academia, i’m sorry, but i just can’t do you anymore.
after an extended dalliance with aca-fucking-demia, i have finally decided to stop academiaing 4 eva.
the main reason i went back to uni to study arts (after quitting the science/engineering course that i started straight from high school) was because everyone (family, friends, police, lawyers, magistrates, psych -ologists and -iatrists, associates, barely-associates, non-associates, etc.) kept calling me stupid, insane, unhinged, etc.
i thought that the only way i could have my actions accepted as the valid actions of a sane human was to study the things i’m always banging on about and try to do well, to prove i was neither stupid nor insane, and to explain in fancy language exactly why i am unhinged.
i also thought i might be able to learn something – even though attending a capitalist university to improve your understanding of world systems, with a focus on the just reformation of world systems, is clearly idiotic.
it turns out that the personal cost of frequent and prolonged infuriation associated with willingly subjecting myself to one of our modern academic institutions is too high to be justified by some highly questionable future benefits.
below is my crowning achievement as a student of the arts, the only second year level essay i completed, an ethics one.
you will be able to visualise while reading the comic multitude of chips on my shoulder, and along with the comments from the human that marked this essay, you might get a better idea of why I decided to leave.
i think the last thing philosophy and politics needs is more inaccessible verbalism and ‘detached’, complexified & never-ending analysis of what is really some of the simplest shit you’ll ever squish through your fingers.
the majority of academics seem to have no place for passion, apart from passion for mental masturbation, and believe that intellectual doubt is a convenient way to avoid reaching any conviction that might force one to enter the unsavoury world of acting as a compassionate human in a global society (which will unacceptably jeopardise the privileges and decorations doled out by the universities of our capitalist dominated world).
doubt is no doubt valuable, but it can’t be allowed to prevent action on a truly globalist ethic of the equality of humanity (that’s right, including the poor ones).
even the most ‘radical’ intellectuals seem to claim academic immunity from action: academics (super-humans) must preserve their intellectually superior selves to supply the intellectual underlings (humans) with the material to make their little life decisions – as a class above, and separate to, humanity, academics have no obligation to try to alter the currents of that humanity through any form involving personal risk.
‘radical’ anti-capitalist intellectuals certainly turn out a lot of material on the obvious stupidity and injustice of our world, only for it to be thoroughly washed from public discourse by the corporate flood – which is precisely why ‘radicalism’ inside capitalist universities doesn’t threaten the rich cunts wanting to preserve the status-shit in the slightest, it actual helps them, acting as a safety valve for resentment, keeping ‘radicals’ busy chasing the false empowerment of officialdom and presenting a facade of balance in academia and free-speech in public.
this ‘radical’ material is only sought after by other anti-capitalist intellectuals or the sensitive, already disillusioned youth looking for practical guidance in their pre-burnout years (they will find no guidance of course, except the implicit guidance to join the fray of anti-capitalist mouth-pieces).
the academic class is generally gutless in a time that we need compassionate academics to push themselves back into public life, to put their lives where their mouths are and seriously challenge the powers that maintain injustice and general, horrible stupidity.
sometimes i think it is better just to turn away from things you dislike and do things differently yourself instead of using words to insult, but clearly i don’t think that all the time.
i just can’t stand how pathetic western opposition to the injustice of the capitalist world system is.
of course i have learnt (and still learn) a lot from the writings of the saner variety of intellectuals working within capitalist universities, but that doesn’t mean i can’t be pissed off with them for gutlessly and/or hopelessly sitting on their hands – the fact that they understand the true horror of our global systems makes them especially culpable.
i can’t fully respect anyone who isn’t hellbent on creating a world of peace, justice and sustainability and who is not willing to make any personal sacrifice in attempts to achieve that end, for that reason the folks at the university leave me uninspired and pissed off and i have nothing to gain from subjecting myself to their institution of time-wasting bullshit.
my unpleasant time studying arts lead to a further crystallisation of my wish to say as little as possible, to act on the ideas i love, and to make whatever i do say as simple and straight-to-the-core as possible.
yes it does seem contradictory for a blogger to be claiming not to want to fill the world with more shit.
anyway, here is my shit.
(5). Flanagan suggests that it is a constraint on any adequate moral theory that we should be able to live up to its dictates. Explain and critically examine this claim. Which moral theories would fail the test Flanagan proposes? Why? Would the application of the test result in an overly ‘watered down’ undemanding morality?
Owen Flanagan (1991:32) calls his metaethical principle, designed to ensure moral theories are practically performable, the Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism (PMPR), and defines it in this way:
Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behaviour prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible, for creatures like us.
Flanagan (1991:32) does not believe that satisfying PMPR is ‘remotely sufficient to fix the right moral theory’ as there exists a vast multitude of realizable moral psychologies and not all of them are good. Flanagan (1991:31) makes the point that psychological realism is a consideration for almost every morality that has been devised. He suggests that even most religious moral theories that hold that morality has been determined by God, and not human psychology, are still minimally psychologically realistic. ‘God is a psychological realist because he does not demand that we be perfect but only “good enough”‘ (Flanagan, 1991:30). The only moral theories Flanagan (1991:30) can imagine that do not consider psychological realism are the misanthropic doctrines that stress the incurable depravity of humanity. ‘This exception aside, all moral theories, and certainly all modern ones, make our motivational structure, our personality possibilities, relevant in setting their moral sights’ (Flanagan, 1991:31).
Saying this, there are two modern moral theories that Flanagan (1991:33) gives as examples that fail the test of PMPR and these are virtue theories that require a morally excellent person to possess every virtue and the theory of act consequentialist in its pure form. The first fails to satisfy PMPR because a person cannot possibly possess every virtue as some are in tension or completely conflict with one another, for example vivaciousness and serenity (Flanagan, 1991:33). The second fails as a person could not possibly consider all action opportunities and continually assess which is best at any given moment because there are simply too many possibilities for a human consciousness to consider. Flanagan (1991:35) mentions a defence offered by David Brink (1986:421) that construes act utilitarianism, the most common type of act consequentialism, as a criterion of rightness rather than a decision procedure, as an indirect act utilitarianism. The effect of this is that the decision processing of the agent is to act according to a criterion of rightness (a set of general rules) most of the time. The criterion of rightness is informed by the act utilitarian decision procedure, but that decision procedure is not expected to form the motivational structure of the agent in all of their day to day life. The agent still ends up acting much as an act utilitarian, but the psychology demanded of the agent does not fail PMPR as that demanded by pure, direct act utilitarianism.
Flanagan’s PMPR is reasonable to the point that it would seem absurd to refute it, and certainly the vast majority of moral philosophers consider it whether they explicitly talk about it or not. The real interest is in how the principle is interpreted and the answer as to whether it ‘waters down’ morality is completely dependent on what a particular philosopher believes is possible, and ultimately, desirable, ‘for creatures like us’. Friedrich Nietzsche (1990:38) accurately sums up the importance of the personal in philosophy:
In the philosopher … there is nothing whatever impersonal; and, above all, [their] morality bears decided and decisive testimony to who [they are] that is to say, to the order of rank the innermost drives of [their] nature stand in relative to one another. [sexism deleted]
With this in mind, I will look at a range of different ways that philosophers have interpreted PMPR, and question what drives might be behind this interpretation. It seems important to note that all (?) the academic writers on this subject are relatively rich, privileged people (are they?), so any non-moral self-interest would (could) incline them to attempt to reduce what moral theories demand of them.
Michael Stocker (1976) argues that most modern ethical theories fail PMPR by producing a kind of schizophrenia, a paradoxical and untenable difference between our reasons and our motives, by applying too much weight to rightness, obligatoriness and duty. An example he gives is that a hedonist, with a drive for self-interest, will have the wrong motivation when approaching friendship and love and will therefore fail at it, gaining no pleasure at all as he/she intended. He claims that rightness is only a dry and minimal part of ethics and theories that focus on this fail to consider the rest of ethics, values such as personal and interpersonal relations and activities, as well as goodness, merit, and virtue (Stocker, 1976:455). It is not made clear why goodness, merit and virtue could not be considered as a part of rightness, and it is certainly possible to construct consequentialist theories that do consider them, as well as personal and interpersonal interests (Brink, 1986; Railton, 1984). What Stocker tries to pass-off as ethical motivations, that are actually non-moral personal interests, personal and interpersonal relations and projects, seems the to be the real opposing force to what any sophisticated ethical theory would hold as right. Stockers’ attempt to argue that modern moral consequentialist theories are too narrowly concerned with rightness, i.e. morality, and therefore fail to find harmony in reason and motivation, seems to deliberately only focus on certain naive consequentialist theories. Stocker (1976:459) then writes off indirect utilitarianism and deontological theories summarily, as if that follows somehow from his dubious dismissal of consequentialism. Considering Stockers’ attempt to invalidate all modern ethical theories and to include personal and interpersonal relations and activities as wholly moral concerns, questions are raised about Stockers’ moral motivations, or whether they are even moral.
Williams (1973, 1981) also tries to protect personal and interpersonal relations and activities, which form part of what he refers to as personal integrity, from the claws of a demanding impartial morality. Williams includes in personal integrity moral concerns that could be placed in the field of morality, as well as non-moral concerns, but by naming it personal integrity, not personal interests for example, tries to give it a completely moral air. Williams lumps together, under the term of personal integrity, the desire never to kill a human, as in the Jim and the Indians scenario (1973), and the desire not to drop everything for universal benevolence when utilitarianism demands (1981). The Jim and the Indians case seems to try to gain personal integrity some intuitive moral appeal through a bogus scenario, while the non-moral desire to maintain personal projects is supposed to ride in on personal integrities’ phony moral coat tails. Williams appears to want to maintain the right to a certain level of selfishness in an agents chosen life trajectory (kindly called integrity avoid sarcasm), but instead of just admitting that he thinks living up to an impartial morality is unrealistically difficult for our imperfect psychologies, he tries to discredit the whole theory by claiming it fails the PMPR in its ideal form, and is therefore completely flawed. What is common to both Stocker and Williams is that they put much stress on the failings of major moral theories without offering alternatives, just confusion. If I was to guess why a modern moral philosopher would try to discredit all or most of modern ethical theory by claiming it is psychologically unrealistic, it would be that to be judged not-so-moral by those theories upsets their perception of themselves. (guessing about other philosophers personal morality isn’t helpful) It might seem easier for them to use their powerful intellects to try to obfuscate the real issue but this is very irresponsible and quite unusual for someone involved in moral philosophy, assuming they do actually care about morality.
Susan Wolf (1982) approaches the issue of how much morality a human can stand a lot more honestly. Wolf argues that what morality demands is unreasonable for the psychology of humans, and may in fact leave us boring, unattractive people. She does this without saying that moralities demands should be softened, but that we have justification for favouring personal projects over acting with perfect morality all the time, so that ‘we may be perfectly wonderful without being perfectly moral‘ (Wolf, 1982:358). She sights the articles of Williams (1981) and Stocker (1976) and dismisses their kind of wholesale rejection of major ethical theories as unwarranted (Wolf, 1982:358). Brink (1986) also resists the attempts of Williams and others to undermine all forms of consequentialism, advocating his form of indirect utilitarianism that can be balanced by an agents consideration of their personal interests, which he calls the personal point of view. Wolf makes the point that we needn’t ask permission to depart from ideal morality, because morality does not have a totally authoritative hold over us, and we have ‘sound, compelling, and not particularly selfish reasons to choose not to devote ourselves univocally’ to being as morally perfect as we can be (Wolf, 1982:358). She states that she does not mean to condemn a person who aspires to the highest morality, but if we choose to live lives that aren’t as morally good as they could be, we needn’t be defensive. Wolf (1982:358) contradictorily quotes George Orwell from his ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ essay, in defense of the non-defensive, not-quite-moral position:
‘sainthood is … a thing that human beings must avoid. … it is too readily assumed that … the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult; in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.’
This denial that the moral ‘saint’ is a legitimate ideal, regardless of our ability to achieve it, and the accusation that the people who are responsible for so much human moral progress are inhuman, suggests to me another piece of psychological realism, that humans struggle to defend a not-quite-moral life when fully conscious of it without becoming bitter and reactionary, because deep in their consciousness (i.e. conscience?) they know they should and could do better. Wolf (1982:359) argues that her style of non-moral judgements, the point of view of individual perfection, is not egoistic, even though she states ‘the good with which these judgments are concerned is not the good of anyone or any group other than the individual himself’ [sexism the authors own]. This is an obvious absurdity that will only find support from other privileged people who wish to maintain a level of egotism without calling it that.
Peter Singer, as Flanagan (1991:6) notes, ‘fit[s] the picture of exemplars whose lives are governed in some important sense, and to some significant degree, by a foundational moral principle’. Singer is an ethical vegan, for reasons of ethical treatment of non-human animals and environmental sustainability, and donates a substantial portion of his academic income to decrease the suffering of those trapped in poverty. His latest book, entitled The life you can save (2009), is an attempt to encourage more people to give money to charity, all of his royalties from the sale of the book being donated to Oxfam. It is no surprise that Singer, a sophisticated utilitarian, thinks that the PMPR does not prevent us from accepting and living up to a morality that most people would consider very difficult, perhaps too difficult to realistically expect. Singers approach is to attempt to influence people to follow the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Singer, 2009:16), with reasoning that attempts to soften his negative judgment of rich westerners and encourage their tiny steps, so as not to put people off. Following the Golden Rule: If we were in poverty, watching our family and community suffer and die because of the greed and exploitation of the rich (somehow happening to have the education to be aware of all this), would we really be happy with the polite and bashful attempts of those in rich countries to convince people and governments to give more? Wouldn’t we expect people who are aware of the brutal injustice of global systems, who care deeply about it, and who are in a position of influence in rich nations to protest as strongly as they can, with everything they have, and stop being polite to the heartless rich?
(Good examples here)Attempts to politely influence people to give to charity have been going on for many decades, Singer himself has been doing so since at least 1972, and despite this, in 2007 UNICEF reported that the number of deaths of children under five years of age due to poverty has fallen to just under 10 million a year (Singer, 2009:xi). Since Singers publication of the eminently compassionate and logical ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ (1972) 35 years ago, and assuming only 10 million children under five have died per year since, even though it was 20 million per year in 1960 according to UNICEF (Singer, 2009:xi), at least 350 million children under five have died through poverty. This is roughly seven times the total death toll of World War II, and all of them innocent children. With these sorts of figures, and especially considering the failure of noble attempts, like Singer’s, to politely influence change over the last hundred or so years, isn’t there a strong ethical argument that we should protest more firmly and less politely, even go as far as to break the law? Ted Honderich (1995:16) certainly thinks so: ‘I therefore do advocate, without reserve, mass civil disobedience and also non-cooperation. This seems to me a moral necessity’. Honderich obviously believes that it is psychologically realistic to expect the global privileged to risk being jailed, that is, risk almost all of their personal interests, in attempts to relieve the global injustice that kills millions a year, and causes immense suffering to millions more. There are also the issues of our idiotic global capitalist growth economy of overconsumption and resultant injustice, constant warfare, resource shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, etc. that will be the cause of further injustice and suffering, that if allowed to continue, will threaten the existence of most life on this planet. I believe that there is enough ethical motivation to realise a psychology, healthy enough, that could push personal interests off the agenda completely to attempt to change our current insane and murderous global systems.
Whether or not considerations of psychological realism water down our ethical theories is an entirely personal issue. There are those that try to discredit major modern ethical theories because they consider all but bourgeois morality (if that could be called a morality) too demanding, like Williams and Stocker. There are more reasonable philosophers that defend impartial ethical theories but that speak of a healthy personal balance between egotistical interests and moral interests that don’t have such a strong hold over us as we might suppose, like Wolf and Brink. There are those that think morality is necessarily very demanding but that we are capable of approaching these demands even if it is highly difficult, philosophers like Singer, although he softens his demands through a belief in the utility of doing so, and Honderich, although he apparently doesn’t know how to be disobedient, or lacks the mass. If we are to achieve a just world, a lot more of the global privileged will have to sacrifice more of their personal interests than they currently do. If we were to become a world society closely approximating justice, then the problem of balancing moral and personal interests would be a lot easier, we would then be able to be perfectly wonderful and perfectly moral. Until that time, if it ever occurs, reality still demands people who believe in justice to sacrifice as much of their personal lives as they can (or have to) for the sake of those that suffer under our system. The real schizophrenia of modern ethical theories exists because we all want to enjoy our personal lives, but while others are being denied their entire lives through the injustice of our global systems, there is good moral reason for us to completely abandon our personal interests in attempts to create justice. This can’t be done without a psychological cost, even when we continue to decide to reject our personal interests, but if we are willing to pay that cost, then we can do anything we think will be useful. The choice of how much we sacrifice for morality is a personal one, and we all have to live with our decisions. Those who choose to do little should not allow themselves to hide from their non-moral motives if there is more they can do. The people who choose to do as much as they possibly can to approach moral ideals will have many sacrifices to make and they should also be prepared to face the derision of those that value their privileges over justice but don’t want to admit it. Questions of determinism make this a difficult area to navigate in, but there are no easy answers, and we might have to rely on guesses. Great Conclusion
Brink, D (1986), ‘Morality and the Personal Point of View’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 8, pp. 417-438.
Flanagan, O (1991), Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Honderich, T (1995), Hierarchic Democracy and the Necessity of Mass Civil Disobedience, South Place Ethical Society, London.
Nietzsche, F (1990), Beyond Good and Evil, Penguin, London.
Railton, P (1984), ‘Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 2,Â pp. 134 â 171.
Singer, P (1972), ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 229-243.
Singer, P (2009), The life you can save, Text Publishing, Melbourne.
Stocker, M (1976), ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 14, pp. 453-466.
Williams, B (1973), ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, in J. Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Williams, B (1981), ‘Persons, Character and Morality’, reprinted in B. Williams Moral Luck, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 1-19.
Wolf, S (1982), ‘Moral Saints’, reprinted in P. Singer (ed.) (2004), Ethics. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 345-361.
Kyle. Well done. You engage with the topic as if morality, i.e. ethical theories and demands, actually matters. You have read widely and provided a good critique of a number of authors. You have understood their arguments and expressed them succinctly. I am left with no doubt where you stand on the matter. It is good to see you willing to argue your own position. There are times when your passion for the topic leads you to adopt a style of language inappropriate to the academic genre. I have highlighted a number of places where you have done this. As soon as your argument becomes an attack on another author’s integrity you have shifted focus from the topic at hand to an area that you can only make guesses about.
On the whole you have written an excellent essay.