Philosophical Multicore

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Book Review: The Moral Landscape

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 2, 2011

I recently finished reading Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape. It was a fun book to read and made an interesting case.

Sam Harris rejects the common notion that science has nothing to say about morality, and that the fact/value distinction is a false distinction: values are really just facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Therefore, according to Harris, it is possible to science to answer questions about morality.

This review is divided into two parts. In the first part, I will address the book itself, how interesting it may have been, and why you should or should not read it. In the second part I will discuss the arguments it puts forward.

Part 1

The Moral Landscape was an engaging and interesting read. Before getting the book I read some of Sam Harris’ essays about the fact/value distinction and watched some interviews. He made essentially the same case each time. The book differs from the other media I absorbed in that it goes into much more detail in support of Harris’ argument and spends a large chunk of time discussing conclusions.

Of the five chapters, the first two are easily the most valuable. They explain Harris’ position and provide supporting evidence. I also found those chapters to be the most enjoyable. The last three chapters did not seem to add much to the core of the argument and could just as easily have been left off; still, they were interesting and added some additional branches to the book’s line of reasoning.

This book was worth reading and I very much enjoyed it. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip the last three chapters without missing much.

Part 2

Most people would agree that if the purpose of morality is to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures then science can say how to do this. The weak point is where Harris claims that that is indeed the purpose of morality. He actually does a remarkably good job of making that claim, but his argument is not watertight.

When Harris makes the case that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, some respond by saying that his valuation of well-being is subjective. Harris argues that the well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing that can reasonably be valued. I agree on this point, but I disagree that everyone must value everyone else’s well-being. I suspect Harris would argue that it is morally wrong for me to murder someone, even if it makes me happy. However, if it increases my well-being, who is to say that the victim’s well-being is more important? He may think it is, and some objective measure may say that the total well-being he lost was greater than that which I gained. But I see no objective reason why I should care about that. It happens that I do care, because I see no reason to limit my maximization of well-being to only my own; however, Harris did not convince me that there is some objective reason why I should value others’ happiness.

Harris effectively ties his argument into a number of real-world examples, and I found most of this book convincing. My only objection is that he assumes that everyone’s well-being matters, but never supports this assumption.

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

An Analysis of The Pennycandystore Beyond the El

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 1, 2010

A poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
               fell in love
                           with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved along
                           the licorice sticks
               and tootsie rolls
      and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

A wind had blown away the sun

A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling
                     and they cried
                                  Too soon! too soon!

This is a deep poem which is often misinterpreted. It has been interpreted to represent childhood, but at a deeper analysis it is understood to tell the story of the downfall of mankind.

To examine the poem line by line:

The pennycandystore beyond the El

This represents the fact that life is cheap and people are reckless with it. This means not just individual life, but the life of society.

is where I first / fell in love

Here, the narrator actually represents the personified End of Humanity. The End fell in love with humanity and because of this realized that He had to bring humanity to its doom.

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom

The jellybean represents humans. Even at the end of our days, we glow with brightness and strength. Alas, it is not to be for much longer.

of that september afternoon

Humanity is waning. It is autumn, late in the afternoon. This is a double-metaphor for the waning of humanity. The afternoon represents the waning of individual life, while September is near the closing of the year — humanity is almost over.

A cat upon the counter moved along / the licorice sticks / and the tootsie rolls / and Oh Boy Gum

Nature, as represented by the cat, is unperturbed by human civilization and merely steps around it. The fact that humans are represented by candy is not simply ironic because of their inanimateness, but also speaks to the frailty of man. We are but a lowly species that could be easily devoured by nature.

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

Leaves, like candy, represents humanity. In fact, all the inanimate objects in this poem represent humanity. Like candy, leaves are helpless and fragile. Leaves are only part of a larger being; an individual leaf is virtually meaningless. Humanity is dying, and will soon fall from the tree of life.

A wind had blown away the sun

The sun epitomizes the last hope for humanity. More than any other symbol, the sun gives life. We cannot survive long without the sun; and, even in the direst of circumstances, it is still possible to survive as long as the sun is there. But when the sun — a seemingly immovable object, grounding the the very force of human life — is blown away by a casual wind, humanity becomes truly doomed.

A girl ran in

The girl in this poem can only represent God. At the dusk of mankind, She at last steps in to try to save humanity.

Her hair was rainy

Rain is the opposite of sun; where sun gives life, rain brings darkness. Even God is covered in rain, even God cannot stop the End. The great shadow cast by the End falls over not just humanity, but God Herself.

Her breasts were breathless in the little room

A woman’s breasts symbolize nurturing. God has the power to nurture humanity, but She is breathless, i.e. weak: she no longer has the power to help us.

Outside the leaves were falling

Notable here is the repetition of the falling of the dry, crumpled and lifeless humanity. This is arguably the most important portion of the poem. It serves to re-emphasize that we are utterly doomed, that our time is coming soon and we are powerless to stop it.

and they cried

Here “cried” doesn’t just mean that the leaves shouted, but it they actually wept at their own demise.

Too soon! too soon!

We don’t want our legacy to end. But there is nothing we can do about it. Even God cannot save us now. The End is coming, and the End cannot be stopped. All hope for humanity is gone.

Posted in Book Review | 6 Comments »

The Ethics of Crime and Punishment

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 17, 2010

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a story about a very troubled man, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky shows Raskolnikov to be a man of questionable psychological and ethical integrity as he explores the workings of Raskolnikov’s mind. Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov and his ideas to paint an intriguing picture of the nature of morality. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)

The pivotal point of the book is when Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker. He justifies it based on his idea: there are certain extraordinary people who have the potential to do great things for mankind and who are justified in committing otherwise atrocious acts to further their cause. For these extraordinary people, laws do not apply.

I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. (p. 211; Part 3, ch. 5)

This is a most intriguing idea, which I contend to be partially true but misguided. I propose a modification, which I shall dub the Dickens Corollary to Raskolnikov’s Thesis.

It is impossible to question whether a person is ethical; only an action may be judged as right or wrong, on the basis that it helps or hinders a higher good. Therefore, no person may be justified in committing murder — but a sufficiently good cause may justify crime. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov recognizes this. He claims that “it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market,” because murder and theft would only be justified insofar as they made possible his great discoveries — his cause. Newton himself is not justified in murder; rather, murder may be justified as a means to one of Newton’s ideas. It makes no real difference that the idea was Newton’s. Any other man, had he thought of the same ideas as Newton and needed to commit murder to make his ideas known, would have been no more or less justified. It is the idea which makes the difference, not the person.

But perhaps I am being too hasty in assuming Raskolnikov’s thesis to be even partially correct. What makes it correct at all? Before we address any corollaries, let us first examine whether the theory holds water in the first place. If Newton had to commit murder for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, would it have been justified? Although murder is of course terrible, perhaps it would have been acceptable in this limited case. I would argue that for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, it would indeed have been justified. The inventions, the societal developments that have burgeoned as a result of the theory of gravity have improved the lives of many, and even saved lives. But suppose someone had a new idea that would not save lives, or even improve anyone’s life by a significant margin. In that case, theft or murder would be unacceptable. The Dickens Corollary states: Crime is justified if and only if it sufficiently furthers a sufficiently good cause such that the suffering of the victim is outweighed by the happiness or growth of the beneficiaries of the cause.

Raskolnikov comes to regret his crime. The Dickens Corollary says he should feel regret: although his crime does sufficiently further his cause, the cause is not sufficiently good. A sufficiently good cause is one that does so much good as to outweigh the crime; no other cause may be considered good enough to warrant the crime. Raskolnikov’s cause failed to meet this definition of sufficiency. What exactly was his cause? He admits that he committed the murder only for himself, not for the benefit of his family or society. In fact, his only real objective was to test his thesis, to prove that he himself was an extraordinary man. In essence, he was committing murder to prove that committing murder is sometimes justified. That simply makes no sense, and certainly does not meet the high standards necessary to justify murder. For this reason, Raskolnikov’s act of murder was as terrible a crime as murder can be.

Another point Raskolnikov argues is that “if [an extraordinary man] is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood” (p. 211; part 3, ch. 5). The Dickens Corollary affirms this proposition. If a man had an extraordinary idea that necessitated murder, he would not only be justified in murder, but would be obligated in the same way that people are ordinarily obligated not to murder. These moral obligations — both the obligation to kill and the obligation not to — arise when the greater good is in mind. In nearly every situation, murder does great harm, not only to the murdered but to friends and loved ones, as well; but on the path towards an extraordinary cause, holding oneself back would do more harm even than murder. In the case of an extraordinary idea, to commit murder might be atrocious, but not to do so would be far worse.

I have said that there are no extraordinary people, only extraordinary ideas; in the strictest sense this is true. However, it is possible to define an extraordinary person as someone capable of bringing an extraordinary idea into the world. This is the sort of person that Raskolnikov meant when he talked about the “extraordinary people” who have an imperative to commit crime. This definition ties in to my point in the previous paragraph: if a person has an extraordinary idea that can only be made known through murder but has not the conscience to see it through, then she cannot be considered extraordinary. To be extraordinary, one must not only have an extraordinary idea but must be willing to act on it. It is fortunate that so many ideas do not require what would otherwise be considered morally repugnant acts; I doubt that Einstein would have been willing to kill for his cause.

In Crime and Punishment, it becomes apparent that Raskolnikov’s thesis did not turn out well at all. Dostoevsky clearly does not agree with Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov himself comes to relinquish his belief after he sees its results.

What are its results? Raskolnikov sees that his murder was not justified, and decides that he must not be one of these extraordinary men. But the results go beyond that: throughout the novel Raskolnikov interacts with a man named Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is intended to represent the inevitable outcome of Raskolnikov’s thesis: he is a man who sees himself as above the law, and in a way he is because he never gets caught. He murders several people, including his wife, for his own pleasure. (He claims that it’s because he is very bored (p. 231; Part 4, ch.1).) Svidrigailov feels no guilt or even unease about his murders. Raskolnikov may have thought him to be extraordinary, but he does not fit the definition. He had no greater cause; the only motivations for committing his murders were his own selfish desires. According to the Dickens Corollary, crime without a cause is unjustified. Raskolnikov, had he considered his thesis from the proper angle, would have agreed. Svidrigailov was not an appropriate model for the thesis because he had no higher cause. To apply the Dickens Corollary, his cause was not sufficiently good — nowhere close.

Dostoevsky is not wrong that Raskolnikov’s own actions, and the actions of Svidrigailov, were base and immoral. However, the basic idea of Raskolnikov’s thesis is still well-supported. It is not entirely correct, but a modified version of the thesis does make a lot of sense. There are not extraordinary people, in the sense that Raskolnikov proposes; but there are extraordinary causes. Newton’s cause was extraordinary. Svidrigailov’s was not.

Quotations are from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published by Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1994.

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

Faith and Imagination

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, a deeply religious boy who embarks on a lifechanging spiritual journey.

Before I get to my thesis, I must point out that Martel has a poor definition of “atheist.” He assumes that atheists are faith-based or somehow irrational (I say irrational, he says “imaginative”), but agnostics are not. Atheism is not remotely faith-based. Nonbelief in God is a completely reasonable viewpoint, just as nonbelief is unicorns is a completely reasonable viewpoint. Why does Martel imply that atheists would have a sudden conversion on their deathbed? Are they, unlike agnostics, for some reason prone to blaming God for unexplained phenomena such as the white light Martel describes? That certainly doesn’t make any sense. It seems like all the people who blame God for unexplained phenomena are already theists. Neither an atheist nor an agnostic would so easily fall prey to the “God of the Gaps” fallacy as to see an unexplained white light and jump to the conclusion that it must be a divine intervention.

Yann Martel, or at least the character in his novel, does not seem to have a very high opinion of agnostics. He describes their rationality as “dry, yeastless factuality” and says that they “to the very end . . . miss the better story.” But to see the truth is not to miss the better story. The real world is quite an amazing place. I personally would be much more fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of near death than by some strange supernatural white lights projected by God. Science tells just as good a story as religion, if not better. Those who are unable to see the beauty in the world are not lacking in imagination; they simply need to open their eyes.

As you may be able to tell, I am a big supporter of science, but that doesn’t mean I see anything wrong with imagination. I love reading stories (and writing about them). But there’s quite a difference difference between a story and a religion. When you read a story like Life of Pi or The Grapes of Wrath, you’re reading it in the proper context. You know that it’s not real. And that’s the problem with religion. Imagination by itself is just fine, and usually, more imagination is better than less; problems only start to arise when imagination gets in the way of the truth.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s important to distinguish fantasy from reality. When people are unable to tell the difference, they’re usually considered insane and put into mental institutions. It would seem that Martel is advocating insanity. He is not simply saying that we should exercise our imaginations — which of course is true — but that we should believe in our fantasies, and not to do so is to “miss the better story.” An atheist or agnostic could be lying on his deathbed and look at the white light and think, “imagine that that is God’s love shining down on me. What a wonderful story. It’s not true of course, but it makes for a great story.” That would be perfectly reasonable, but that is not what Martel is saying we should do. Martel, through Pi, tells us to lie to ourselves for the sake of a story.

Since Life of Pi is a novel Martel does not make any direct arguments, but gets his points across through Pi, his main character. Pi is deeply religious, but not in the conventional sense. He follows three religions simultaneously (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) because he can see the advantages in each of them. People follow religion for many different reasons, but his reasons are particularly intriguing. He devoutly follows three religions because he loves the stories told by each of them.

How did Pi come to follow three faiths? Well, he was born a Hindu, and when he crossed paths with Christianity he was unimpressed — at first.

This Son . . . who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him — what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. The Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god — and in a hot place, at that — with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son? (p. 70; ch. 17)

Despite his objections Pi finds Jesus’ story irresistible, and incorporates Christianity into his now-expanding list of religions. He doesn’t follow Christianity for any of the usual reasons: he wasn’t born into it, and he wasn’t attracted by the people or the principles or the philosophy. In the end, what really got him hooked was the story.

The story of Christianity is a very good one. But it is unacceptable for a story to get in the way of the truth. There is nothing “dry [and] yeastless” about reality; I would describe it as rich and diverse — or, if I were in a comedic mood, I’d call it wet and yeastful. Either way, it’s a great place to be. No matter what reality actually is, though, it’s important to stay grounded. Living in the clouds is a quick road to insanity. Realistically, most people with overactive imaginations could not be called insane; but substituting imagination for reality is nonetheless rarely a good idea. I hate to play this card, but I will anyway because it’s actually true this time: Hitler substituted imagination for reality by criminalizing the Jews. Dominant majorities often pretend that oppressed minorities are not really human, such as was done by millions of American slaveowners. If these people were in touch with reality, they would have been unable to justify their inhumane actions; it was only through creating fantasies that they were able to continue living at the expense of others.It’s not necessarily their fault: many white slaveowners were not malicious, they were just taught that blacks aren’t real people, and never had a reason to stop living in their convenient but inhumane fantasy.

Besides these injustices, living in fantasy is just less productive than staying realistic. Scientific progress does not come by living in the clouds. Imagination is an important ingredient in discovery, but there can be no discovery without a connection to reality. Even philosophy, which may seem to deal with the ethereal, cannot live off of fantasy alone. Instead of investigating the nature of life and death, as Martel’s agnostic does, he would rather that we simply insert God, thus bringing a halt to all further thought on the matter.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but not when it gets in the way of reality. Yann Martel would have us discard the real world in favor of what he deems more interesting. I can hardly think of worse advice to give, considering all the injustices that have been caused by overactive fantasies taking the place of reality. Truth is far more important than “the better story.”


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | Leave a Comment »

Faith and Hope

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 8, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In the novel, Pi becomes stranded on a boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, and he tells the story of how it happened.

A common motif in Life of Pi is the importance of faith and belief. Pi is born a Hindu, and by the age of 16 he is practicing Christianity and Islam as well. He does not understand why people are only allowed to follow one faith, and this even gets him into a little trouble near the beginning of the novel. Although (or perhaps because) his take on religion is a bit unconventional, it plays a very important role in his life.

While on the lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi devoutly prays three times a day. These prayers give him hope and serve as a conduit through which his miseries can flow. He shares traumatic events with God, and never forgets them. Although he had been a lifelong vegetarian, his options on the lifeboat are limited and he is forced into piscivorism. The first fish he ever eats is given a special place in his prayers, and never once forgotten (p. 231; ch. 61).

Pi is under the impression that he could not have survived without his faith. Perhaps this is so, but it could only be so due to the relative weakness of Pi’s character.

It is true that Pi endured great hardships and great suffering, and many people may not have been able to bear as much. His character is not weak by that measure. But the key word in his weakness is “relative.” He was relatively weak because he could not maintain himself without God. I suppose it may be more appropriate to say that he is imperfect, that he is only human. Whatever you call Pi’s limits of character, the picture painted in which God is the only way for Pi to get through great suffering is a distorted and inaccurate one.

Pi goes through harsh struggles and deep despair. On the front lines against his despair is Richard Parker, the 450-pound Bengal tiger. But God is not far behind. God is an important player, but he is not the reason why Pi made it through. Pi’s source of survival, his weapon against despair, is hope. When Pi prays, he finds hope; and with hope comes a reason to keep on living. Despair’s worst enemy is not God, nor is it a tiger: it is hope.

In a situation such as Pi’s, as hopeless as it is, one ought to take all the hope that one can get. Belief in a higher power is just as good a source of hope as any. But the premise that this hope can only come from faith — that there are no atheists in foxholes — is simply false.

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, it could be said that there are no atheists on lifeboats. It would be an equally incorrect statement. In a time of despair, there are many possible sources of hope. Religion happens to be a particularly powerful one. Imagine that, although you are floating on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, God is watching over you. He has helped you to survive this far, and He will continue to do so. He loves you and will always love you. He is omnipresent, so He will never leave your side. If that’s not a hope-inspiring thought, I don’t know what is.

Even so, there are even greater sources of hope. The foremost source would be companionship. Pi had with him a tiger, and even that limited relationship was enough to keep him going. Another human being, who you can make strong bonds with, would be an even better friend. We people thrive on companionship, and cannot last long without it.

Pi’s primary sources of hope were faith and companionship; what others were there? These two were by far the most prominent. But there is another, secular source of hope, which was masked by Pi’s faith but would be apparent in an atheist. Pi survived for many days before he began to truly despair, and he attributed this survival to a miracle. God had been with him. If Pi had been a nonbeliever, he would have been no less amazed by his survival. He would have attributed it to his own shrewdness, his own ability to think in the face of mortal peril. He made it that far, and he could make it farther. His reliance on his own skill would have been just as powerful as reliance on miracles. And in fact, much of Pi’s success can be attributed to his skill. He attributed it to miracles, but Pi was the one who learned to catch fish, Pi was the one who knew how to train Richard Parker. The skill was there, and he would not have survived without it.

The test of will Pi goes through is difficult; I do not doubt that. Maybe because Pi’s life so revolved around religion it would have been impossible for him to make it through without his faith. Such faith is very important to some. But it is not a necessity. There are atheists in foxholes, and there are atheists on lifeboats.


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Book Review | 2 Comments »

Why The Grapes of Wrath Fails

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 1, 2010

WARNING: This post was written far too late at night. I cannot be held responsible for its contents.

The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be a great American novel. Perhaps someone can explain why I’m mistaken here, because I really don’t see what’s so great about it.

A typical story — in fact, virtually any story at all — has a problem and a solution. The quality of the story is directly related to both the quality of the problem and the quality of the solution. The characters of the book have some sort of problem, or perhaps a goal, which they work to achieve. Near the end of the book, they solve their problem or achieve their goal. This is how a story works.

That’s the problem with The Grapes of Wrath. Near the beginning of the book, a big problem arises: the Joad family are kicked off of their farm. As the novel progresses, the problem continues to proliferate. Their situation gets worse and worse.

Now, any story worth its salt would end with a solution. For the last hundred pages or so, I kept expecting something good — something really big, something phenomenal — to happen. Even if the Joads weren’t magically lifted out of poverty, I at least expected them to gain some new outlook on life, or to learn an important lesson, or something like that. I kept expecting this right up until I reached the second-to-last page in the book, and I realized that nothing had happened yet. In any other book, something big would have happened. But in The Grapes of Wrath, the problem just kept going and going, kept getting worse and worse, right up through the end of the novel. There was no climax. There was no resolution. There was no conclusion. From page 150 all the way until the end at page 581, the problem continued to compound but no resolution was ever reached. Those 431 pages, while fun to read, showed very little variation in tone or direction. The book could just as well have ended a hundred pages sooner, or two hundred, or three hundred. When the problem continues to compound and no solution is ever found, there’s not much point in even making the novel be any longer. It may as well have ended at page 200, because you as a reader would have gotten the same amount out of those first 50 pages of conflict as you would have out of the full 431. The Grapes of Wrath works very well as the beginning of a story, or as the beginning and middle, but it’s missing an ending. No matter how well-written, poignant, or “American” a novel might be, it cannot be considered very good IF IT’S MISSING THE DAMN ENDING. It works very well as a book that helps the reader understand the plight of the poor farmer in Depression-era America, but as a story, it’s an utter failure. A book that’s missing an ending is like a chair that’s missing a leg. Sure, it looks nice, but try sitting on it.

I got a lot out of reading this book. It helps the reader to understand what a farmer during the Great Depression was going through, and the suffering that he had to endure. It certainly works very well in that respect. I suppose it’s arguable that the anticlimactic ending — the never-ending struggle of the Joad family — was meant to represent the fact that, for farmers, there was no happy ending. Sure. Maybe that’s true. But this isn’t supposed to be a historical account of exactly what happened. It’s supposed to be a story. Stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles, and . . . what was that other part . . . oh yeah, I remember. ENDINGS. Without an ending, without a solution, it’s not a story. It’s a list of grievances. Bad thing #1 happens, bad thing #2 happens, bad thing #3 happens. Nothing is ever resolved. As far as I have been informed, that’s not a story. And I’ve read my fair share of stories.

It has been said that great writers are allowed to break rules. Shakespeare, for example, made up about a zillion words, and people are generally okay with that. So is it okay for John Steinbeck to write a book without an ending? Many people seem to think so. As you may have figured out by now, I disagree. I strongly disagree. It is not only unusual or wrong to write a book with no ending, but I would go so far as to say that it is immoral. What kind of impression are we giving our children? We can’t have them start writing like Steinbeck. First our children will start writing books with no endings, and before you know it they’ll all have become Communists. We cannot let this story fall into the wrong hands.

Posted in Book Review, Rant | 6 Comments »

Pleasure, Liberty, and Brave New World

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 31, 2010

Our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty! Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy! (p. 149)

I recently wrote about the choice between freedom and happiness. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Brave New World, the complete text of which may be found online. The novel features an intriguing investigation of the choice between liberty and pleasure.

If you haven’t read Brave New World, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to, then at least read the summary on SparkNotes or Wikipedia so that you may better understand this essay.

Brave New World appears to be, if nothing else, an explication of the difference between pleasure and freedom. It illustrates a world of maximized pleasure but limited freedom, and this prospect is made to look frighteningly unpleasant. Although this is ostensibly true, reality is to the contrary: pleasure, despite what Huxley may have us believe, is liberty’s master.

In this fantastical world, higher pleasures have been eradicated. Shakespeare is banned because people could not understand it, because they are conditioned not to be able to understand it. People’s freedoms are restricted in the most absolute sense when they are conditioned to want certain things. The problem here is not the idea of conditioning itself. In fact, everyone is conditioned, all the time, and this is completely unavoidable. What makes the conditioning in Brave New World so abject is that it conditions people not to like higher pleasures. On the surface, it appears that liberty is sacrificed for happiness; but in truth, higher pleasure is sacrificed for lower.

This sacrifice is made in the name of stability. One character told a story of a social experiment in which a group of Alphas, the most intelligent and highest-class members of society, were placed on an island to govern themselves. What was the result?

The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen. (p. 151)

The sacrifice here is not liberty for pleasure, but rather higher pleasure for stability. This quotation is one of the best pieces of evidence for the superiority of Huxley’s world; notwithstanding, it still relies on a few fallacious premises. The most obvious flaw here is that this is a work of fiction; although the quotation paints an interesting picture, we cannot know that an island of Alphas would find their situation to be hopeless and petition to rejoin the “normal” government. More importantly, we must ask what peoples of a different caste would do were they in a similar situation. Alphas serve to benefit more than any other caste by rejoining society, as they have the best prospects for experiencing higher pleasures. Castes lower than Alpha never get a chance at leadership or even remotely intellectual pursuits, so they do not know if they would like them. If people of the lower castes were given a choice between stability and the opportunity to experience higher pleasures, we do not know what they would choose. But their choice is far more important than the choice of the Alphas, who are already on top by default and whose statures are only lessened by the removal of the lower castes from society. If you created a world full of kings and ask them if they would rather have that or a feudal society, of course they would choose the latter. But create a world full of peasants and ask them the same question, and the answer will be quite different.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the society in question is a problem that is never consciously admitted by anyone in the book, although it is alluded to in a few places. It appears from all sides that the trouble with this society is its emphasis of happiness over freedom — or, after deeper analysis, its choosing lower over higher pleasures. But why does it prefer lower pleasures to higher ones? This society does not desire lower pleasures simply because they are pleasurable; rather, pleasure is only a means to an end. The ultimate ideal of civilization is stability. This is repeatedly mentioned in the book, although it appears that stability is meant to serve happiness. On the contrary: happiness is meant to serve stability. Why?

If you think about it, a society with stability as the ultimate goal will eventually win out over any society that emphasizes liberty, pleasure, or anything else. The truth of this becomes obvious after a moment’s thought. No society will be as stable as one that holds stability as the ultimate goal; all other societies will change, and will eventually reach an equilibrium in which stability is the greatest virtue. This is unfortunate when ethics demands that happiness be the highest goal.

David Pearce, a modern Utilitarian philosopher, wrote a critique of Brave New World. He argues that Huxley’s world fails as a satire of modern society and of the desire for happiness because the people in it are not truly happy. He makes a particularly strong case against soma:

As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.

For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. The drug heightens suggestibility, leaving its users vulnerable to government propaganda. Soma is a narcotic that raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”

Huxley’s novel depicts a world that values not happiness but stability. Liberty is restricted in exchange for stability, and the higher pleasures in life have been stripped away. Huxley’s world is a dystopia, there is no doubt about that. But it fails to effectively show that a world based on happiness is a dystopian one. Not only does this world favor less desirable pleasures over more sophisticated ones, but its ultimate goal is not even pleasure but stability. This striving for stability over all else is what inevitably corrupts mankind.

Perhaps I am not giving Huxley enough credit. Perhaps his novel was meant to show that the happiness from liberty is greater than the happiness from stability. If so, then Huxley’s novel only reinforces my point: that maximizing pleasure is the greatest virtue, and that higher pleasures should be emphasized over lower ones. One may not necessarily draw this conclusion from Brave New World, but it is the best conclusion to be had.

Despite that reality may appear to be to the contrary, a world in which happiness is the highest virtue would be the best of all possible worlds. Although liberty can provide great pleasure and is thus valuable, it is not more important than pleasure itself. Furthermore, stability is hardly an ideal goal. At times it can be pleasurable, but causes myriad problems when taken to its natural conclusion. It is imperative that our eyes not stray from society’s pinnacle desires, or the higher pleasures will inevitably come tumbling down.

Quotations from Brave New World come from the edition published by Bantam Books, 1968.

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

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