The Artifex anticipated

The days are dark and growing darker, and not just due to the workings of celestial mechanics on the northern hemisphere. To try to find some sense of calm in the darkness I have been spending more time as usual with philosophy. With David Hume, because he never fails to be a good companion. With Arthur Schopenhauer, because his cosmic pessimism seems appropriate to the moment, and with Nietzsche perhaps most of all, because as the foremost exponent of the roles played by ressentiment and innate cruelty in human mental life he strikes me as the finest diagnostician of the illness that is life today.

I have read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals any number of times over the past few decades. The greatest books — and this is surely one of them — repay re-reading no matter how many time one rereads them. On this re-read, something stook out.

Remember the Artifex Atrox? It is that mysterious being, that anti-God that is filled with joy at human suffering, that feeds off of it and created the universe for the purpose of having it. It was invoked (though not under the name I have attributed to it, by John Zande as a way of breaking apart and defeating theodicies. In Nietzsche’s book, I found a claim that some version of the Artifex Atrox might have been present to Greeks of old in their very gods. (Since more than one, should we perhaps then call them Artifices Atroces? Here is Nietzsche’s claim, taken from the Second Essay, §7. As usual, original German text is on the left, a tolerably-good English translation on the right.

Was eigentlich gegen das Leiden empört, ist nicht das Leiden an sich, sondern das Sinnlose des Leidens: aber weder für den Christen, der in das Leiden eine ganze geheime Heils-Maschinerie hineininterpretirt hat, noch für den naiven Menschen älterer Zeiten, der alles Leiden sich in Hinsicht auf Zuschauer oder auf Leiden-Macher auszulegen verstand, gab es überhaupt ein solches sinnloses Leiden. Damit das verborgne, unentdeckte, zeugenlose Leiden aus der Welt geschafft und ehrlich negirt werden konnte, war man damals beinahe dazu genöthigt, Götter zu erfinden und Zwischenwesen aller Höhe und Tiefe, kurz Etwas, das auch im Verborgnen schweift, das auch im Dunklen sieht und das sich nicht leicht ein interessantes schmerzhaftes Schauspiel entgehen lässt. Mit Hülfe solcher Erfindungen nämlich verstand sich damals das Leben auf das Kunststück, auf das es sich immer verstanden hat, sich selbst zu rechtfertigen, sein »Übel« zu rechtfertigen; jetzt bedürfte es vielleicht dazu andrer Hülfs-Erfindungen (zum Beispiel Leben als Räthsel, Leben als Erkenntnissproblem). »Jedes Übel ist gerechtfertigt, an dessen Anblick ein Gott sich erbaut«: so klang die vorzeitliche Logik des Gefühls – und wirklich, war es nur die vorzeitliche? Die Götter als Freunde grausamer Schauspiele gedacht – oh wie weit ragt diese uralte Vorstellung selbst noch in unsre europäische Vermenschlichung hinein! man mag hierüber etwa mit Calvin und Luther zu Rathe gehn. Gewiss ist jedenfalls, dass noch die Griechen ihren Göttern keine angenehmere Zukost zu ihrem Glücke zu bieten wussten, als die Freuden der Grausamkeit. Mit welchen Augen glaubt ihr denn, dass Homer seine Götter auf die Schicksale der Menschen niederblicken liess? Welchen letzten Sinn hatten im Grunde trojanische Kriege und ähnliche tragische Furchtbarkeiten? Man kann gar nicht daran zweifeln: sie waren als Festspiele für die Götter gemeint: und, insofern der Dichter darin mehr als die übrigen Menschen »göttlich« geartet ist, wohl auch als Festspiele für die Dichter…

Text of Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, “Zweite Abhandlung: »Schuld«, »schlechtes Gewissen« und Verwandtes,” §7 from . Accessed on November 11, 2016.

What really arouses indignation against suffering is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering: but neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naïve man of more ancient times, who understood suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering. So as to abolish the hidden, undetected, unwitnessed suffering and honestly to deny it, one was in the past virtually compelled to invent gods and genii of all the heights and depths, in short something that roams even in secret, hidden places, sees even in the dark, and will not let an interesting painful spectacle pass unnoticed. For it was with the aid of such inventions that life then knew how to work the trick which it has always known how to work, that of justifying itself, of justifying its “evil.” Nowadays it might require other auxiliary inventions (for example, life as riddle, life as epistemological problem). “Every evil the sight of which edifies a god is justified”: thus spoke the primitive logic of feeling — and was it, indeed, only primitive? The gods conceived of as friend of cruel spectacles — oh how profoundly this idea still permeates our European humanity! Merely consult Calvin and Luther. it is certain, at any rate, that the Greeks still knew of no tastier spice to offer the gods to season their happiness than the pleasures of cruelty. With what eyes do you think Homer made his gods look down upon the destinies of men? What was at bottom the ultimate meaning of Trojan Wars and other such tragic terrors? There can be no doubt whatever: they were intended as festival plays for the gods; and insofar as the poet is in these matters of a more “godlike” disposition than other men, no doubt also as festival plays for the poets.

From Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans. Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1992). pp. 504-5.

Of course they would not let a painful spectacle pass unnoticed. This must really be a true festival time for all gods and genii.

For those of us who savor a bit the idea that philosophical positions are the captives of the psychological needs of philosophers, Nietzsche has a bit more.

Nicht anders dachten sich später die Moral-Philosophen Griechenlands die Augen Gottes noch auf das moralische Ringen, auf den Heroismus und die Selbstquälerei des Tugendhaften herabblicken: der »Herakles der Pflicht« war auf einer Bühne, er wusste sich auch darauf; die Tugend ohne Zeugen war für dies Schauspieler-Volk etwas ganz Undenkbares. Sollte nicht jene so verwegene, so verhängnissvolle Philosophen-Erfindung, welche damals zuerst für Europa gemacht wurde, die vom »freien Willen«, von der absoluten Spontaneität des Menschen im Guten und im Bösen, nicht vor Allem gemacht sein, um sich ein Recht zu der Vorstellung zu schaffen, dass das Interesse der Götter am Menschen, an der menschlichen Tugend sich nie erschöpfen könne? Auf dieser Erden-Bühne sollte es niemals an wirklich Neuem, an wirklich unerhörten Spannungen, Verwicklungen, Katastrophen gebrechen: eine vollkommen deterministisch gedachte Welt würde für Götter errathbar und folglich in Kürze auch ermüdend gewesen sein, – Grund genug für diese Freunde der Götter, die Philosophen, ihren Göttern eine solche deterministische Welt nicht zuzumuthen! Die ganze antike Menschheit ist voll von zarten Rücksichten auf »den Zuschauer«, als eine wesentlich öffentliche, wesentlich augenfällige Welt, die sich das Glück nicht ohne Schauspiele und Feste zu denken wusste. – Und, wie schon gesagt, auch an der grossen Strafe ist so viel Festliches!…

It was in the same way that the moral philosophers of Greece later imagined the yes of God looking down on the moral struggles, upon the heroism and self-torture of the virtuous: the “Herakles of duty” was on a stage an knew himself to be; virtue without a witness was something unthinkable for this nation of actors. Surely, that philosopher’s invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the gods in man in human virtue, could never be exhausted. There must never be any real lack of novelty, or really unprecedented tensions, complications, and catastrophes on the stage of the earth: the course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it — reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! The entire mankind of antiquity is full of tender regard for “the spectator,” as an essentially public, essentially visible world which cannot imagine happiness apart from spectacles and festivals. — And, as foresaid, even in great punishment there is so much that is festive!

How much more plausible an explanation of “free will” we have here than the implausible explanation that belief in free will is plausible because free will is itself plausible!

A natural experiment

As perhaps many of you are aware, we just had a presidential election here in the United States.  Without commenting directly on the merits of the candidates or their parties or positions, I cannot help but note that the outcome of the election put a variety of metaphysical and axiological propositions, not normally thought to be amenable to direct testing, to the test.

You theists, who believe in the existence of some sort of benign and superpowerful entity who creates and sustains the world we live in and with whom we can somehow have a relationship, you big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You spiritual-but-not-religious types who believe in some mysterious-but-benign something that somehow suffuses the world we live in, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You secular types, who don’t avow belief in any of that religio-spiritual mumbo-jumbo but do subscribe to the proposition that the arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You nice liberals, who think that most people are kind and decent and will manifest these traits if just given a chance to, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You American patriots, who think your country is exceptional, a shining example to the world, your big idea collided with reality last night.  It crashed and burned (again).

You antinatalists, who think that it is a misfortune to be born, your big idea meshed neatly with reality last night.  It was triumphantly vindicated (again).

If nothing else, the morning after was an opportunity for a me to have a pleasant exchange of tweets:

That aside, I am more disgusted with the world than usual today. I’ll be in my cave.

A moment of identification

During my few moments of leisure this week I read parts of the Adam Parfrey-edited  anthology called Apocalypse Culture (N.P.: Feral House, 1990) and came across an interview by Jim Morton with a woman named Karen Greenlee.  The title of the interview is “The Unrepentant Necrophile,” and that title tells you much of what you need to know about the interview.  (I mean, I could tell you more, but I’ll spare the sensibilities of my more sensitive readers.)    One part of the interview struck me, in which Greenlee reflects on her curious propensities:

For a while I found myself thinking “Yeah, this isn’t normal.  Why can’t I be like other people.  Wy doesn’t the same pair of shoes fit me just right?”  I went through all that personal hell and finally I accepted myself and realized that’s just me.  That’s my nature and I might as well enjoy it.  I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

I’m miserable when I try to be something I’m not.

If you must know, I am not a necrophile.  I believe most of you are not necrophiles, either.

But we are all Karen Greenlee, whether we admit it or not.

An early flicker of antinatalist consciousness

I remember being told about a phenomenon which I’ll call “AIDS mothers” sometime in my mid-teens.  (Note:  I can’t make a hard factual claim that there really were such women, only that I was told of their existence; this post is meant more as moral autobiography than history.)  These were (or would have been) women who knew that they were infected with the HIV virus who nonetheless chose to conceive children.

Now I should note that when I heard about these women it was the early or mid-1980s, 1985 at the latest.  There were then no therapies for HIV infection; the very first anti-retroviral drug would not be approved for use until 1987.  So HIV infection was usually a death sentence: a horrible death sentence, because it would often progress to full-blown AIDS.  And in the case of pregnant women there was a common problem of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus (the World Health Organization now estimates that without treatment — and treatment didn’t exist in 1985 — maternal-fetal transmission rates are somewhere between 15% and 45%).    So adding up the unlovely parts here, we would have examples of women who, knowing that they would likely soon be dying horribly, were conceiving children who themselves stood a significant chance of dying horribly early in life.  And, if they managed to avoid dying horribly early in life, would still have to endure the prospect of being orphaned when their mothers would die, a ghastly process which they might have to witness as young children.

“Why would anyone do that?” I recall asking the interlocutor who had told me about AIDS mothers.

“These women are lonely and frightened and do not want to die alone.  Having a child is a way of preventing that.”

And I recall thinking then that as much as we may pity these suffering women, as awful as we may feel for them, there seemed something just unconscionable about standing aside while they conceived children.  I don’t think — though one’s memory does often dim over thirty years — that I said so out loud, because while I could not shake the thought it felt like a really asshole thing to say.  (The experience was not just an early spark of antinatalist consciousness, but a good lesson in the disunity of the virtues.  Intellectual honesty and good manners are generally enemies, and keeping them both in harness is, at best, difficult.)

What I did not think then, because it was too radical a thought for me to have, was that between the “AIDS mothers” and “normal” parents there would seem to be a difference more in degree than in kind.  Observations like that would only happen later in life.

Exoteric and esoteric watchings of _Into the Abyss_

Yesterday evening I finished watching Werner Herzog‘s 2011 documentary Into the Abyss. The story behind the movie is very simple, one a spree of crimes committed by two young men — really, boys.  From the New York Times’s review:

In October 2001, in Conroe, Tex., Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson were murdered, apparently because the killers wanted the red Camaro in Ms. Stotler’s garage. About a week later, after a shootout in a shopping center parking lot, two young men were arrested in the case. One, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence. The other, Michael Perry, was sentenced to death.

The bulk of the movie consists of people being very gently interviewed by Herzog:  the bereaved survivors of the victims, detached, professional lawmen, the imprisoned perpetrators and people connected with them.  For people looking to feel bad about and for humanity there’s abundant material to chew over here.  It’s heartbreaking to watch a woman like Lisa Stolter-Balloun talk about what it’s like to try to live her life after her mother and brother were killed or to watch a would-be tough guy like Charles Richardson gazing at the framed picture of his dead baby brother and struggle not to cry on camera.   And it’s downright disturbing — and perhaps a little nausea-inducing — to watch Michael Perry trying to face down the existential anxiety of imminent execution with a parade of smiling clichés of religious and therapeutic uplift.  One can tell that he’s not quite persuaded by his own story.

Michael Perry being led away from his interview with Werner Herzog. Eight days later, Perry was put to death by lethal injection.

Michael Perry being led away from his interview with Werner Herzog. Eight days later, Perry was put to death by lethal injection.

What was really raw, though, was watching the interview of Delbert Burkett, the father of Jason Burkett and himself likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.  The elder Burkett blames himself for the dark course his son’s life took.  He reflects on what he should have done as a father that he didn’t do:  if only I had taken my boys to play baseball, if only I had had them raise a steer like I did when I was a boy, if only I had been there to really teach them right from wrong.  When Herzog asks Burkett where the really bad choice was made, Burkett remembers that he had a football scholarship to the University of Texas, but he gave that up, dropped out of high school and football and started to do drugs instead, a choice which led him down a path to a life of crime and imprisonment.  How could I not have been riveted at that moment, given my own morbid fascination with life-counterfactuals?   If you ever want to see a portrait of a man being eaten alive by his own sense of remorse you can watch this but be warned:  it is not easy viewing.

Amidst all the suffering there is an odd twist ending.  Jason Burkett ends up being married in prison to a generous, pretty young woman named Melyssa whom he meets through correspondence.  (I must wonder: do “normal” men have so little to offer these days that an attractive woman like Melyssa prefers to court and marry a convicted murderer, a man incarcerated in a maximum security prison who will not even be eligible for parole until sometime in the 2040s?  Answer: probably yes.)  Melyssa has made — so it is strongly implied — a very curious arrangement under which some of Jason’s semen has been smuggled out of prison to inseminate her.  She is in an advanced stage of pregnancy by the time Herzog interviews her, and she holds up an ultrasound picture of her yet-to-be-born son on her smartphone for the viewers to see.  “You can see he gets his strong chin from me,” she says with evident adoration.

I would imagine that 99 of 100 of Herzog’s viewers will be feeling a warm glow of moral satisfaction at this point.  After all this suffering, a happy ending of sorts.  Against the claustrophobic images of Texas’s death chamber shown only minutes before, an image of hope and new life. All’s right with the world, after all.   This might even be Herzog’s own reading of his documentary.  It is the surface that everyone sees, thus the exoteric reading.

And yet I cannot avoid a different reading, because I haven’t forgotten Delbert Burkett and his own lifetime of regret.  Given the world as it is, the suffering we have seen, the knowledge that terrible things happen to people like they have happened to most of the interviewees in this movie, given the knowledge that people will almost inevitably make bad choices, how can we justify bringing the innocent child shown on Melyssa Burkett’s smartphone screen into the world.  Even the suffering is not a certainty, it is surely a risk.  How can we justify materializing the risk.

Perhaps it would be best if I treated my reading of the movie as an esoteric one.  I’m sure it’s one that’s upsetting for most people.  But I’ve always had a problem staying away from keyboards.

Moot court

Maybe this is a Moot Court case for someone. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale about politics and how law can be abused. In any event, it has been kicking around in my head for a few days, so I thought I’d spill it out into a post and see what happens.

The State of Dysphoria has an Antinatalist Party which, as part of its party platform, contains the following policy statement. “We hold that conceiving and bearing children does irreparable harm to those children and that childbearing ought to be discouraged by appropriate public policies. We accept that human extinction is inevitable and believe that it would be better for such an extinction to take place sooner rather than later.”

After many years of increasing popularity the Antinatalist Party enjoys a great electoral success in Dysphoria, winning both the governorship and solid majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The new legislative majority proceeds to enact a set of policies consistent with its platform. These include.

  • Contraception of every useful kind, provided free to the users at professionally staffed clinics established throughout the state.
  • Abortion is made fully legal and for early-term abortions made available without burden or delay, again free to women who want it, at clinics established throughout the state, and protected against violence by vigorous security measures and strict laws protecting the clinics, their patients, and their personnel.
  • Surgical sterilization is made available, free to any patient who wants it, at state clinics. In addition to sterilization being free, individuals opting to undergo the procedure are provided with a generous credit on their state income tax.
  • Physicians are required by law to advise women seeking obstetric or gynecological care (other than emergency care) with the aim of continuing a pregnancy to delivery to advise their patients of the ready availability of abortion, of the fact that early-term abortion is substantially safer than delivery of a live infant, and are furthermore required to show their patients a professionally-produced video vividly depicting various ugly potential consequences of pregnancy (breech births, pre-eclampsia, amniotic fluid embolisms, etc.) as well as various horrible things that happen to children (genetic diseases, premature death, mental illness, being horribly injured in war etc.). Along the lines of a certain Internet-famous pamphlet, they are advised that all these bad consequences can be avoided by opting to have an abortion.

All of these public policies cost money, of course, which the state legislature raises by imposing a special surtax on the existing income tax in Dysphoria. Predictably, there’s anguished complaint from the political minority in Dysphoria about how their being compelled (sometimes, for rhetorical emphasis, “forced at gunpoint”) to pay for “immoral” policies. The last policy in the list above also draws angry objections from some physicians, especially Catholic physicians.

While the Antinatalist Party is busy with its program in Dysphoria, the Pro-Life Party wins U.S. Presidency. The Pro-Life Party has a platform plank which reads “We hold that children are a blessing and that life itself is a blessing. It is a duty imposed by the Law of Nature and Nature’s God to do everything both to protect the right of all people to exercise their procreative capacities and to protect all human life from conception to natural death.”

Naturally the Pro-Life President and her Attorney General are under considerable pressure to do something about those Antinatalists in Dysphoria and their insolent rejection of the Law of Nature and Nature’s God. Sitting up late with his law books one night, the Attorney General finds the following interesting provision in the United States Code. He underlines what he takes to be the most relevant provisions.

18 U.S. Code § 1091 – Genocide

(a)Basic Offense.—Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such—

(1) kills members of that group;
(2) causes serious bodily injury to members of that group;
(3) causes the permanent impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar techniques;
(4) subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part;
(5) imposes measures intended to prevent births within the group; or
(6) transfers by force children of the group to another group;
shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).

(b)Punishment for Basic Offense.—The punishment for an offense under subsection (a) is—

(1) in the case of an offense under subsection (a)

(1), where death results, by death or imprisonment for life and a fine of not more than $1,000,000, or both; and
(2) a fine of not more than $1,000,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both, in any other case.

(c)Incitement Offense.—
Whoever directly and publicly incites another to violate subsection (a) shall be fined not more than $500,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
(d)Attempt and Conspiracy.—
Any person who attempts or conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be punished in the same manner as a person who completes the offense.
(e)Jurisdiction.—There is jurisdiction over the offenses described in subsections (a), (c), and (d) if—

(1) the offense is committed in whole or in part within the United States; or
(2) regardless of where the offense is committed, the alleged offender is—

(A) a national of the United States (as that term is defined in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101));
(B) an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States (as that term is defined in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101));
(C) a stateless person whose habitual residence is in the United States; or
(D) present in the United States.

(f)Nonapplicability of Certain Limitations.—
Notwithstanding section 3282, in the case of an offense under this section, an indictment may be found, or information instituted, at any time without limitation.

In order to forestall an obvious short-circuit: The Attorney General is willing to accept a slightly tendentious reading of 18 U.S.C. § 1093(2) where “ethnic group” is defined (“the term ‘ethnic group’ means a set of individuals whose identity as such is distinctive in terms of common cultural traditions or heritage;”) and argue that all of humanity has common cultural traditions and heritage and that it is therefore an “ethnic group” within the meaning of the statute.

Swarms of Federal agents are sent to the state of Dysphoria to arrest the governor, his entire cabinet, the whole Antinatalist caucuses of both houses of the state legislature, and several hundred Antinatalist Party members on the grounds that they have either committed genocide within the meaning of (a)(5) of Section 1091 by imposing measures intended to prevent births within a relevant group, or that they have incited the same or conspired to do so.

Do the Pro-Lifers have a legal case? A moral case?

A second-best for religion

S’il n’y avait en Angleterre qu’une religion, le despotisme serait à craindre ; s’il y en avait deux, elles se couperaient la gorge ; mais il y en a trente, et elles vivent en paix et heureuses.

–Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques*

As a non-believer, I am inclined to want religion to just go the hell away. It is highly unlikely that this will happen. As one sage once observed, religion is the opium of the people. As another sage observed, life is pain, princess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. No one is ever likely to talk those in pain out of their opium.

What would be better than the status quo and more feasible than universal atheism would be for there to be a hundred “major” religions, distributed among the people such that the largest of them claims no more than four times the number of adherents as the smallest, and the beliefs and practices of which would be the most wildly variable. Life would certainly be colorful then, no one sect would be powerful enough to oppress all the others, and religious liberty might be a worthwhile concept, rather than a club with which the largest sects beat those who live or believe differently.


*“Sixième lettre sur les presbytériens,” URL: Accessed August 8, 2016. Return to main text.

The “golden” rule really isn’t

Do not do unto others as you would have that they would do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

–G.B. Shaw, as quoted by J.L. Mackie1

The religious and people who have a soft spot for religion like to appeal to the fact that some version of the maxim called “the Golden Rule” has a lot of interfaith currency, often implying that ubiquity, perhaps even the universality, of the rule implies a core of moral truth achieved by religion or religions. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a religious apologist cite the Golden Rule as an example of how kind and good and decent religions were are their cores.

A popular version of the Golden Rule comes to us from Christian scripture, offered to us by Jesus himself, where, along with a great deal of other advice Christians have spent many centuries somehow failing to follow, he offers this:

Matthew 7:12 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Though as with so many things in Christian tradition, it has been taken from an earlier Jewish tradition (without proper credit, of course). There is an earlier version of the rule, formulated by Rabbi Hillel. As with so many things in Jewish tradition, it comes with a poignant story attached.

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

I hate to have to disagree with the learned rabbi, but unfortunately there’s a problem. The Golden Rule is substantively empty. John Mackie certainly did not fail to noticed this fact:

The teetotaller may be happy to prescribe universally that no one should drink wine or beer, the philistine that old houses should never be allowed to prevent the construction of motorways or divert their course, the sturdy individualist that social services should be kept to a minimum. e may see little or no moral force in the protection of freedoms whose exercise we would not enjoy, and we may be more ready to regard as vices ways of behaving in which we not want — or at any rate which we do not consciously want — to engage.2

A generalization of Mackie’s point might be something like this: in order to apply the Golden Rule, someone needs to perform an operation which I’ll call the Inference to the Object, that is, figuring out what it is that the would have others do unto them (in Jesus’ formulation) or what it is that is despicable to you (in Hillel’s negative formulation). But the Inference to the Object requires the use of principles and premises that are not themselves part of the Golden Rule, and which furthermore vary significantly across persons.

For the acute of mind, Mackie’s observations should be enough to sink the Golden Rule, but I think that the point deserves to be driven home a bit harder. People are poor listeners, and certain points need to be made over and over again. So here goes: let’s borrow the characters from Amartya Sen’s presentation of the Paretian liberal paradox and update their preferences to a more contemporary issue set. The characters are called Lewd and Prude, and the issue is to whether Internet porn should be banished in their country.

Lewd reasons as follows: I think masturbation is just fine: quick, hygienic, and a pleasurable relief from the strains and miseries of everyday life. Having Internet porn around makes it quicker and easier to masturbate. I would hate to have someone take that away from me, and I would therefore not want to take that away from anyone. Following the Golden Rule, therefore, I am against prohibiting Internet porn.

Prude reasons as follows: I think masturbation is icky and degrading, even though it is pleasurable. If Internet porn is available, I will be tempted to masturbate to it precisely because it is pleasurable. I would hate for someone to make this temptation available to me, and I would be grateful to others if they would somehow make it unavailable to me. Following the Golden Rule, I am in favor of prohibiting Internet porn.

Neither Lewd nor Prude makes an incorrect Inference to the Object in trying to apply the Golden Rule, but manage to reach opposite conclusions in applying it. That’s a grave problem for the rule. (It might be the case that either Lewd or Prude is reasoning from incorrect premises, but if that’s the case then the only way to fix their reasoning is to fix their premises. Getting them to apply the Golden Rule more “correctly” won’t help them.)

The point made here generalizes. For any policy or behavior one wants to recommend, it is going to be possible to find (or, as needed, invent) premises that will make it somehow “required” by the Golden Rule. So viewed, the Golden Rule seems less like a cherished principle of morality and more of a rhetorical stick with which to beat people who disagree with you. Though on further reflection, perhaps there isn’t really that much of a distinction between those two things at all.


1J.L. Mackie, and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1990 [1977]), p. 89. Back to main text.

2Mackie, Ethics, p. 89. Back to main text.

You lose when you win and you lose when you lose

Don’t make the mistake of marrying the best possible husband, any more than you would make the mistake of buying the best possible car. They’re both likely to cost more than they’re worth to you.

Your ideal mate is probably close to ideal for a lot of other people, too. That means you’ll have to make concessions to win him and concessions to keep him — on every issue from how many children you’ll have to who’s cooking dinner tonight. A perfect husband is a costly extravagance. Most costly extravagances turn out to be mistakes.

–Advice intended by economist Steven E. Landsburg for his then nine year-old daughter.*

In Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître the eponymous Master observes “Tous les jours on couche avec des femmes qu’on n’aime pas, et l’on ne couche pas avec des femmes qu’on aime.” I observe that every day people get up and spend most of their waking hours doing what they do not love and not doing what they do love. The following Venn diagram illustrates an explanation for my observation which I believe will apply to most if not all people.


Think of the things you find rewarding to do. For me it likely means intellectual work — the life of a humanistic scholar and teacher, or pure scientist or pure mathematician. For others it might be a life of artistic achievement, as a writer, poet, musician, actor, dancer, whatever. For still others differently constituted it might involve rearing (their own) children or helping the less fortunate. All of these activities are richly rewarding for most of those engaged in them. They’re “meaningful.” Another thing they have in common is that if you devote yourself to any of them your expected lifetime monetary compensation will be shit. To be sure, in some of these activities there will be a handful of superstars — there will be some musicians like this — who command big returns. These superstars are the equivalent of lottery winners in their respective professions. As we’ve noted before, playing the lottery is not a rational life strategy. In some others like science and scholarship there are some opportunities for a barely middle-class existence, but very few relative to the number of aspirants and such opportunities as there are will be controlled by unpleasant gatekeepers who use them to enhance their own status and opportunities — most of academic hiring is like this. And in others you can pretty much just expect to starve. No one is going to pay you to rear your own children, and almost no one is going to pay even the next Byron to write poetry.

The reason that “meaningful” work is on average so poorly paid as at base the same reason outlined by Professor Landesburg as to why having a perfect spouse is a bad idea. If the work is meaningful to you, then it is highly likely to be meaningful to many, many other people. All the would-be writers, or scientists, or musicians trying to pile in drive down expected compensation to some socially-determined level of subsistence, or perhaps even lower than that.

Only the jobs that suck — ranging from that of the lowest man on the garbage collection crew to that of the slickest attorney fiddling the rules to allow her billionaire clients to pay less in taxes than their servants — are going to pay much to the non-winners in life’s lottery. People with work that needs doing can’t (yet, anyway) just enslave people who can do the work, and so some inducement, usually monetary, will have to be offered to overcome the general sense of weary disgust such work induces.

So if you’re like most people, your life will consist of an ugly choice. Try to do something you love and be poor or do something you do not love and be, well, if not exactly rich than at not poor, or at least less poor. Romantics will tell you to do what you love. But beware! Being poor, at least in a society like the contemporary United States does, not just mean having fewer things than other people. It means being exposed to the contempt and abuse of the rest of money-worshiping society, and having little recourse against such when it happens to you. It also means that even the simplest parts of life will be exhausting — try living without your own car in most parts of the country and see how that works out for you. Sticking with what you love is likely to be a very costly extravagance indeed.

Of course, doing what will make you not so poor is not picnic, either. It means coming home tired every evening and, if you are not good at self-deception, not good at forcing ugly inconvenient facts out of your mind, a follower of the bitter path of hard-nosed realism, you will realize that the spent state in which you are spending your evening will repeat itself over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times, down years and decades until it ceases only in your becoming a corpse, whether a traditional one rotting in the ground or a living one rotting in one of the facilities in which we warehouse our elderly will scarcely seem to matter.

That’s the choice most of you will face.

And if you have children, that’s the choice most of them will have thrust upon them, thanks to you.


*[I stupidly forgot to put in this note when I first wrote the post, and am correcting that now.] See Steven E. Landsburg, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life. (New York: Free Press, 1997), pp. 216-7. Back to main text.

Documenting a consolation of old age

A little while back I pulled from an historical novel a quotation, supposedly from Sophocles, about a certain consolation of old age. At the time, I was (typically) to busy to track it down to see if it was genuine. The answer appears to be that it sort of was. It’s from a speech attributed by Plato to Socrates. See Plato, the Republic, 1.329b, 1.329c, and 1.329d:

{329β] …νῦν δ᾽ ἔγωγε ἤδη ἐντετύχηκα οὐχ οὕτως ἔχουσιν καὶ ἄλλοις, καὶ δὴ καὶ Σοφοκλεῖ ποτε τῷ ποιητῇ παρεγενόμην ἐρωτωμένῳ ὑπό τινος: ‘πῶς,’ ἔφη, [329ξ] ‘ὦ Σοφόκλεις, ἔχεις πρὸς τἀφροδίσια; ἔτι οἷός τε εἶ γυναικὶ συγγίγνεσθαι’; καὶ ὅς, ‘εὐφήμει,’ ἔφη, ‘ὦ ἄνθρωπε: ἁσμενέστατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥσπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεσπότην ἀποδράς.’ εὖ οὖν μοι καὶ τότε ἔδοξεν ἐκεῖνος εἰπεῖν, καὶ νῦν οὐχ ἧττον. παντάπασι γὰρ τῶν γε τοιούτων ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ πολλὴ εἰρήνη γίγνεται καὶ ἐλευθερία: ἐπειδὰν αἱ ἐπιθυμίαι παύσωνται κατατείνουσαι καὶ χαλάσωσιν, παντάπασιν τὸ τοῦ Σοφοκλέους γίγνεται,[329δ] δεσποτῶν πάνυ πολλῶν ἐστι καὶ μαινομένων ἀπηλλάχθαι….

My Greek sucks to the point of near-nonexistence, but happily the Perseus Greco-Roman texts collection provides a translation.

But in fact I have ere now met with others who do not feel in this way, and in particular I remember hearing Sophocles the poet greeted by a fellow who asked,[329c] ‘How about your service of Aphrodite, Sophocles—is your natural force still unabated?’ And he replied, ‘Hush, man, most gladly have I escaped this thing you talk of, as if I had run away from a raging and savage beast of a master.’1 I thought it a good answer then and now I think so still more. For in very truth there comes to old age a great tranquillity [sic] in such matters and a blessed release. When the fierce tensions of the passions and desires relax, then is the word of Sophocles approved, 329d] and we are rid of many and mad masters. [Faustus — notes omitted]. trans. by Paul Shorey.

Well, if I’m unfortunate enough to reach old age, I can at least hope that Socrates was right.