Archives for category: Philosophy

Suicide isn’t all that difficult to condemn. It’s like murder. Nobody likes murder. Except it’s sad feels rather than angry feels because the person is killing themselves rather than the countless other people who deserve it far more. I mean some might say that all life is sacred, and all killing, the self or otherwise, is reprehensible. We’re going to ignore this because black and white morality is mind-numbingly dull. Suicide is at best seen as a crushing tragedy, and at worst as a selfish act ignoring the impact on those who care about the suicidee. But let’s look at some suicides that people look upon favourably, just to spice things up a bit.

Jesus Christ killed himself. I mean, not like Kurt Cobain-style which would have made for some much more interesting Christian iconography, but as an omniscient God, He is commonly believed to have been aware of His pending fate and lovingly allowed it to happen as a means of forgiving humanity our sins. He allowed His death when He could have easily prevented it. Sure, it was on some boring ol’ cross, but God sacrificed His son (which is to say, Himself). That’s suicide, baby.

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Can you imagine this decorating beautiful stained glass windows? Tell me it’s not the better imagery.

Next, in his penultimate life before he became the prince Gautama, the Buddha came across a family of starving tigers. Judging by my theme so far, you can probably guess that the Buddha gave himself to this family of tigers to sustain them… as their food. The tigers ate the Buddha. That’s literally how the story goes. Though much more personal than Christ’s sacrifice, the idea of allowing death for the sake of others is a common theme in divinity.

Bringing things back down to earth, in the Jain tradition where non-harm is considered the paramount duty, it is not uncommon for the fundamentalists who have reached the final stage of their life to go out into the wilderness, and simply meditate until their death. There is life within even the vegetation, (and the water supply, as microscopic organisms have the same life within them as everything else), and Jains don’t harm life. This devotion to non-harm at the appropriate time comes to its obvious culmination: the least harm one can do is to allow oneself to die.

In Japan, Seppuku is the honourable way to die for samurai who supremely fucked up in life. For those who don’t know, Seppuku is ritualistically stabbing yourself in the belly, and disemboweling yourself. This form of suicide was considered the opposite of selfish, as it restored honour rather than removed it. Also in Japan, the Kamikaze pilots would kill themselves for the glory of Japan. Again, a great honour.

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Japan stopped with Seppuku, and now we have anime. Go figure.

Soldiers throw themselves upon grenades to save their comrades-in-arms. Secret service get shot in the belly to protect the president. People shield others with their bodies during mass shootings. Suicide can be heroic. It can be divine. So why, when we say the word suicide, do we automatically assume negativity? Readers might want to suggest a difference between suicide and self-sacrifice, so let’s look at that distinction.

Self-sacrifice is a utilitarian measure. Utilitarianism is the moral system of creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people: maximize happiness, well-being, utility, whatever word you want to use, make the most of that thing. Though one life is snuffed out, the overall well-being of the rest of the world is increased. Jesus may have died, but now humanity is redeemed forever. That’s a pretty good trade. People dying for a good cause, self-sacrifice, creates better worlds. The good outweighs the bad. That is classic utilitarianism. That is trolley problem utilitarianism.

However, utilitarianism works both ways. If someone sacrifices themselves, and they possess great suffering, eliminating that suffering means that the world now has more well-being within it. The average goes up. If the suffering of the sacrificee outweighs the suffering of those who would be impacted by that sacrifice, utilitarianism would say that it is moral. There is no ethical difference between the two. Suicide and self-sacrifice are indistinguishable if the measurements come through. Boom. Ethics.

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See kids? Suicide is great because everyone will finally respect you, they’ll all realize how poorly they treated you, and the world will be a better place without you because everyone will learn a valuable lesson.

Now, you might be saying, that’s dumb; if that’s ethics, ethics is dumb. And you’re right. Utilitarianism is a terrible ethical system, but what makes it so terrible? I’ll give you another example. If a rapist enjoys rape more than the person being raped doesn’t enjoy it, then it’s moral. That’s how rapists think, and that’s how rape happens. The person who decides how happiness, well-being, whatever, ought to be maximized is going to be biased. I kinda think that any potential victim of rape would never reach that same conclusion, and yet they don’t get consulted. If they did, it wouldn’t be rape, because that’s how consent works.

What this means is that if you get feedback from your friends and family about how they’d feel if you killed yourself, and they came back to you either ambivalent or in favour, then sure, go for it. In Canada, we see this most commonly in what is termed medically-assisted death. People with terminal illnesses are able to commit suicide because the suffering that they endure is greater than the suffering of the loss felt by their friends and family. Loved ones should be consulted, obviously, but the utilitarian premise with the caveat of consent holds firm.

See? There can be a moral suicide. Just gotta make sure you talk it out with your loved ones first.

The role of leadership is often left unquestioned as a noble pursuit. Leaders are heroes, heroines, paragons of virtue whom we admire from afar. Even the vicious and corrupt, those leaders who govern by fear and intimidation, they too achieve a pernicious admiration, infamy in the maintenance of their tyrannical claim. They stand above us, statuesque, leaving no choice but to look up to them.

A leader is someone whom others follow, but if everyone’s goal is the same, why not walk in tandem, side by side? Why create an exploitable hierarchy at all? Leadership bestows upon us certain privileges, and in creating that role, we dilute our common goals with aims of obtaining those privileges, abandoning our original pursuit for the sake of immodest greed. If our goals diverge, obtaining followers would require coercion, and leadership would be simple charlatanism; deception, bribery, and extortion becoming our highest virtues. If we are on common ground, leaders are an unnecessary risk. If we differ, they are charming despots, apathetic in their oppression of our autonomy.

The first justification is wisdom. Leaders are knowledgeable, and so are justified in their position. This role is the teacher or the guide who provides us with knowledge that would be difficult to obtain on our own. Yet the goal of the teacher is not to hoard their position of prestige over the student, but to give of themselves until the student becomes their equal. The goal of the guide is that one day the trail may be shared with a peer. The intrinsic hierarchy of intellectual authority is tempered by its altruistic directive toward equality.

The second justification is that of stratagem. Leaders are keepers of the big picture, overseers of the forest while others focus on the trees. However, this is not a position of power; it is a different vantage point. If everyone’s goals are ultimately the same, the overseer serves more as a conductor of an orchestra, guiding the beauty of the process. Others follow because they see their goals fulfilled, not because of any power being exerted over them. If the goals diverge, or the leader ignores the minutia of the trees at the expense of their followers, those followers are well within their rights to adopt or elect new, more conducive, leadership.

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In a game that’s mostly pawns, you think they’d have some issue with their expendability. Maybe instead of marching forward against others just like themselves, they ought to turn around and demand change from those behind them sending them to their deaths.

The third justification is the figurehead. This is the leader people rally behind. The leader as symbol. One action or event may have thrust them, even unexpectedly, into the front of the crowd. This is not a position one can seek, since it is most often an accident. They are those who inspire us, never asking for followers because their goal is not actually to lead.

The fourth justification is organization. This is the person who takes the first step. The leader who sees where progress needs to be made, and seeks other like-minded people to share in this goal. This is a leader with initiative. They are not one step in front of everyone else, as the organizer might see that a figurehead ought to be the most visible in achieving their shared goal. The organizer simply sets up the march.

The final justification is change. This leader is someone who makes a difference. The world follows the new path that this leader has laid down. This leader is anybody. To quote the historian and social activist Howard Zinn, “Missing from such histories [of social activism] are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.”

A leader stands above others not because they exist in some power hierarchy over the rest of us, but because they embody one or more of these characteristics. Power within leadership is inherently coercive and corrupting. A leader is a friend who inspires us to be better; a parent who teaches us how to tie our shoe; someone who cleans up the mess, not because they made it, but because it needs to be cleaned. Or a leader can be you, making a tiny difference in the lives around you.

Huge spoilers for The Good Place. Just a heads up. Really you shouldn’t read this if you haven’t seen the show.

As is made explicitly clear within the show, the Good Place/Bad Place distinction is inherently an immoral system. Frequent reference is made to the need for a Medium Place for those whose behaviour does not lie at either extreme. The show also raises the question about the potential for change within every human, and how their ethical existence might evolve if they evade death and are given enough time and opportunity to do so. Eternal punishment for sins committed in a finite world is thus grossly disproportionate.

There are further problems that the show does not illustrate. For example, Chidi has no intention to harm, but his actions nonetheless cause harm to those around him. He is qualified for eternal punishment. Tahani raises considerable amounts of money for charity, but does not do so out of pure altruism. She too “deserves” eternal punishment. This means that both the intent and the consequences must equally be measured, and there seems to be no margin for error.  Preventing every harmful accident is an extreme that few if any would be able to accomplish. This system also heavily disadvantages those not born into privilege, as the obstacles to walking the tightrope of sufficient morality would become nigh insurmountable. Stealing to eat has both negative intentions and consequences, reserving the hottest spot in the Bad Place for those unlucky enough to be born into poverty. Immanuel Kant, Chidi’s go-to moral philosopher, famously stated that ought implies can, which means that in order for an action to even be measured morally, one must possess the capability to perform it in the first place. If ability is neglected in moral measurement, that measurement ought to be rejected.

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Kant went to the Bad Place for telling the truth to a killer at the door.

Chidi ought to be smart enough to reject the Manichean dichotomy of the Good Place, but he does not. His aim, once he learns he is not in the Good Place, is to get in. He wishes to participate in this unjust system; not only participate, he believes he is entitled to benefit from it. Chidi wishes to benefit from a system that privileges an arbitrary elite at the expense of the vulgar majority. The question is why. The show, amazingly, answers this question as well.

Chidi was born in Nigeria, and was raised in Senegal. Chidi’s parents likely would have been alive and young enough to intimately experience the civil war that tore Nigeria apart shortly after it won its independence out from under British colonialism. They emigrated to Senegal and spoke French, which likely means that his parents would have been supporters of the Biafra and would have fled shortly after the war ended due to their position on the losing side. They chose Senegal, a former French colony used to bolster their slave trade. Chidi must have been raised by parents who spoke of an enlightened France that sought to protect the Biafra minority, all the while ignorant of France’s motives to maintain a competitive edge in their African imperialism against the waning British Empire.

Chidi is an intellectual, and a moral philosopher, raised in a former French colony, and it is almost certain that he would have read Frantz Fanon, an intellectual raised in the French colony in Algeria. Similarly he would have read Albert Memmi, from Tunisia under again, French colonialism. Fanon describes the reaction to the unjust system of colonialism as necessarily revolutionary, often violent, while Memmi offers one alternative: assimilation. Given his exposure and his race, Chidi would have had a reaction toward these calls to rebel given by his peers.

Chidi taught at universities in France and Australia: his colonizers, and another colony that effectively eliminated its colonized. Every single philosopher he mentions throughout the show is European. This shows that he rejects revolution against unjust systems, and indeed prefers to assimilate. What he must have missed, or purposefully ignored, in Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized is that those who choose to assimilate neglect the fact that the racism of the colonial system will never allow complete assimilation. The colonized, the Other, will never be welcome in the colony because the system was designed around the notion of their inherent inferiority. His constant global migration could be a reaction to the racism he continued to face, even in the academic elite, as he battled the cognitive dissonance of European exceptionalism against his lived reality.

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Chidi, on the road to the Good Place, believes he is entitled to finally benefit from an unjust system. He had been trying to assimilate for so long that when he finally reaches what he believes is the Good Place, he never once questions it. In the 800+ reboots that the “Good Place” endures, Chidi is never the one who ever raises the question of the Good Place’s legitimacy. Even Jason figures it out, but Chidi is so blind by his desire for assimilation that he embraces his position within it every time. Chidi has internalized colonial racism to the extent that he can no longer question obviously and explicitly illegitimate systems.

The ethical response to an unethical system is revolution. Fanon quotes the famed Good Place entrepreneur Jesus Christ, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Rather than attempting to obtain a position of privilege over the oppressed majority, Chidi should voluntarily walk among those in the Bad Place, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and organize them against the Architects of their fate. Chidi would be quite happy in a library reading books for eternity, but to quote Fanon (referencing Marx) in Black Skin, White Masks, “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”

I mean, that would never happen because the Good Place is written by liberals who think that charity is the epitome of moral excellence, but hey. Season 3, prove me wrong. Vive la révolution!