Friday, April 16, 2010

Philosophers are trained to make distinctions. Sometimes, distinctions make a difference, sometimes distinctions are useless.
Something I am looking forward to, in Graduate school, is to take classes with both Continental and Analytic philosophers, because I want to get past these distinctions. For example, Edward Casey, my future professor, specializes in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, but has also written on Philosophy of Space and Time. Simon Critchley started out as a scientist, and ended writing books on Heidegger. Jacqueline Scott, whom I met at Penn State University, is a Nietzsche scholar who recently converted to Judaism and is also interested in Theology.I also want to make sure I take another Advanced Logic class because I know that Logic is one of my weak subjects in Philosophy (mostly because I get bored with it, but this does not mean I can just skip it.)

Professors I’ve had in my classes who do work on meta-ethics, and meta-language(and other fields with a “meta” in it) have always helped me aim for clarity in my work, and I’m grateful for this. So I personally don’t believe in this cliché, generic Analytic/Continental distinction, and don’t think professors believe in it either.

But a lot of amateurs in the field tend to use it a lot as a defense mechanism it seems. It’s like the guy who drives around in a huge truck to cover up his inferiority complex, except that in academia it goes back to philosophers making these immature distinctions between Analytic (the “macho” philosophy) and Continental (the "sissy" philosophy where, apparently, people want to talk about "mushy" real world issues such as politics, oppression, racism, violence etc.)
For example, if you are an “analytic” (amateur) philosopher, and you don’t understand Heidegger, then it must be that Heidegger is not “clear” enough! You don’t get Judith Butler? She is not "clear" enough either! What about Deleuze, or Foucault? They are not really philosophers, probably because you don't understand them either. Other adjectives I’ve heard about these thinkers are: “mushy,” “unclear,” “not a philosopher but rather a social theorist,” not clear, or rigid philosophy bur rather "poetry" etc. Gladly, it seems that once you complete graduate school and meet real students who are interested in approaching philosophy from different sides, these distinctions are blurred and most people I have encountered in the field don’t think they are useful.

I now want to use an example from politics, to look at how logical distinctions can be problematic when they are at work to justify personal beliefs. I will later use an example from my life to look at another useless distinction that has also justified personal beliefs, or inferiority complexes.

I recently had to read a book for my Public Policy class, titled “Ethics in War.” Here, an ethicist made the logical distinction between prima facie moral rights, and absolute moral rights to justify that torture of political prisoners is alright in specific cases. I don’t think these distinctions are useful. The reason why I am against them is because they appear to be subtle logical moves to avoid responsibility, and as Michael Waltzer calls it, to avoid getting one’s hands “dirty,” or admitting that one’s hands are already “dirty” when we enter in the field of politics.

For example, to justify torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, it has been argued that we rightly assume that every person has a prima facie right not to be killed, but we might nonetheless also claim that even that basic right can be forfeited by individuals who might have committed murder or “conspire to do so.” This is how the death penalty is defended too. So there is no absolute right, only prima facie rights, and these can be overridden. With a distinction of this sort, we can now say that while torture would certainly harm the prisoner, it would not necessarily wrong him. Because we can separate absolute from prima facie rights, this leads the ethicist to argue that torture is justified as long as the harm prevented outweighs the harm done.
I can think of many examples of consequentialism gone wrong, and most of them have to do with the use of this distinction regarding torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. But I’m writing a paper about it already, so I want to look at another distinction, dear journal.

A long time ago I was accused of “causing” somebody’s anger problem. And at times, I too have accused people in my life to have “caused” a lot of my own problems. But those people never really believed me when I stated this, and they shouldn’t have, because they really didn’t “cause” anything, nerveless my problems. But how can somebody get away with a statement of this sort? Simple: If one is a philosopher, one can accuse somebody, and then make an analytic distinction between being “morally responsible” and being “casually necessary” responsible for their problem. Using a further example, guns would be “causally necessary” for murder, and yet not “morally responsible” for it. With this distinction I can then be accused for having responsibility for the second sort of “causally necessary” problem, but not the first. Again, an interesting move to avoid personal responsibility for certain defects of character, and to transfer the blame, with a sophisticated logical distinction, to somebody else who does not deserve it (but might just happen to believe it for a while, due to low self-esteem issues.)With this distinction between moral and causally necessary responsibility, one could then say that while this accusation certainly harmed me, it would not necessarily wrong me.

What I’m trying to point out is that these distinctions are good in that they lessen the ethical repercussions of the “harm” done, but they are amateurish. In certain cases, getting rid of the distinction and admitting that people start of with “dirty hands” in politics, or in life, might just get us to a better point where we can really begin to talk about responsibility.

In the case of politics, the tortured prisoner has forfeited his right because he is a "threat" to society. In the case of my personal life, I am causally necessary responsible for a person’s anger because I, too, have forfeited my right to protection and am now a "threat" to the person. So I am the one at fault here. Good distinction, problematic, even traumatizing, results if I chose to buy this distinction.

In my experience, these logical distinctions, just like the Analytic/Continental one, are way too simplified and generic to get us anywhere except in the wrong direction: Towards useless philosophy, and useless accounts of responsibility. Because, really, that's the last thing we need if we are to be "thinking in dark times" like Hannah Arendt writes.