Archives for posts with tag: The Republic

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes one of the capabilities of our automatic brain functioning as being able to match intensities between two completely irrelevant things. Lucky for me, the example that he uses is crime and punishment:

If crimes were colors, murder would be a deeper shade of red than theft. If crimes were expressed as music, mass murder would be played fortissimo while accumulating unpaid parking tickets would be a faint pianissimo. And of course you have similar feelings about the intensity of punishments. In classic experiments, people adjusted the loudness of a sound to the severity of crimes; other people adjusted loudness to the severity of legal punishments. If you heard two notes, one for the crime and one for the punishment, you would feel a sense of injustice if one tone was much louder than the other.

For those of you who have read Deuteronomy, this sounds an awful lot like an eye for an eye. We want the intensity of a crime to match the intensity of its punishment, but unfortunately, this thinking is automatic and wholly irrational. This is easy to see when you consider that a tonal range should in no way be responsible for the judicial bedrock of a civilization.

Further problems arise with this method of justice in other areas which Kahneman investigates. Automatic thinking is prone to extreme bias, and one of these biases is anchoring. Anchoring is an estimation being influenced by an offered baseline. For example, when estimating the price of a painting, and being shown on an irrelevant slip of paper the number 10, the estimation will be closer to the number 10 than if that irrelevant number was 100 (where the estimation would be higher). It’s why haggling salespeople will always start their initial offer extremely high as this baseline will strongly influence the buyer’s counteroffer. Relating this back to justice, if we assign the punishment of murder to being drawn, quartered, and mounted on a pike on the intensity scale, then it seems somewhat reasonable that a punishment for bank robbing might be getting one’s hands chopped off. If our baseline for murder was lower at say, 25 years to life in a modest correctional facility, then robbing banks might get 5 years or so in a similar institution. Our baseline scale of intensity will anchor how we determine what is an appropriate punishment for any given crime.

Another bias of our automatic thinking system is priming. A study Kahneman refers to shows that individuals who are exposed to words that signify being elderly, even without explicitly stating it, will actually cause them to physically slow down. The same is true with being exposed to symbols of money causing people to act more selfishly. Human beings are incredibly susceptible to subconscious influences, so if, for example, one person was exposed to the shooting of Philando Castile, while another was exposed to the subsequent shooting of the Dallas police officers, you can imagine the views they might have on the intensity of certain crimes and their reflective punishment.

Demanding an eye for an eye is thus entirely arbitrary, and therefore pointless to enforce, yet people clamour for it all the time. I don’t want to attribute this stupidity to visceral animality just yet, so let’s go back to Deuteronomy for a bit.

You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

I suppose that the eye for an eye is supposed to warn others to avoid following the criminal path. Nobody wants to lose an eye; it’s when things stop being fun and games, after all!  Except punishment has never been a deterrent. Harm actually perpetuates the opposite of justice, further destabilizing its already tenuous hold. Plato dismisses harm, even against one’s enemies, as plain preposterous. He compares it to harming a horse, as harming a horse reduces its capacity to be an excellent horse. Similarly, harming a person reduces their capacity to be an excellent person, and if we consider justice to be a form of human excellence, then punishment actually increases injustice. To show its true absurdity, I thus quote: “Will good men use their goodness to make others bad? It is not the function of heat to cool things, but of its opposite.” I’ve explained why punishment is barbaric on top of stupid before, for those seeking greater confirmation.

Plato offers another insight into the eye for an eye metaphor, asking us to consider justice as the settling of a debt. If something is taken, it must be returned in kind. This is a somewhat more civilized version, but it is just as quickly disregarded as Plato says that if someone lends you a weapon, and then falls into a murderous rage, it is not just to return to them their weapon. The context both of the initial contract, and the circumstances of its fruition, are both dependent on factors outside of the contract itself that make it just. A debt incurred out of necessity or coercion, for example, or a payment demanded at an inopportune moment are both insufficient to be declared a form of justice.

No matter how you look at it, eye for an eye justice is only ever an excuse to act out our sickest fantasies. It’s probably why Jesus Christ decided to get rid of it as a religious tenet:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

So unless you’re Jewish, any religious excuse is irrelevant. However, we still clamour for a providence of violent retribution. A perfect example is Vince Li, who brutally murdered and cannibalized the man sitting next to him on a Greyhound bus because he believed that God was telling him to do so. Li was declared not criminally responsible due to mental illness, and so the population expressed through various comment sections that Vince Li needed to die. I suppose they claim the same right to divinely ordained violence as Li, only they do not have a mental illness justifying their frothing wrath. People tend to place the responsibility for their sadism at the feet of the original victim and their family if not at the feet of God, as if granting them the right to schadenfreude is the perfect means for healing. Vengeance is no form of justice, no matter whose name it is done under.

What is justice, then? Well, I’ve already answered that one. Those of you who have read that earlier article can feel smug for knowing the answer this whole time.

Many people assume that philosophy is actually pretty useless. It can really only get you a job teaching philosophy, and its practical uses are pretty much nil. You can’t eat it; it can’t move you about on four wheels, or even two wheels, so why bother?

If Socrates was a real person, he might have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It is better to critically analyse yourself and your surroundings as it will lead to a more fulfilling existence than not doing these things. John Stuart Mill, someone who is definitely a real person, said:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.

Being able to think critically, not only about yourself but about the world, can have some practical effects as well, such as the ability to engage in political debate or understand social issues that might pertain to your community or yourself. But perhaps this is a little too pretentious. There are those who would argue that the simple life has its own merits, and that being able to enjoy a cold beer and a football game is the greater experience over fretting over the validity of escapism.

If one accepts that scientific pursuit is of value, such as finding out which elements make up a rock on the moon, then perhaps one might expect there to be value in questioning why there are rocks on the moon in the first place. Martin Heidegger’s question, “Why are there essents (translation: things that exist) rather than nothing?” is described as being the original philosophical question. Why even is there a universe wherein rocks and moons can exist? If curiosity in regards to the material universe is valid outside of the drive for profits, then it follows that curiosity in regards to other aspects of the universe is equally valid.

Maybe a materialist would argue that there cannot be anything other than an empirical universe and so to question why things are is meaningless, but Karl Jaspers raises an interesting counterpoint:

“If by “world” I mean the sum of all that cognitive orientation can reveal to me as cogently knowable for everyone, the question arises whether the being of the world is all there is.”

 It is a little naïve and narcissistic to think that only what we can experience with our heavily flawed sensory organs, or comprehend within the limits of our human intellect, is all that there can possibly be within this universe. Friedrich Nietzsche puts it even less politely:

“Would it not be rather probable that, conversely, precisely the most superficial and external aspect of existence—what is most apparent, its skin and sensualization—would be grasped first—and might even be the only thing that allowed itself to be grasped? A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it be one of the poorest in meaning.”

 I do appreciate a man who flat out calls science stupid.

But maybe you reject metaphysics. Maybe this is all there is, or you subscribe to the belief that if we can’t experience it, or it doesn’t materially affect the universe in such a way that we can measure it, then it is, again, meaningless and pointless to discuss. Of course this doesn’t take into account that we could possibly experience it in some way outside of our sensory or intellectual selves (for example the accumulation of Karma, perhaps, which affects us but not in a way that we would ever be able to materially measure) but let’s just ignore that point for now. Let’s say this is all there is.

Do you think that it’s important to discuss what’s good and bad? Or even to come up with an idea as to what “good” even means? Heidegger agrees that there is no imminent practical use of philosophy, but says, “We cannot do anything with philosophy, [but] might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?” Adam Smith was a philosopher of economics, from whence we obtained capitalism which now dictates how our entire world is run. Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes have offered their own views on the economy which have affected the world in their own significant ways as well. The philosophy of René Descartes dictates how we view our sense of self: as a discrete subject separate from the rest of the universe. Philosophy can change entire paradigms.

But maybe changing the world still isn’t good enough. You want a practical job that’s not a professor. Something with prestige. Plato argues that philosophy isn’t only practical, but it is the ideal for leadership. He advocates that any type of ruler should be a philosopher in its most literal sense, as a lover of knowledge. A lover of knowledge would endlessly pursue it, and in doing so would be able to apply any knowledge gained to the society underneath him or her. With knowledge as one’s passion, the love of power would not exist, and there would be a disdain for rule that the philosopher would possess: another quality for governance that Plato found necessary.

So start a revolution based off of The Republic, and then your philosophy major can finally net you a ballin’ career path… which, um… upon reflection, still doesn’t actually pay all that well.