Thursday, January 05, 2017

"Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy" Redux

Third Earthquake: You and your child are trapped in slowly collapsing wreckage, which threatens both of your lives. You cannot save your child's life except by using Black's body as a shield, without her consent, in a way that would crush one of her toes. If you also caused Black to lose another toe, you would save your own life. (vol. 1, 222)
For Parfit, as well as Sidgwick, the lesson is not to overgeneralize from paradigm cases. Just as promises under duress show that not all promises are equally important, Third Earthquake is used by Parfit to argue that not all cases of harming someone in pursuit of ends to which they do not consent amounts to using them as a mere means. If you crush one of Black's toes to save your child's life but sacrifice your own life so that she can have nine toes rather than eight, Parfit notes, you are hardly treating her as a mere means in any intuitive sense.
Once you eliminate the self all kinds of logical puzzles are resolved. Assume a can-opener, assume a virgin birth, assume moral truths.
"If her interests have the same value as his, then my interests must have the same value as yours."
The Research Imperative
The Trolley Problem
The Doctrine of Double Effect

Fallen rock stars of the 70s

Emerson's playing is studious and wooden. It's almost embarrassing alongside Peterson's

Comparing  G.A. Cohen and Parfit I realized what should have been obvious. I've always thought of Cohen as a liberal because he operated in the domain of liberalism. Liberal universalism is the preference for absolutes over virtue ethics, of ideals over decisions in context, of timelessness over time, but I'd never thought enough about the roots of liberal psychology.

I've always known people who've dedicated their lives to service; who've taken, formally or informally a vow of poverty. And I've accepted that following my own definition of morality, they're morally superior to me. All the ratiocination and earnest puffery of philosophical liberalism, and Parfit's thousands of pages, are made in an idealistic defense of those who haven't made that choice. It's a sham idealism to assuage the guilt of a life of self-interest and self-absorption. And the sham becomes the career. I've always made fun of the pretension but never thought about its function.

And never mind Nietzsche; he never had the courage of his barbarism. He was a moralizing anti-moralist, (as he would have to be), the servant of the thing he opposed, without which he'd have no purpose, the man who never left the library telling people they should never enter it, a self-hating slave, indulging another form of immaturity.

Remembering Derek Parfit
...Realising we had no idea what Parfit looked like, we asked every man leaving the room if he was Derek Parfit. They all laughed: they must have been twentysomething graduate students. Finally, out came a man with a mane of white hair and a bright red tie tucked into his trousers, wielding a large Smirnoff vodka bottle.

...Five years later, as I was starting doctoral research at Oxford, I was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. Parfit – who had been a fellow there since 1967 – was appointed as my college adviser. He wrote to me suggesting we have lunch in college. Over the soup I tried to describe our first meeting, hoping that he would recall my silly earnestness and his enormous generosity. At first he seemed not to hear me. When I tried again, he changed the subject. That our lives had intersected before held no interest for him. He had simply been kind to me then, and now was kind to me again; one thing didn’t have anything to do with the other. 
Instead he wanted to talk about what I intended to do with the seven years of my fellowship. He suggested I spend the first year reading novels, ‘sowing seeds’. He asked if I would like to comment on his work in progress. (The next day I received two hefty boxes of draft pages of the book that would be published in 2011 as On What Matters.) We talked about meta-ethics, and I told him I was inclined towards anti-realism, the view that moral truths are in some sense dependent on the human mind. He was visibly distressed by this – he said it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture – and I had to recant in order to stop him from leaving.

...Until a year ago, Derek read everything I wrote for publication, including my pieces for the LRB, and usually sent them back to me with detailed comments within a few hours. He would point me towards a relevant passage of Nietzsche, or suggest that a metaphor was too violent, or raise a fundamental philosophical objection. I wasn’t special to Derek; many philosophers, young and old, have similar stories. Sometimes I would pass by Derek in college and he would smile at me in a way that did not entirely convince me that I was recognised.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Derek didn’t see what is obvious to many others: that there are persons, non-fungible and non-interchangeable, whose immense particularity matters and is indeed the basis of, rather than a distraction from, morality. But in not seeing this, Derek was able to theorise with unusual, often breathtaking novelty, clarity and insight. He was also free to be, in some ways at least, better than the rest of us. After he retired from All Souls, Derek didn’t like to go to the college common room, so we had our last meeting in my study. While jostling his papers he knocked over a glass. He was unfazed. We sat and talked for a few hours, his feet in a pool of water and shattered glass.
Jerry Cohen, a personal appreciation
I first met Jerry during the 1981-2 academic year. I had arrived at University College London as a graduate student but had been assigned to someone else. I wanted to work with Jerry so I knocked on his door. A voice greeted me in French, so I replied in French, and that was how the whole conversation was conducted. Jerry’s disconcerting playfulness at work. Supervision sessions at UCL were usually free-form seminars on historical materialism—I was a bullshit Marxist trying to become a non-bullshit one under the influence of Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Another of his students and I worked out that if we pooled our sessions we’d get twice as many hours, so that’s what usually happened. We’d see him again during the weekly sessions of his two-year cyclical Marxism course and then, later I think, at the seminars where he was trying to grapple with self-ownership and property for the first time. All of those seminars would also feature his old friend Arnold Zuboff who would chip in with often brilliant objections or simply crack jokes. As a graduate supervisor Jerry was very generous with his time. Unlike others, I don’t remember a lot of careful commentary on my work, but I do remember a lot of conversation about matters philosophical and political, walks around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and conversations on the phone (you could ring him up to discuss ideas!). Some things were sacred though: I once made the mistake of calling him during an episode of Dallas, his favourite TV show of the moment.

...One thing I’m going to find it difficulty to convey is not just how Jerry was, but how he was the way he was. It would be easy to come up with a series of anecdotes that might appal or amuse, depending on the listener. My first supervision session, as a postgraduate student, for example, contained a long digression about Jerry’s itchy arse, and what the doctor had said about it – not really what you expect from your supervisor! But the way Jerry was made some of his chat, his disarming personal questions about bodily functions or personal relationships, and so on, different from how it might have been from someone else. For Jerry was completely lacking in inhibition, and because of that he could say things that in the mouth of a more uncomfortable person would have seemed creepy. Jerry was frequently disconcerting but never creepy. Jerry could say stuff and we’d laugh, because we were thinking it anyway but lacked his unembarrassment.
Their shared home.
There's an anachronistic opulence at All Souls College, Oxford, a college with many eminent scholars, but not a single student. College retainers serve dinner; there's port on offer, and posh cutlery on display.
repeats and repeats and...
I hate the lazy decadence of the unworldly. I hate philosophers, not lawyers.
Doing these cases,” he wrote, “I began to find myself in a dangerous situation as an advocate. I came to believe in the truth of what I was saying. I was no longer entirely what my professional duties demanded, the old taxi on the rank waiting for the client to open the door and give his instruction, prepared to drive off in any direction, with the disbelief suspended.”

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