"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle


"Few cases from history and literature of what we would usually call “evil” will satisfy this criterion... Occasionally, though, we run into an evil character who is really interested in morality itself, and with whom we must credit genuine moral judgments in order to explain his or her behavior. Some of the villains from the Marquis de Sade’s work, for example, are not just interested in hedonism and sadism — they appear to be self-consciously pursuing whatever they consider to be bad. If they judged excessive, sadistic hedonism to be morally acceptable, then we naturally think of them as ceasing to pursue it. Shakespeare’s despicable Aaron, from Titus Andronicus, goes to his death with the words “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Or consider the following from Edgar Allen Poe:

Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself— to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.

... Even the standard villains of art and folklore can seldom be so-described. Much more often than not, the characters we usually describe as “evil” have rejected the whole realm of morality altogether, and are not making moral judgments at all. The villain who appears to do evil for evil’s sake is, on reflection, hard to locate — usually the baddies are motivated by some other end, like world-domination. And when we find a character who does appear to take an active interest in evil, more often than not his interest seems to be in doing what others believe to be morally despicable. If his victims and the outraged public were to alter their views about what was morally acceptable, we imagine the evil character altering his behavior accordingly (for really he wants to shock and outrage and make people unhappy). The wicked character who would stand firm to his moral beliefs, even in the face of widespread disagreement, is scarce."

"Whatever else it consists of, practical rationality is the framework that tells us what our reasons for acting are. We haven’t yet investigated what the internal nature of this framework may be, but we know this much about it. Can we imagine someone questioning practical rationality: “Yes, I recognize that there is a practical reason for me to ϕ, but what is that to me? — Why should I adopt that set of rules?”? This, it seems to me, is incoherent (perhaps uniquely among these sorts of questions). Even to ask the question “Why should I be interested in practical rationality?” is to ask for reason. Thus even to question practical rationality is to evince allegiance to it. After all, what kind of answer could be provided? If the questioner is already expressing doubts about whether things he acknowledges as “his reasons” should move him, then there would be no point in providing further reasons. Therefore to question practical rationality is unintelligible — it is to ask for a reason while implying that no reason will be adequate."

"If you tell me that Jane saw a hungry—looking tiger coming towards her, then I’d expect her to run away — but that doesn’t make it a conceptual claim that agents run away from tigers. Most do, given typical desires about not being eaten — but some don’t. Perhaps Jane, like one of Hume’s radical agents, prefers her “total ruin” to a tiger’s going hungry. An odd desire, to be sure, but why an irrational one? It is only by making a substantive assumption about the nature of practical rationality that the conclusion would go through."

"The naturalist who hopes to sweep this authoritative aspect of morality under the carpet, and identify moral properties with “non—mysterious” natural properties, is like the desperate defender of phlogiston theory who says that he was talking about oxygen all along, but merely had wrongly claimed that oxygen was stored in bodies and released during combustion. He is (to quote Ian Hinckfuss) like one of “those theologians who.. . speak of themselves as Christians but interpret religious terms in such a way that, when properly understood, they turn out to believe nothing that a person ordinarily called an atheist would not believe.” Such moves are unacceptable. The chemist who speaks of “phlogiston” but attributes to it all the properties we associate with oxygen, the theologian who speaks of "God" but turns out just to be talking about, say, love, the naturalist who speaks of "moral depravity" but leaves out any notion of its authoritative "must-not-be-doneness" - all have simply changed the subject, and we are not talking about phlogiston, God, or moral depravity at all."

"It is important to see that this distinction between more critical and less critical contexts is asymmetric. It’s not merely that a person attends to different beliefs when doing philosophy than when, say, shopping; nor that she questions everyday thinking when doing philosophy, but equally questions philosophy when shopping. Critical thinking investigates and challenges the presuppositions of ordinary thinking in a way that ordinary thinking does not investigate and challenge the presuppositions of critical thinking. Critical thinking is characterized by a tendency to ask oneself questions like “Am I really justified in accepting that things like shops exist?” — whereas the frame of mind one is in when shopping is not characterized by asking “Am I justified in accepting that there is some doubt as to whether shops exist?”"

"No policy that encourages the belief in falsehoods, or the promulgation of false beliefs in others, will be practically stable in the long run. Here I agree with Richard Garner, commenting on Plato’s state policy of deception: “If the members of any society should come to believe Socrates’ fable, or any similarly fabricated radical fiction, the result would be a very confused group of people, unsure of what to believe, and unable to trust their normal belief-producing mechanisms. It is not wise to risk having a society of epistemological wrecks in order to achieve some projected good through massive deception.”"

"One may, qua philosopher, be resolutely skeptical of the existence of numbers (and thus skeptical of the relations that hold among them), without this in any way intefering with the sophisticated arithmetical abilities brought to bear when calculating one’s tax return. Or a person may, after philosophical reflection, believe that our everyday conceptions of color embody a fundamental error, to such a degree that she comes to endorse an error theory of color. Yet there is no reason why the very same person might not be a skilled impressionist painter — an activity requiring acute abilities of visual discernment and appreciation. The level of “critical thinking” required to motivate either philosophical stance — skepticism about numbers or colors — may be in many ways elementary compared with the skills of numeracy or painting."

"If myths are not items of belief, then the question of their evidential justification does not arise. Myth becomes a practice, and practices are justified in terms of whether they serve their purpose. It follows that the act of debunking myths must consist of showing them to be pragmatically futile, or out-moded, or inert. Showing them to be false is beside the point. The person who exposes the logical flaws or empirical implausibility of a myth is not like a scientist offering a superior theory — she is better classed as a “spoilsport,” like a member of the audience who talks loudly during a play. Campbell speculates that “the guardian figures that stand at either side of the entrances to holy places: lions, bulls, or fearsome warriors with uplifted weapons” function to keep out the “spoilsports and positivists” who must be kept aloof.

One such spoilsport was Euhemerus, whose lost work from the fourth century BC exposed the Greek gods as deified men: Zeus, for example, was a historical Cretan king, who, with a few centuries of exaggeration and idealization, became apotheosized. In a surviving work from much the same period, Palaephatus attempts to purge the Greek myths of all fabulous elements (though he leaves the gods alone). He complains, for instance, that centaurs couldn’t possibly exist, if oniy because of digestive complications! — instead, the whole legend must derive from some young horsemen who succeeded in killing bulls with javelins, and who subsequently became known as “the centaurs” (from kent-, “to prick:’ and tauros, “bull”). Others — Prodicus of Ceos, Herodotus, Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus, Ennius — all, at one time or another, gave similar explanations, but only Euhemerus made it into the English language in the form of the word “euhemerism.”

It has been claimed that the objective of such writers was not to debunk, but rather to clear away the incredible parts of a misunderstood or wildly exaggerated story so as to leave a plausible historical account worthy of belief. But if Palaephatus succeeds in leaving us with a believable account of some horsemen, he also leaves us with a story that is utterly uninteresting. And if Euhemerus convinced his audience that “Zeus” ultimately denotes a Cretan king, why would they continue to build temples to him? These writers were clearly motivated to correct people’s false beliefs in the literal narrative. (Palaephatus repeatedly scolds anyone who believes in such things as centaurs as being “childish,” and “a fool.”) But in separating the wheat from the chaff in this manner they also destroy the function of these stories. A narrative about a magical hero living in a past golden age may serve as a moral precedent for contemporary mores (returning to Malinowski), in a way that a true narrative about a historical king who won a war cannot.

The Greeks must have believed their myths, else Euhemerus et al. would not have bothered with their efforts. (Nobody would write a lengthy treatise revealing that Emma Bovary never lived.) But perhaps they hadn’t always done so... Perhaps it was only later in cultural history, when the original dynamism of the myth had already deteriorated, that the story as a historical narrative, as an item to be believed, came to dominate... The “allegoricist” also denies the veridicality of the face value of myths, but thinks that they nevertheless deliver truths in symbolic form...

Reading myth as allegory begins with Thales, who saw the story of Demeter and Persephone as “really” being about the cycle of winter and summer. The Stoics systematically decoded myths in this way, as did nearly all medieval and Renaissance writers (e.g., Francis Bacon’s interpreting the claws of the Sphinx as the axioms and arguments of science, penetrating and grasping the mind), and allegoricism reached a crescendo of implausible theorizing in the late nineteenth century It is possible that seeing myths as moral allegories was also Plato’s attitude. The well-known “myth of the metals” from the Republic is often interpreted as a “noble lie” — that is, as an item put forward for belief by the citizenry. However, Janet Smith argues that gennaion pseudos is better rendered as “noble fiction.” The important distinction here, it seems to me, is the one made by Sir Philip Sidney, quoted in §7.6, between stories that are “affirmed” (told Is true) and those that are not. If the myths of the Republic are fictions rather than lies, then it is possible that Plato never intended for the populace to believe them — they are, after all, so preposterous in content that a public that believed them could hardly be one that prized intelligence. But as an established allegory the myth may nevertheless convey vital truths about brotherhood, selflessness, etc. The myth is false, but it imparts truths. (For what it’s worth, this interpretation makes sense of Plato’s seemingly inconstant attitude towards myths: some myths reveal truths, and should therefore be accepted; others fail to convey truths, and are therefore pernicious.)

However, it may be argued that when a myth comes to be seen as an allegory it has already lost its potency. To see the ritual mask as a mask — that is, as a representation — is, Campbell would claim, to be one whose presence the “guardians of the temple” are designed to exclude. Ernst Cassirer made the same point, describing myth as “tautegorical,” not allegorical: “the ‘image’ does not represent the ‘thing’; it is the thing.” Faced with a euhemerist, adherents of a culturally important myth do themselves and their myth no favors if they attempt the “It’s—just—an—allegory” defense. Considering a myth to be allegorical is a phase in the slow death of the myth. It reveals that the myth no longer plays a robust social role, for it is an admission that the narrative is dispensable in favor of straight talk. Such adherents equally do themselves no credit if they attempt to defend the literal truth of a preposterous story. So why defend the myth at all? Why not just let it drop and walk away, or treat it thereafter as merely a piece of entertaining fiction? But if the narrative is one that has performed a cluster of important cultural tasks — if it is being treated not merely as a piece of history but, as Malinowski would put it, as a “pragmatic charter,’ as something which regulates conduct, or, as Levi—Strauss would prefer, as a problem-solving mechanism — then any attempt at debunking will be stoutly resisted. Often, to expect a culture simply to drop its myths — when these myths are pulling their weight in the social order — is to expect it to become, literally, a new culture — and that is asking a lot...

The euhemerist can be seen as playing an important role, for he warns his audience that the narratives are not true, and admonishes anyone who has fallen into the easy (and therefore tempting) habit of belief. He combats the vice of credulity. Euhemerus and Palaephatus, as far as we know, were not social reformers, and no doubt despite their arguments many continued to believe in Zeus and centaurs. Hume, another great debunker, was resigned to the fact that whatever he might say about miracles, however sound his arguments, “the deluded multitude” would continue to believe in them (69 per cent of Americans, according to a Time magazine poll). Hume’s intended audience is primarily the philosopher who makes no effort to quell erroneous reasoning, for little can be done about the fact that “the gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition, and promotes wonder.” The euhemerist writes for the same audience: for those philosophers who are defending the myth as true — for they, at least, ought to know better."

--- The Myth of Morality / Richard Joyce
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