Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The death of a cat

After the cat's week-long illness, and my sleeping on the floor to keep it company at night (on the floor partly because I didn't want the cat to fall on the hard tiles but also because it is so hard to clean cat piss out of a matress) the cat has died. This is not the first cat death. But no less painful for that.

To the childless middle-aged, a cat can take on an immense significance.

An observation: The dead cat was still not cold. As it lay on the white sheet covering the sofa you could see the fleas leaving en masse. Clearly, if you are a cat, you know you are dead when you see your fleas abandoning you.

An observation and a complaint: People say things like: "Cats get sick and die," or: "Think what it must be like for parents who lose, not kittens, but children," or: "Life goes on," or: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Why do people parrot inanities?

Everyone believes their misery is unique. They ought to be allowed to carry on thinking of it as unique and not be told by fools that their misery is really only a pale shade of a much richer misery felt by other people.

There are times when it seems that the greatest evil is to say to someone: "There are people far worse off than you."

Ethical irrationalism

Am I wrong? Is the case against rationalism and therefore the case for a kind of irrationalism (or arationalism) not very simple? For the rationalist the right action, the good life, the way forward (that kind of thing) is lit up by the best argument. The good life is one based on the best possible reasons. It is surely an old observation, though, that evil can find its own reasons - reasons that can doubtless be made, given sufficient cunning, to sound equally good, if not better. If (as Kant assumed and Habermas continues to assume) the criterion has to be formal (to avoid circularity), it is likely that the reasons for evil will seem as persuasive as those for good.

Conclusion: we can describe what is good (and any mother can do that), but we cannot justify it. Anyone who asks the stupid question that was (in my experience) so often set as a topic for undergraduate discussion: "Why should we be moral/good?" is making the wrong assumption. It simply is the wrong question. A better question for philosophy classes is: Why in the hell should we think that morality is grounded in pure reason? And the question for Habermas seminars is: Why in the hell should we think that morality is grounded in discursive/communicative reason?

Second conclusion: if we are good, we are not so because we are rational. As Rousseau suspected, rationality is more likely to be a cause of evil. But in the midst of evil rational beings wreaking havoc while trying to implement the New American Century and while trying to maximise the accumulation of virtual wealth, there is obviously no point hoping that such rationalism will somehow unwind itself or run out of steam and leave the way clear for a new kind of innocence.

No, the only way forward is for a kind of rationalism that is fully aware of its own guilt - a rationalism that knows there are no clean hands, and knows that from an ethical point of view it is vacuous, and only has a content in virtue of the memory of something prior to it.

Habermas's swipe at Lebensphilosophie

Somewhere in the "Philosophical Discourse of Modernity" (Mmm. Modernity as a discourse. Only a discourse? Essentially a discourse? Mmm.) Habermas (as translated into English) refers scathingly to a "hoary Lebensphilosophie". Although it is becoming harder and harder for me to remember what I have read, those two words are as firmly etched onto the tablet of my mind as all those juvenile pop tunes and TV jingles which refuse to be cleansed.

"Hoary Lebensphilosophie." How can anyone be so scathing about an attempt to do justice to the experience of life in philosophy (which, I assmume, is what Lebensphilosophie is all about)? How can anyone be so mistrustful of anything that smacks of life and is obviously not a stepping back from the flux of life to a theoretically constructed (discursively constructed, if you like) point from which the flux can be judged, can be found lacking, can be regrounded and rebuilt on something more stable, on something less life-like?

What I like about Minima Moralia (Adorno's early work) is its attempt to write about morality from a very temporal experience of our historical situation. Not sure that Adorno has a Lebensphilosophie (does he?) but he sees that philosophy (if it is not to delude itself) must appreciate the fact that it is bound by a certain kind of very human and very historical kind of life. Of course Habermas knows that everything is historical, but he seems to assume that within history a shared concern for truth (or validity - let's not split hairs) will make it possible for history to overcome itself - to bracket all other considerations and redirect the previously messy and bloody business of history in a direction that everyone can see is rationally justifiable- eveyone who buys into the discourse of Reason Uber Alles, that is. But if all claims but truth must be bracketed, the result is nihilism. And nihilism effectively opens the door even wider for the most messy and bloody chapters of history.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ethical buses and the economics of happiness

Apparently there are social scientists doing very scientific research about what makes people happy. To this end the World Values Survey Association has polled over 350,000 people and gathered together a bank of data that any scientist would be proud of. Apparently this sort of work is being packaged as something that might be called post-economics – work that pushes economics being a narrow fixation on alienating indicators like GDP, the money supply and other bars in the iron cage of reification.

One finding that has come out of the painstaking and costly research into human well-being is that talking to a stranger while traveling on public transport makes people happier. Ian Bullock picked up on this bit of somewhat fluffy science and wrote an interesting article for (a site we were delighted to come across). Most of the article is a refreshingly humorous unscientific account of his attempt to test this thesis for himself while traveling on local buses. His very personal and statistically insignificant data confirm the earlier findings.

Such findings are laughably unilluminating but the research is interesting insofar as it illustrates the failure of one attempt to go beyond the framework of traditional economics – a failure in the sense that it thinks it is breaking new ground while, in truth, it remains within the very same set of categories that bolster the system that was very nearly brought to its knees in September 2008.

Presumably the train of thought goes a bit like this: there is something brutal and inhumane about contemporary economic reality; economic theory lends support to this by insisting that all the arguments focus on impersonal indicators like the GDP; to go beyond this we ought to bring human happiness into the equation; there need be no sacrifice of scientific rigour because we can gather hard and fast data (and lots of it) about what makes people happy.

There is no denying the importance of human happiness. There is a problem, though, with the utilitarianism that is implicit in this attempt to humanise economics. Unwittingly, Ian Bullock illustrates this perfectly, as he gets on and off Vancouver buses measuring his happiness level on a scale of one to ten and trying various techniques suggested by the social scientists to increase it. Isn’t that what the liberal monads were already envisaged as doing within the market economy? What’s new here? The answer is surely: Nothing.

In rushing to embrace the individual as the missing token of humanity, the post-economists are simply repeating the same crazy oscillation we see elsewhere is society - the insane oscillation between inhumane calculation (e.g. the denial of affordable healthcare) and entertaining pseudo-humanity (e.g. the TV station telling the tear-jerking story of the diseased child and inspiring thousands to give blood). And, again, I don’t want to deny the value of chatting with strangers on the bus, but when we step back and see the bigger picture, does this really get beyond the level of pseudo-humanity? In all probability we will find ourselves chatting to someone on their way to the bank where they will have to beg to save their home from foreclosure. They will be slightly less unhappy when they walk into the bank. But they will still have to beg.

The really daring thing – the thing that would really break the taboos in economics - would be to insist on the need for some kind of ethics. These would be values; not use values or exchange values, but good, old-fashioned ethical values of the sort that Aristotle (and others) would have been proud of.

An alternative picture of Ian Bullock’s bus comes to mind. On a bus I always feel more optimistic about society (and perhaps therefore a tad happier) when I see someone get up to give their seat to someone in greater need. This might or might not make the person losing their seat happy, but it would make the bus a better place. It warms me to see that people still care and still have a sense of propriety (and the act of giving up one’s seat surely involves a mix of both empathy and propriety). Now, these good people surely don’t even begin to try to calculate whether the pleasure gained throught the self-consciousness of virtue outweighs the pain in the legs caused by standing up. They couldn’t. There is a logical hiatus between that kind of utilitarianism and the ethical world of the better bus.

The good bus is one that has shared values that both entrench and demand a concern for others. That concern is a concern for, amongst other things, the happiness of others, but the social order evident in the bus is not one that can be built up on the basis of utilitarian calculation.

In a sense, what needs to be reclaimed is not individual happiness but the idea of a social order – an order dismissed both by liberal economics and utilitarianism – not an order to be ossified and reified, but one that will allow people to be more human than a calculating utilitarian monad.