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Avital Ronell’s walk through a path in central park is related to her comments of a path to living an ethical life.
What are her basic presumptions on ethics?
As a deconstructionist, Ronell refers to Derrida (the father of deconstruction) when she claims that a person who is satisfied and has a good conscience is morally bankrupt. What do you think she means by this?
Ronell also talks about how understanding the other is an error as well, she claims that when we believe we understand the other, it makes us want to kill or harm them. In what ways is this a valid point?
2.) Singer feels that an essential element of ethics is tied up with money and buying. He expands this to the ethics of vegetarianism vs. carnivorous diets. Simply put, why are humans entitled to eat the flesh of other species? Singer admits that such questions were not part of the philosophical endeavor of the 1970s, but it was precisely then that he found himself wanting to pose such questions and challenge “common sense morality” through applied ethics. He defends applied ethics as not necessarily subjective and individualistic but an appropriate way to serve larger groups. “We should take into account the interests of others.” He adds that “ethics is not just what I decide to do, but what I decide not to do.” There is a moral obligation to help as well as not to harm. “We make our lives most meaningful when we connect ourselves with some important causes or issues….” In short, the good life is one that reduces the amount of unnecessary pain in the world.
A) As a utilitarian and an animal liberation leader, Singer is focused on what is best for society as a whole, in such he concludes that the meaning of life can be found in what we do to make the world a little bit better. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
B) Singer points out that very few people would worry about ruining their shoes to save a child in a pond, yet then makes the point that the same amount of money spent on a pair of shoes could save a child through donations to UNICEF or the like and yet very few people donate. Seeing that both actions can save lives, why do you think that most people still overspend on items like clothing, food and other luxuries like a new IPhone, when that extra money could save the lives of others? Why is it easier to save a child we see then one we don’t see?
C) When discussion common sense morality, Singer makes the claims that modern day conservatives are much like those who prosecuted Socrates for ‘corrupting the youth.’ Since common sense morality must be challenged in applied ethics, why do you think this charge against conservatives is valid? (You have to understand what common sense morality is to answer this, so you may have to do some research).
3) Princeton/Fordham professor of philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah supports the notion of global citizenship. He recognizes that we have virtual relationships with the world, no longer just with 100 or fewer family, friends, and co-workers. Through travel, communications, entertainment, and the Internet we are now so much more aware of the people of the world. With such extensive connectivity he infers we have now become “responsible for each other.” Appiah sees the creation of a global conversation of human beings about what is right and wrong in the 21st century. We will have to recognize the huge diversity of values by which we are guided but must endeavor to find common ground. We can neither abandon our core group nor ignore the rest of humanity.
A) Appiah does not want to give into subjectivism in ethics and instead points towards a global conversation of what is moral rather than a judgmental one. He makes a reference to his own binary background and how each culture looks at who is responsible for raising the children be it through a father or a maternal uncle and claims that a Universalist would say only one way can be right. He additionally claims that why can’t the answer be what makes something right is if it gets the job done and not how. Would this be a consequentialist theory in a sense? In what way? If not, how not?
B) Appiah, like many of the speakers, brings us back to the Greeks in his talk. Why do you think so many of the philosophers refer to the Greeks so often? Would this mean that a truly well done education should include the Greek ideas and thoughts? In doing so, wouldn’t we be universalizing education?
C) A very important point that Appiah discusses is the idea that we have at least a virtual connection to the citizens of the world, a term he calls Cosmopolitanism. In this theory, we are interconnected globally with all fellow citizens of the world and owe each other moral obligations and responsibility. He claims that we must balance our love and care with our core group with that of the rest of humanity. How could we do this? Is it worth doing? Why should we be responsible for all humanity or why not?
4) Classicist Martha Nussbaum examines the social contract which began to emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries and considers ways of expanding social justice to cover those with unequal physical and mental abilities, including the disabled, children, and elderly. She pursues ideas embodying a “capability approach” which works to ensure that everyone benefits from social justice and has the opportunity to develop to the best of his/her abilities.
A) As a follower of Aristotle’s idea on justice as the enabler of human capability, Nussbaum advocates for the application of this idea to all humans (rather than the select few of Aristotle). She develops a new theory called the capability approach, described above. In what ways would this new approach help those in society who had been forgotten or neglected in the past?
B) In her walk, Nussbaum dismantles the social contract theorists and points out many of its weaknesses. Which of her arguments against the social contract theorists are the strongest?
C) Nussbaum is the only Universalist in this group of philosophers, she believes in the essentialist aspects of moral theory (the idea that there is a universal right and wrong in each scenario). In some ways she agrees with those whom she attacks such as Kant and Rousseau who both claimed a universal right and wrong. How do you think she justify her belief in universal right and wrong in a modern multicultural world?
5. Political philosopher Michael Hardt discusses revolutionary desire and his activist generation’s experiences in Central America in the 1980s. He came to realize that he and other Americans were not really helping the revolutions of Nicaragua and El Salvador, but he was confused when told to go back to America and start a revolution “in the mountains” and commit sabotage. The entire enterprise of creating guerrilla cells came to seem ridiculous in the American context. Instead Hardt began to examine the very meaning of revolution. Is it the replacement of one corrupt, selfish elite with another elite that might be better (the dictatorship of the Communist Party preceding the withering away of the need for government)? Or is revolution simply the removal of all notions of authority? Hardt began to focus more on rethinking the possibility of changing human nature, transforming people in such a way as to make them truly capable of real democracy and self-rule without elites.
A) “We’re stuck conceptually, I think, between two almost cliché ways of thinking revolution today. On the one hand, we have the notion of revolution that involves the replacement of a ruling elite with another better, in many ways, ruling elite. And that’s in fact the form that many of the modern revolutions have taken and have posed great benefits for the people, et cetera, but they have not arrived at democracy. And so that notion of revolution is really discredited, and I think rightly so. But opposed to that is another notion of revolution, which I think is equally discredited from exactly the opposite point of view, which is the notion of revolution- that, in fact hasn’t been instituted-that thinks of revolution as just the removal of all of those forms of authority- state power, the power of capital- that stop people from expressing their natural abilities to rule themselves.” With this quote in mind, which form of revolution should we seek? Why would it be better to revolutionize our thought than overthrow a government?
B) “How do people learn democracy? How does human nature change to become capable of democracy? Not by its opposite. It can only be done in a sort of positive development by- You can only learn democracy by doing it. And so that that seems to me- the conception- the only way it seems to me today to be able to rehabilitate the conception of revolution.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your answer.
C) “The relevant fact for politics is really that human nature’s changeable. Human nature isn’t good or evil. Human nature is, uh, constituted. It’s constituted by how we act. Human nature is, in fact, the history of habits and practices… that are the result of past struggles, of past hierarchies, of past victories and defeats. And so this is, I think, actually-The key to rethinking revolution is to recognize that revolution is not just about a transformation for democracy. It’s really- Revolution really requires a transformation of human nature so that people are capable of democracy. Democracy is one of those concepts that seems to me has been almost completely corrupted today. In some cases, it’s used to mean simply periodic elections with a limited choice of rulers. In other cases, when one thinks especially in international affairs, it often means following the will of the United States. But really, democracy means the rule of all by all. It means everybody involved in collective self-rule.” The claim that democracy has been totally corrupted is a serious one. In what ways is Hardt correct? What could be some of the solutions to this corruption?
6. The Slovenian Marxist cultural philosopher Slavoj Zizek, stands before mountains of garbage and recycled items and talks about the danger of the ecological movement becoming a new religion. He questions the basic premise of ecology that earth and nature were somehow in balance before being disturbed by man. He sees this as a secular version of “The Fall” of Adam and Eve and the loss of Eden. Zizek corrects this idea by saying that Nature itself is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes. For example, oil is the result of catastrophes which pressed plant and animal life into liquid fuel. Controversial as ever, Zizek proclaims “ecology as the new opiate of the masses.” It is the idea of a perfect nature which he disclaims, but he doesn’t deny the warning signs of global warming and potential eco-disasters. He sees humans as in a state of disavowal, acting as if we don’t know of the dangers. In effect, we refuse to believe that life on earth, as we know it, can be destroyed. But his proposition that we should become more artificial is mystifying.
A) “One of the elementary ideological mechanisms, I claim, is what I call the temptation of meaning. When something horrible happens, our spontaneous tendency is to search for a meaning. It must mean something. You know, like AIDS. It was a trauma. Then conservatives came and said it’s punishment… for our sinful ways of life, and so on and so on.” Why do you think humans always search for meaning, even when none is there? Is it in our nature or training? What value does giving meaning to chaos give us, if any?
B) “It’s really the implicit premise of ecology that the existing world is the best possible world, in the sense of it’s a balanced world which is disturbed through human hubris. Nature is not a balanced totality which then we humans disturb. Nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes.” In this claim of best possible world, Zizek is pointing out what he sees as the fallacy of believing that nature existed in peace, beauty and balance before human existence. Does he provide enough evidence to convince us that the world is chaos and a series of destructions? What is missing from his argument, if anything?
C) Zizek does not deny human role in climate change and in the destruction of resources and our planet but then he says: “We need more alienation from our life-world, from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop, I think, a much more terrifying new abstract materialism, a kind of a mathematical universe where there is nothing. There are just formulas, technical forms and so on. And the difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality, in this dimension… to recreate-if not beauty- then aesthetic dimension in things like this, in trash itself. That’s the true love of the world. Because what is love? Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows that if you really love a woman or a man, that you don’t idealize him or her. Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points. And nonetheless, the person’s absolute for you. Everything life-that makes life worth living. But you see perfection in imperfection itself. And that’s how we should learn to love the world.” Is this a contradictory claim – to become more artificial to save nature? How so? And in a world of movies, advertisements and stories of ‘acceptable beauty’ and ‘true love’, is his claim that we love the ugly, valid?
7. In one of the most visually significant episodes, Sunaura Taylor, in her wheelchair, and Judith Butler walk around San Francisco. They are both philosophers of the body, Taylor because of her physical disabilities and Butler because of her experiences as a lesbian. Sunaura talks about how physical access can lead to social access. All the accessibility changes to American cities and buildings have allowed people with physical challenges to move about within society more easily than ever before and thereby become a more integrated part of society. Moving in the social space is an essential part in the formation of the individual. Showing that Astra Taylor was very astute in putting the two women together in this film, Judith Butler talks about her considerations of “what the body can do” – certainly an aspect of the wide range of sexual activities as well as being relevant to mobility issues in the social space.
A) Taylor states ““I moved to San Francisco largely because it’s… the most accessible place in the world. …The physical access—the public transportation is accessible; there are curb cuts most places… buildings are accessible… this leads to a social acceptability. That because there’s physical access, there are simply more disabled people out and about in the world and so people have learned how to interact with them and are used to them…. Physical access leads to social access; an acceptance.” Why do you think it took laws for access to become the norm, what is it in human nature that makes us resistant to helping the physically disabled? What do you think Taylor means that simply seeing more disabled people creates a space for acceptance and interaction? Is she correct? How or how not?
B) Butler and Taylor ask two important questions next. “Why do people get so upset with someone who doesn’t use a body part in the way that we assume it’s attended? And “Why do people get so upset when someone’s body doesn’t fit our ideas of what a man is, or what a woman is?” How would you answer these questions. Why do we get so nervous about non-hetero norm and non-physical norms?
C) When Taylor discusses going into a coffee shop, Butler poses these important questions on interdependence: “My sense is that what’s at stake here is rethinking the human as a site of interdependency. I think that when you walk into that coffee shop, you’re basically posing the question ‘Do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs? And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just as my personal individual issue, or your personal individual issue…?” How would you answer these questions.
8. Out of these nine, Professor Cornel West would definitely be my first choice for a dining partner. He is the preeminent jazz artist of ideas – quoting widely from other philosophers (melody) and then blasting off with his own mind-blowing string of associative ideas (improvisation). You can almost hear his mind at work as he joyfully and contagiously explores a staggering range of ideas. West propounds the importance of “dialogue in the face of dogmatism and domination.” He artfully quotes W.B. Yeats: “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.” West insists that we acknowledge our finitude and our fallibility, while simultaneously discovering the pleasure of the life of the mind. He recognizes that we are much like Sisyphus as we go uphill over and over again in our search for meaning, but adds that we must not give into nihilism. Concluding the film, Cornel West quotes Beethoven’s deathbed testament: “I’ve learned to look at the world in all its darkness and evil and still love it.”
A) West defines philosophy in this way: “Philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we’re beings toward death, and we’re featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us. We’re beings toward death. At the same time, we have desire while we are organisms in space and time, and so it’s desire in the face of death. And then of course, you’ve got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry, and you’ve got dialogue in the face of dogmatism. And then of course, structurally and institutionally you have domination and you have democracy. You have attempts of people trying to render accountable…elites, kings, queens, suzerains, corporate elites, politicians, trying to make these elites accountable to everyday people. So philosophy itself becomes a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death, wrestling with dialogue in the face of- of dogmatism, and wrestling with democracy- trying to keep alive very fragile democratic experiments- in the face of structures of domination; patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power, state power. All those concentrated forms of power that are not accountable to people who are affected by them.” What points do you agree with? Where do you disagree? How do we eliminate dogmatism?
B) What do you think West means when he says: “Plato says philosophy is a meditation on and a preparation for death. And by death, what he means is not an event, but a death in life because there’s no rebirth, there’s no change, there’s no transformation without death. And therefore, the question becomes, how do you learn how to die? And of course, Montaigne talks about that in his famous essay, “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die.” You can’t talk about truth without talking about learning how to die.”
C) West ends with his thoughts on giving meaning to life. “I think the problem with meaning is very important. Nihilism is a serious challenge. Meaninglessness is a serious challenge. Even making sense of meaninglessness is itself a kind of discipline and achievement. The problem is, of course, you never reach it, you know. It’s not a static, stationary telos or end or aim. It’s a process that one never reaches. It’s Sisyphean. You’re going up the hill looking for better meanings or grander, more enabling meanings. But you never reach it. Uh, you know, in that sense, you die without being able to “have” the whole, in the language of the Romantic discourse.” Why does he consider nihilism and meaningless and serious challenge to philosophy and life? What does he mean by the term Sisyphean? At the end West is happy with not having the answer but instead focusing on the search and examination of knowledge, is this the ultimate goal of philosophical thought? Why would this hold value?
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