I’m not very pleased with it.

Our actions are important because they affect ourselves and others. It is because our actions can make a difference that it matters what we do. If manna sprang from heaven and all of our needs were taken care of, then our actions would not matter. Such a scenario is of course impossible. There are some needs such as playing a musical instrument that one must satisfy oneself. Sitting at a player piano does not make one a pianist. This introduces a common distinction: some actions are means, and others are ends in themselves. Farming is, generally, important not because it produces a farmer, but because it produces food. Playing music, however, is important not only because it produces music, but because it produces musicians. One rarely plays music solely to listen to it. If that were true, a recording would suffice. It is the act itself which is enjoyed.

And for me this pleasure was intensified when playing in small groups where I could hear each member and work together. I knew that not only was my playing important in a way it never could be in a larger group where my contribution would largely be lost, but also that the social aspect fundamentally changed its value. How so?

I am not sure if playing an instrument by myself had any real value other than what I gave it. I could stop a piece whenever I felt like it, add some swing to Vaughan Williams, or just blow random notes. The only standards were the standards I set myself. But in the end, such standards matter little. They are like promises one makes to oneself. Breaking a promise to oneself is of little consequence compared to breaking a promise to another. That is for several reasons. The most obvious is that it is worse to harm or disappoint another than to harm or disappoint oneself. Another reason is that when one makes a promise to oneself, one is therefore also the person who can relieve one of one’s promise. If one no longer wants do what one promised, one can set oneself free of the promise. But promises exist so that one does what one promised whether or not one wants to.  Similarly with standards. One should follow the standards whether or not one wants to. People who break promises to others or violate standards are immoral and untrustworthy. People who break promises to themselves or violate standards they set up have a weak will–they still want to keep the promise or follow the standard–and are not immoral.1

By playing in a group, there were external standards I had to follow. A member could legitimately say I was going too fast or playing too loud. Sometimes that was because my technique was off. I wanted to play at their tempo but could not. But other times it was, for lack of a better word, a moral failing.2 I interpreted the piece one way, they another. And their interpretation would have weight, a weight that would not exist were I playing by myself, for myself. When I was playing for myself, there was no sense that there was a way I ought to play. Perhaps I did not do what I intended, but that was a technical not a moral failing. Without others, my standards were arbitrary, simply what I chose. Any sense of objectivity arises only when one must give weight to the needs of others.

But this objectivity does not lead to a fixed moral law. Instead, one must creatively work to harmonize people’s different needs. There are no doubt countless ways to do that, just as there are countless interpretations of songs. As to why we are not satisfied with our arbitrary standards, it is because they are felt as arbitrary. They can be discarded at will. They gain weight only when faced with another.

That is because the flip-side of paying attention to the needs of others is having them pay attention to yours. When other people ignore you, you not only feel like a non-entity, to some degree you are one. By not giving your needs weight, they do not give you any weight, they do not respect you. One’s needs gain objectivity only by other people acknowledging them, whatever they may be. They are no longer your arbitrary preferences, but preferences that everybody should acknowledge, and it is through people acknowledging them, one gains a feeling of worthiness and self-respect.

Contrary to the common saying, respect is given, not earned. Some people might argue against this. They would insist respect is due. That is because often respect is withheld, for instance towards slaves. To claim it is a gift would mean that masters can decide whether or not the needs of slaves are worthwhile. That is incorrect. Though gifts are not payments, they are due. There are certain situations in which gift-giving is expected. And gifts given outside of those situations are unexpected: one generally looks for an ulterior motive. Free gifts are rarely free. In this case, respect is a gift due everyone. If that is so, then how is it like giving? Because giving is not paying. It does not hold the recipient to returning the favor with a favor of equal value, but leaves open how the gift is reciprocated. Giving requires creativity in a way that payment does not.

So onto respect. Not everyone will respect you. Nonetheless, their disrespect does not entitle you to not respect them. Ideally they will give as well. Giving maintains relations and by not giving, one may be ending the relationship. But many relationships are involuntary and cannot, or should not, be ended. The parent-child relationship is like that. No matter how much of an ingrate a child may be, the parents still must attend to their needs. The bare bones relationship we have with others of one person with needs facing another person with different, perhaps conflicting needs is another involuntary relationship. Unlike relations with friends or business partners, we cannot dissolve that relationship. By not giving respect to another, one ruins that relation, causes it to be unhealthy and inequitable.3 Therefore, one should give one’s respect to others.

But the actions that follow from respect, like gifts, can be unequal. A child cannot care for its parents the same way its parents care for it. What is important is that the child, somehow, cares for its parents and addresses their needs as well. And that is what gift-giving attempts to do. The financial worth of a gift is secondary. What matters is how it expresses the giver’s understanding of the recipient and their relationship.

Any case, all for now as I don’t know exactly how to end this.

1. Another option for both cases is simple incompetence. But that is less interesting. Also, maybe weakness of will is immoral, but if so it is a different sort of immorality than the immorality of someone who willing acts immoral.

2. At present, I lean towards morality being how we take into account the needs of others, whatever they might be and interpreting needs in the broadest possible sense, from whims to necessary conditions for their survival. This need not mean we accept their needs unquestioningly (for instead, perhaps a child molester needs to molest children; that is not a legitimate need, especially because it ignores the needs of the child) or that all needs have equal weight, but that other people’s need to be considered and have some weight (even a child molester’s), and how we address them determines the morality of our actions. Someone who ignores the needs of others is amoral, someone who actively thwarts their legitimate needs is evil, someone who helps satisfy those needs is good. Again, the reason we must pay attention to people’s needs is because we can affect them.

3. I think one could argue that it harms the person who refuses to give respect, but I will not do so at present because to do so might seem to argue that one should help others because it ultimately helps oneself. That is, altruism is a type of enlightened self-interest. But respect does not take the other person’s needs to be means to fulfilling yours, but as being valuable and worth considering.

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