Oct 302009

First, let me say that this will not be as long as Mark’s epic stream of consciousness review of ‘Stupidity’.  Second, let me say that this was a very odd movie that took me by surprise, but I think posed some interesting philosophical questions and so is appropriate for this forum.

A quick recap that will get you through the first 10 minutes of the movie without giving anything away:  20 years ago, a giant spaceship comes to earth and settles over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa.  And that’s it.  Nothing happens.  After a couple of months, people decide to go up and take a look.  Commandos board the ship and cut into it and find thousands of aliens inside, starving and aimless.  The aliens kind of look like 7 ft tall praying mantises (in any case bug-like).  The humans ‘rescue’ the aliens and put them in a restricted zone on the outskirts of the city called District 9. 

The suggestion is that the aliens have a ‘worker bee’ like mentality and they are missing their ‘brain bugs’ – so they can’t fix their ship or take care of themselves.  This also means that even though they have limited cognitive and language abilities, they can’t really integrate with human society.  There are tensions and violence between humans and aliens and the District becomes in effect a militarized refugee camp.  That’s the lead-in to the story and the beginning of the movie sees a documentary crew following a qausi-government organization that has been tasked with relocating the aliens from District 9 to a camp much further away from any human settlement.

One of the first questions that presents itself is whether and what ethical position the humans should take vis-a-vis the aliens.  Given that they have space travel, they are clearly an advanced race of sentient beings.  From a common sense perspective, I would think we would consider them as ‘ethical equals’ or at least acknowledge some kind of responsibility to treat them as we would other human beings (as opposed to insects or animals).  And I suppose this means that we would expect the same of them.

But do we treat them as ‘equals’ with ‘human rights’?  Bracketing out the issue of political rights for a second (they are, after all, not citizens of the Earth, much less South Africa) we have to ask ourselves whether we have the same moral obligation to them as we do to a fellow human being.  If so, why?  They are, after all, not human.  Do we assume that ‘human’ has really been a placeholder for ‘sentient being’ and that what we consider to be ‘human’ rights are really for anything that fits some criteria for sentience and perhaps other cognitive functions?

If you can even resolve this issue satisfactorily, the film further complicates the discussion by having humans only interacting with the ‘worker’ types from the alien race, who are more insect/animalistic and do not demonstrate  the necessary cognitive function and awareness to be considered ‘equals’.  Beyond meeting criteria for ethical status, the aliens also really aren’t able to enter into a ‘social contract’ with us.  So we have a sense that we might have an ethical obligation to the aliens really only by inference to the parts of their race that must have been capable of building the space ship, but the actual aliens we are dealing don’t have that capability and don’t appear to be able to breed or develop into it. 

Needless to say, the conscious or unconscious decision that the humans make regarding these questions dictate how they treat the aliens both at a ‘policy’ and a ‘personal’ level.  And, if you are like me, you will find yourself reacting to the events as they unfold in visceral, emotional ways that are clues to how you answer the questions above.

District 9 forces reflection on the nature of ‘natural’ or ‘human’ or ‘inalienable’ rights.  And while there is a clear social message (I read the film at least in part as making a commentary on the treatment of ethnic minorities or aboriginal cultures in Africa and elsewhere),  I think the movie elegantly challenges our assumed anthropocentric concepts of ethical agency and philosophical justifications for moral positions based on rationality or sentience.

OK, I lied.  This is as long as Mark’s post.  I guess we are equally prolix.

Oct 192009

Discussing Fundamental Principles (aka Groundwork) of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785).

We try very hard to make sense of Kant’s major ethical principle, the Categorical Imperative, wherein you should only do what you’d will that EVERYONE do, so, for instance, you should not will to eat pie, because then everyone would eat it and there would be none left for you, so too bad.

Also, Kant on free will, “things in themselves,” our duties to animals, and prostitution! Plus: Should you go to grad school?

Buy Kant’s book or read it online. The Allen Wood article “Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature” is here.

End song: “Stop” by Madison Lint (2003).

Oct 082009

The Partially Examined Life now offers a fine selection of overpriced T-shirts and a mug. Who will be cooler than you when you are sporting one or all of these on your person? Who? Tell me, please, as I’m honestly curious as to your no doubt mistaken apprehension on this topic. You having failed to give a satisfactory answer, I will provide one for you per my nature and/or perogative: No one, that’s who.

create & buy custom products at Zazzle

Oct 072009

We are exuberant fellows and have long discussed using this blog as a BLOG and not just as a podcast accompaniment, so I’m going to initiate an idea I’ve been wanting to try out, sort of…

You see, I’ve wanted to go beyond the bounds of the podcast and tell folks about the philosophy books I’ve stumbled over of late, largely in trying to figure out things for us to talk about on the podcast, but in most cases I only finish part of the book, and it seems unfair to “review” a book given that. However, let me be frank: I’ve got a big bookshelf of philosophy books, and how many have I read ALL of? Not many, not many at all. Most courses only assign select chapters, select papers; there’s never time to discuss it all. That there Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason? Took a semester course just on it, and still didn’t finish it. Being and Nothingness? Didn’t come close to finishing. Dewey’s Experience and Nature? Searle’s Intentionality? Bernard Williams’s Descartes? No no no. Yet I deign to have opinions on most of this stuff anyway (or at least I did when the bits I had read were fresh in mind). So, you likely deserve my only partially informed ramblings on the books I’ve lately gotten out of the library, read the first couple chapters of, let sit for 3 months while I renewed them, and then returned. You’re welcome!

Now, if that doesn’t sound amateurish enough, right now I’m going to give you a review of the first 3/5 of a movie, because after 41 minutes, I’ve got opinions I can no longer keep in check.

The movie is “Stupidity,” a documentary from 2003 that I stumbled over sitting at my computer looking at Netflix’s streaming options. I just spent about 10 minutes writing about the format of the documentary just to give you some background but erased it. It’s a documentary! …and not the kind that has to actually follow someone interesting around or go shoot difficult footage, but just lots of talking heads and overlaid graphics.

The film points out that most people have ill-defined notions of stupidity, and hence intelligence, and talks to some people who have written books about the subject and who otherwise seem to have opinions, and of course the point is that America is dumb, rejoices in dumbness, and it’s largely the media’s fault. I find it ironic that a film that complains about people’s short attention spans feels the need to, just like a music video, cut away to a different image every three seconds maximum to avoid audience boredom. And yet, for me, it’s not enough. This is basically an informational piece, and there’s some real information in it, such as the historical, clinical definitions of “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” but I find myself wanting to just be reading the damn thing on Wikipedia, such that I could get all this publicly available information in three minutes rather than an 41.

After this sort-of interesting historical stuff is out of the way, then the movie just shows a bunch of people complaining about idiocy without doing anything to really add to my understanding of it. Yes, I understand that media editorial departments enforce an “audience target age” that means that not too many big words can fit in there. Yes, I understand that some TV shows are created simply as escapism, and, if poorly made, do so via a very limited number of tricks, i.e. murders, big guns, jiggling asses, people getting lit on fire, etc., but this all sounds to me like complaints about the 80s, where media were limited.

I have of late myself become addicted to big stories, whether in print or on film or whatever, which means, for instance, that I’ll get ahold of a season (or five) of a TV show with a continuous plot (like The Wire, Babylon 5, or Dexter) and watch it compulsively until it’s done. This kind of TV is very different from the Diff’rent Strokes and Three’s Company of my youth that was created purely to kill time and sell advertising, and yet, for me, it’s still passive, vegetating time on the couch, i.e. the putting oneself into a stupor that the film Stupidity objects to.

Likewise, after philosophy grad school, as an adult with some nice pretentious literature behind me, I went through a Stephen King phase… a writer read by many a dumbass who uses violence as titillation and consciously avoids any language (big words and such) that would trip anyone up and so interfere with the storytelling, and I’ll tell ya what: it generally works. I get sucked in, and I think I’m deadened enough to described violence that it just seems like some of the flavor of it to me… something that creates the mood but which could just as well be switched to something else to create a different, equally compelling mood.

So I’m not going to defend my country and my era against stupidity, and the film reminded me of the topic and provided me with some nuggets of information, but my view on the topic is about the same as when I started, which I’ll just tell you: Intelligence is a cultural myth, a reduction of a lot of very different capacities and behaviors to a one-dimensional scale that doesn’t make much sense. It’s not just “book smarts” vs. “street smarts” or “common sense” vs. “intellectualism;” there are just certain sets of things that make a given individual’s brain hurt when he or she tries to think about them, and so he or she generally DOESN’T, and philosophy is often one of those things, though not generally for me. I, however, have plenty of experiences of terminal inattentiveness, feeling “too tired to think” about some topic whenever it comes up, just not being able to get my mind around things, poor memory, etc. I’m convinced that these experiences are not fundamentally different than those had by someone pretty unambiguously dumb, and there are a lot of factors that go into how we each individually deal with those feelings. Do we have faith that even though this math stuff or Kant or investment crap or sports statistics or whatever seems so hard that we COULD figure it out with effort? It often depends on how we’ve dealt with such things in the past; my little nephew who doesn’t know his own limitations will ALWAYS volunteer to take a crack at anything you’re having trouble with, no matter how obviously inappropriate for a seven-year-old. Self-confidence is a lot of it, and practice is most of the rest. Yes, some people do a lot better on standardized tests, some people think better on their feet, some people can read Nietzsche while driving, but they’re all basically the same breed of dumbasses as the rest of us.

I’ve still got plenty of questions about stupidity: some positive puzzles brought up by some of the Nietzsche I’m reading for Episode #11, like what basic, necessary errors are necessary for us to live, or what crap we’ve inherited from our culture that we just can’t see past, or what can we possibly do to turn this era around and make it less stupid, but “Stupidity” doesn’t give me any insight on those questions. (Well, maybe it does at the end, but my prediction says no.)

So, there you go, a half-assed film review that’s now made me too tired to bother to see the rest of the film, told you not that much about the movie, and ended with a painfully inadequate account of one of my own half-formed views that you didn’t actually ask for. Again, you’re welcome!