Sunday, January 30, 2011

Power and Kindness

Nietzsche seems to have thought that genuine kindness is only possible for those who are powerful. He writes:

"Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws."

Nietzsche also implores the powerful to be kind. He writes:

"And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest."

"Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you."

Is Nietzsche right to think that this relationship exists between power and kindness?

I certainly think that an act of kindness is more beautiful, more awe inspiring ( and tear-inducing) when performed by one who is strong, powerful and capable of real cruelty. Why should we praise an act of kindness performed by a person who could have done no other?

So, I ask, are you capable of genuine kindness?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why have children of one's own when one could adopt?

From an early age, most of us simple assume that we will have children. ("I'm never going to make my kids wear sweaters they don't like!"). And this assumption continues to influence our thought in early adulthood ("Well, I think when I have children I'd like to move to a quieter city.").

Now, it may be reasonable to assume that one will have children, but, I ask, why should one have children of one's own considering that one could adopt a child?

The question I'll address is this: Are there any non-selfish reasons to have children of one's own rather than adopt?

"Of course, Black Socrates," you may be tempted to say. "Raising kids requires a lot from any individual. Raising a kid means sacrifice, stress and total devotion to another. How can that be selfish?"

But, remember, the question is not whether one can both be selfish and successfully raise a child. The question is whether there are any non-selfish reasons to have a child in the first place given that one could adopt a child.

Now image person with great genes. We'll name this person Adrian. Adrian is hella smart, hella good-looking and a kind person. It seems that Adrian has a non-selfish reason to have children. Adrian can make the world better by passing on those great Adrian genes and raising a smart, kind, good-looking child. Adrian may wish to have a child for selfish reasons as well ( say Adrian just wants someone to love), but Adrian could act on the non-selfish reason of making the world better through raising children who possess Adrian genes.

Now, are there any non-selfish reasons to have children of one's own other than this one?

Would it be wrong to have children of one's own for merely selfish reasons?

What say you?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Everything Happens for a Reason?

I often hear people say things like the following: "I'm not religious, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason," or, "It's alright, you know everything happens for a reason."

Honestly, I don't think I ever believed that everything happened for a reason, even when I did believe in Yahweh. I guess I believed that Yahweh had a purpose, but not that everything that happened was part of his plan. At any rate, I now think that it's just false that everything happens for a reason and if everything does happen for a reason, this isn't a fact we should take comfort in or be happy about.

To be clear, I'm going to address the non-religious (re: non-theist) version of the thesis that everything happens for a reason.

First, the concept of a reason only applies when agents are involved. Yahweh does things for a reason. I'm writing this blog for a reason. In both cases, reasons help explain an agent's actions.

Why is John drinking that water?
-Because he's thirsty. (a reason)

Why didn't Susan have any cake?
-Because she's on a diet. (reason)

Why is Tom going to med school?
-To impress his ex-girlfriend. (a bad reason, but a reason still).

Now there seems to be no such answer to the question: "Why did that leaf fall?" We can give a causal explanation. ("The leaf fell because it was already loose and the bird landed on the branch it was attached to, which caused the leaf to fall."). But not, it seems, an explanation in which we appeal to reasons. Nature is not an agent, it does not reason and, thus, does not have reasons, does not do things for reasons.

[And I thank Anthony Mohen for making this point clear to me. Even though I know he doesn't remember our conversation on this topic.]

Now, one could say that there are deities that control nature and, thus, natural events can happen for reasons ("The lightning struck because Zeus was upset."). But I doubt many of the secular advocates of the "everything happens for a reason" thesis would go for something like this.

Now, obviously sometimes the occurrence of a bad thing makes the occurrence of a good thing possible. ( James's being dumped by Jane on that rainy night may have made it possible that James met Janice, who just happened to need an umbrella and a friend). And sometimes things just happen in such a way to create more misery. ("I'm just having one of those days!"). But that these things happen does not give us good reason to believe that some thing (or someone) planned for them to happen in this way.

So, first conclusion: if you don't wish to assign agency to natural phenomenon and do not wish to posit the existence of deities, you can't hold on to the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.

Now, let's assume that the various natural forces are agents with a collective plan. That the rain, the wind and gravity are acting together to produce certain results (or even one big result).

( To get in this frame of mind, think about the M. Night Shyamalan's movie, Signs. In the movie, the occurrence of a bunch of random, seemingly unconnected and even tragic events turn out to be necessary for a family to survive an alien invasion.)

Assuming that everything happens for a reason in this sense, do we have reason to take comfort in or be happy about this fact?

People usually say that everything happens for a reason after something bad happens in their life (and notice, when something good happens, this sentiment is rarely expressed). The underlying idea is that the bad thing is actually necessary for something good to happen, that the good that will come out of the bad event will outweigh the negative impact of the bad event. It's a nice idea. Nice, that is, until one actually thinks about it.

People assume that the good that will result from the bad event will be a good that is good for them. But why assume this? Every winter homeless people freeze to death on the cold streets of Washington, D.C. Now if everything does happen for a reason, and the homeless people in D.C. die for a reason, there's no reason to believe that nature is unwilling to destroy a life (or several) to achieve its goal. That is, no reason to believe that the good thing that will result from whatever tragedy will be a good for any particular individual who advocates the "everything happens for a reason" thesis. Nature's plan could be to ruin your life (reader) to benefit Will the janitor.

Second conclusion: We have no reason to take comfort in the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.

Additionally, should we be happy with ( or approve of) a plan that requires American slavery, malaria and George W. Bush? I don't care what good you plan to bring about, if your plan involves malaria or G.W. Bush, I say "find a new plan." If all of these horrible things are part of some grand plan, I say "count me out."

So,third conclusion: Even if we do assume that there is agency in nature and that everything happens for a reason, we have reason to lament (or even be angry about), not celebrate, this fact.

I know what you're thinking. "Black Socrates, you're destroying people's hope, their dreams, a deep and meaningful idea." To this, I reply that I am only destroying a "house of cards" (to borrow from Kant and Wittgenstein). We thought this idea was true, deep and meaningful, but it is neither of these. It rests on a confusion.

But, of course, the reader is free to develop an idea that is actually true, deep and meaningful.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Doing things with the N-word

Should we stop using the N-word? And when I say “we,” I mean all of my readers and possible readers (both black and non-black). Should we stop using the N-word? I’m not going to answer this question here, but suggest a better strategy for answering it.

Many of the N-word’s opponents point to the historical and current use of the word to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. Briefly, the argument runs like this: Throughout American history, the N-word has been used to degrade and demean African-Americans. Its use has been (and continues to be) a source of pain, rage and sadness for African-Americans. Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument,in various forms, has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But it shouldn’t have.

The argument, it seems, assumes that if a word is ever used to cause harm, its use should be prohibited. But this can’t be right. If one were to abide by this principle, one would have to also prohibit the use “boy,” (“Come here boy” (said to a black man) “girl,” (“You’re just a girl, what do you know?”) “trash” (“You’re all just a bunch of trash.”) and “tool” (“You’re such a tool.”). Clearly this principle can’t be true. We shouldn’t prohibit the use of a word just because it is sometimes used to cause harm.

Reflecting on the harmful uses of the word will not alone allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the N-word.

Other opponents of the N-word point to the word’s meaning to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. An argument along these lines could be understood as follows: The N-word just means something like “one who is lazy, stupid and generally genetically inferior because of his or her African ancestry.” No person (or group) fits this description. If this is the case, to address person (or group) by using the N-word is necessarily to harm that person (or group). Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument too has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But, like the previous argument, it shouldn’t have.

The argument assumes that the N-word has only one meaning. But this doesn’t seem right. If the N-word had only one meaning, then one would have to view the following statements as necessarily false: “That N-word works really hard,” “That N-word is crazy smart.” But these statements aren’t necessarily false. If these statements aren’t necessarily false, then the N-word doesn’t just mean “one who is lazy, stupid….”

If the N-word just meant “one who is lazy, stupid…” then we would have good reason to stop using the N-word. But the N-word, it seems, doesn’t just mean this. The word seems to have a least one alternative meaning.

So, neither reflecting on the harmful uses of the word nor attempting to pin down the meaning of the word will not allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the word. So, how should we go about answering the question?

My suggestion is this. To answer the question “Should we stop using the N-word?” we should focus our attention on the question “What do we (and what can we) do with the N-word and do we want to do any of these things?”

Obviously, the things we do can be described in many ways. Think about my marking my 2008 presidential ballot for Barack Obama. This action can be described in many ways. I then voted for Barak Obama and bubbled in a space on a ballot card and moved my pencil and moved my hand and helped to elect the first black president and voted in person for the first time. In marking my ballot for Obama, I also did all of these other things.

Likewise, on any occasion on which one uses the N-word, one can be described as doing any number of things. A white bigot, in saying “I hate N-words”, in a situation in which African-Americans can hear his words, expresses his hatred toward African-Americans and offends the African-Americans within earshot and signals to the other possible bigots in the room that he is on their side and brings to the surface the pain that those African-Americans associate with the word and shows himself to be someone that should not be allowed to occupy a position of power and influence. The white bigot would do all of these things in using the N-word on this occasion.

And, clearly, an African-American male, in saying “I love y’all N-words” to his African-American friends, also does many things. He tells his friends that he loves them and draws a connection between his love for his friends and that fact that his friends are African-American and, possibly, offends those friends who do not like to be referred to by the N-word.

What is done in using the N-word is (at least partially) a function of the situation in which the word is used. And, as such, we must think about the various situations in which we use (or could use) the N-word and what we do (or would thus do) in using the N-word, to determine whether or not we should continue to use the N-word.

And if we decide that we should continue to use the word, reflection on what is done in using the word on various occasions will allow us to determine when its use would be appropriate.

As I mentioned, I do not answer the larger question here. I’ll leave this task up to you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I saw an interesting piece of art on the New York City subway last week. The work consisted of a depiction of the Sankofa bird with an inscription underneath: “If you don’t know where you have been, how will you know where you are going?” The view implicated by this question (that one cannot know where one is going if one does not also know where one has been) struck me as obviously false. And this is why:

Taken literally, the view is clearly false. Just think about the situation in which I viewed the quote. I was on the subway. All one has to do to find out where one is going on the subway is to look at the subway map or listen to the subway announcer. One doesn’t need to know about where one has been (on the subway) to know where one is going.

But, clearly, the view isn’t to be taken literally (well, at least not in the above sense). The real idea is this: as a people, African-Americans will be unable to progress into the future with any clear direction or achieve any worthwhile goals unless they are aware of their collective history. Now, why should we take that to be true?

Let’s assume that some group of African-Americans has the following as a goal: to increase the number of black members of the US Senate. What does one need to know in order to achieve this goal? A few things come to mind immediately: the demographics and voting trends of various districts, the issues voters in particular states are concerned with and the campaign strategies of those who will likely run against the black candidates. Knowing about the ancient kingdoms of West Africa or the history of African-American slavery in the United States or the history of the civil rights movement does not seem to be necessary to achieve this goal.

Granted, knowing the history of the civil rights movement may help one to better predict the likely campaign strategies of those likely to run against black candidates. But knowledge of the former is not necessary for knowledge of the latter.

It seems too that there are many positive goals that African-Americans can achieve that do not require knowledge of African-American history.

What seems true is this: African-Americans will be unable to recognize the significance of any collective gains if they are not aware of their collective history. It would be impossible for an individual that did not have some sort of awareness of the history of African-Americans in the United States to recognize the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency. Such a person could very well have guided Obama to political victory, but would be unable to recognize Obama’s election as the monumental event it was.

The Sankofa view (at least this version of it) is false. The view I articulate is true. Knowledge of history is not necessary for progress, but it is necessary if one is to recognize the significance of certain types of progress.

Unconditional Love

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about the concept of unconditional love lately. Thinking, that is, about whether such love is desirable, about whether I would want to be loved unconditionally. The answer I’ve come to is this: “hell no!”

For those of us who were raised Christian, the concept was presented as comforting, praiseworthy and awe-inspiring. While human love is conditional, God’s love, we were taught, is unconditional. No matter what you do, no matter how embarrassing or evil, God, so the story goes, will still love you. Great idea, right? Wrong.

Let’s think about what it would be like to be loved unconditionally. Remember, we’re talking about unconditional love. It’s great to be in a relationship (romantic or not) with someone who is willing to forgive your screw-ups from time to time and continue to love you. But this is not unconditional love. To be loved unconditionally is to be loved no matter what one does, what one becomes. Imagine it:

“Honey, I killed five people. And I liked it. I think I’ll keep it up until I get caught.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Baby, I have a whole other family in California.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Dear, I never loved you. I just married you for the money.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Babe, I’ve been lying to you all these years. I never went to college and I don’t work at Google. I’m a con artist. You were my greatest con job.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

Of course these are exaggerated examples, but my point is this: it seems that one who loves another person unconditionally doesn’t love that person at all. Presumably, we come to love particular people because of something about the object of our affection. Think When Harry Met Sally: “I love that you take five minutes to order a sandwich.” One who loves another unconditionally seems to not love any particular thing about that person, but only, perhaps that they exist (or that they exist in a certain way--as one’s daughter, say).

For someone who loves another unconditionally, the answer to the question “Why do you love me?” must be, it seems, something like “Because you’re my spouse,” or “Because you’re my child” or “Because you’re my teammate.” But anyone could have been one’s child or spouse or teammate. The object of one’s unconditional love seems to be interchangeable with many other persons. It is not you that is loved, but that you exist in a certain way. Personally, if I asked someone who I thought loved me, “Why do you love me?” I would expect (hope for) an answer with more content than “Because you’re my son.”

I want to be loved and, thus, I would not want to be loved unconditionally (by anyone or anything).