Sunday, December 9, 2012

What the farmer can learn from the hunter (and vice-versa)

When man turned agricultural, it was a step toward civilisation, but also something was lost. Forethought made him see the future benefits of tilling the soil, which is opposed to the immediate returns (and pleasure) of hunting and gathering. Each subsequent grand civilization has since then built on an agricultural staple-food, but outbursts of instinctive passion in form of art, sport and war have accompanied this rise of civilization. The conflict between the rational and instinctive aspects of human nature has raged ever since, sometimes leading to periods of hedonism, sometimes to austerity and introvertism.

Religion has often claimed to reward sacrifices in this life with benefits in another world, but many religious prophets have justified their gospel arguing that their believes are the practically best way of organizing this life, too.

The economic sphere also reflects this dualism. Credit promises the good life now (if one accepts the hedonistic account it is rational to act so). Saving is the opposite conception, having the maxim of sacrificing the short term benefit to reap long-term rewards, but this can be self-defeating. Such a mindset puts stability and safety before pleasures. The European debt crisis and the disagreement over its cure, exemplify the problems with both approaches.

The issue at stake can also be cast in terms of freedom. Isaiah Berlin speaks of two kinds of liberty. Negative freedom is linked with opportunities, or the absence of external restraints and might be (crudely) associated with bodily pleasures. Positive freedom is obtained through self-mastery, or the dominance of the mind over body’s desires.  But it is difficult to agree on what constitutes the good life, so Rousseau notably thought it necessary to “force man to be free”. Not without reason points Berlin to the inherent danger of positive freedom.

Finally, the concept of a person (as opposed to an animal) is often defined  as being able to form and act upon second-order desires (desires about desires). Harry Frankfurt discusses the case of two drug-addicts desiring their stuff. Both end up taking the drug,  but one does so with indifference, whereas the other one struggles with his lower-order desire, wishing that he did not have it. According to Frankfurt only the second drug-addict is a person, the other one a wanton.

Very crudely, the questions seems to turn on whether mind- or bodily pleasures bring the ultimate reward, and people have disagreed about its answer ever since civilization emerged from the woods. Socrates famously thinks that the highest state of mind is obtained by understanding and contemplation and that philosophers, being the wisest, should rule the state, but footballers and alpha-male politicians tend to disagree with this view. Pythagoras stipulates an interesting compromise, mixing intellectual curiosity with Orphic intoxication in mysticism.

What can one still learn from this today?

Two phenotypes might want to be distinguished in current society, without claim on exhaustiveness and acknowledging that those traits are likely to be mixed in most people.
On one side of the spectrum there are those who obtain pleasure through self-mastery. Examples can be found in intellectual circles, among policy-wonks and philosophers (not all). On the other side there are those who are mainly driven by their instincts and acquire pleasure through their satisfaction. We may call the former, the philosophical farmer and the latter the hedonistic hunter.
The intellectual, having felt the delight that comes with understanding in some moments, might ask herself if she does not miss out on something, in other moments, when she contemplates society from afar. The hedonist, on the other hand, having indulged in the satisfaction of his desires, might find himself overwhelmed by conflicting desires, struggling to work out which ones he prefers. Similarly, he might harbour suspicions that unknown pleasures lay in a different realm.

It seems that farmer and hunter can learn from each other. The farmer is well advised to let out the hunting spirits, while the hunter can benefit from the farmer’s more settled long-term view.

I would like to conclude with some remarks concerning commitment, a topic I have recently dwelt on. At the time I investigated the case of the restless international and his relation to commitmentphobia. It seems that the hunter can be couched in terms of the restless international. Commitment can be understood as taking the long-term view, whereas short-term indulgence in opportunities would be like the pleasure taken out of hunting. The difficult issue of course, as Berlin remarked, is that there is not one receipt for everyone, and finding out what ones wants involves following ones desires.

- Isaiah Berlin, two Concepts of Liberty
- Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Social Contract
- Harry G. Frankfurt, Freedom of the will and the concept of a person

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Justice and responsibility

Is judgement a bad thing? The question seems dangerously circular. Answering it requires judgement. It seems that a proponent of an affirmative answer is automatically guilty of judging.
Maybe making the proposition axiomatic helps? Judging judgement bad is not bad, but each subsequent judgement is. This avoids the circular definition, but one ends up in nihilism. It requires Christian goodness to not judge the murderer, rapist or pederast. Even so, the Christian cannot forsake judging in good conscience since he must believe that the Almighty will bestow ultimate justice upon uncondemned sinners
[1]. An atheist can dodge heavenly dilemmas, but if judging is bad, not-judging the before-mentioned offenders is (question beggingly) worse.
But might one not say that these are extreme examples, readily used to call for the death-penalty, but of no help in everyday life? It seems that this provides no relief. Wherever one looks, everyday life is full of judgement, from the morning choice of fair-trade coffee to settling the dispute about the TV programme in the evening. The still unregenerate will come to appreciate justice when suffering its lack at the hands of unfair superiors at the workplace, when realizing that without judgment they can neither love nor beloved, or, ultimately, when seeing humanity evaporate in the nihilistic world lacking this essential ingredient of human feelings; justice.

But is judgment, then, a good thing? If judgment is judged good, there is no circular logical problem as before. But examples of judgmental behaviour can be readily produced and it is clear that they are not good at all. The religious fundamentalist judging the heathen inferior, or the media frenzy publicly and mercilessly condemning a supposed offender without neither granting a fair trial nor being in possession of all the facts, are clear examples of negative judgmental behaviour.

To shed some light on this confusion, it seems useful to distinguish judging from being judgemental. Judging is concerned with the important concept of truth. The related term “justice” involves giving everyone their due, a principle that everyone, if not being satisfied, at least can live with. King Solomon, who did not hesitate to judge, epitomises what is good in a just ruler. Being judgemental, on the other hand, is associated with reinforcing someone’s pretext on a matter. It includes judging prematurely, without being in possession of all the facts that could be at ones disposition. Expressing the opinion that one can consider herself lucky to have a nice and non-violent Muslim man, is being judgemental, because it links the Muslim faith to violence, whereas obvious alternative hypothesises (such as culture or geographic origin) explaining the itself dubitable impression of generally violent behaviour of some group are not considered.
This shows how ignorance is related to being judgmental. Lacking knowledge of certain facts might make a judgement seem fair. Its judgemental and ignorant character only comes to light once additional knowledge is gained. It is clear that one man’s ignorance is another one’s wisdom. The link between religious indoctrination and being judgmental is equally clear.
It then seems that it is the latter, rather than the former that one has in mind when worried about being judgemental. In fact, the intuitive usage of the language provides ready help. Being judgemental has a negative connotation. Having judgement is much more positive. The verb to judge lies in-between, its being perceived positive or negative depending on the context. It seems that precisely what is needed to balance between the two is … judgement.

Where does the popular fear of being judgmental come from? Some of it can certainly be explained by the general spirit of our rapidly changing times that is suspicious of all judgment, for fear of hurting ever shifting social boundaries. But there clearly is a noble intention behind withholding judgment for fear of doing injustice to someone. After all, how can we be sure to know all facts and to not make a terrible mistake in passing down our judgment on the innocent? But here the problem turns epistemological. Ultimately we cannot know that we know anything and, that we are really not dreaming. But this leads to solipsism. So again, if we accept that we can have knowledge, it can also be possible to be reasonably sure of the facts and then to be able to make a fair judgment.

But there is another reason why someone would avoid judging or being judged. It seems that judgement is related to responsibility. Judgments are associated to actions, either directly, since responsible[2] action requires prior judgement, or indirectly by influencing others to act in a certain way. A wish to refrain from judging is thus also a wish to not be held responsible[3]. Of course, as discussed earlier, this is impossible.
It is insightful to realize that the link between judging and responsibility works both ways. By not judging, one avoids being responsible for the consequences of one’s judgment. By avoiding to be judged, one puts ones actions outside the realm of justice and morals.

My intention here was by no means to give a defence of judgement in the negative sense. Examples in which it is wise or opportune not to judge, for example until further information becomes available, or because one thinks not to be in a position to judge, are plentiful, and precisely related to the difference between (good) judgment and being judgmental. Indeed, I think that readiness to withhold or delay judgement, until more careful examination is possible, would make society a better place to live in. Nevertheless, the fact that responsibility is linked to acting, and acting to judging remains intact, and the same goes for the practical and conceptual impossibility to not judge at all.

[1] An additional complication is that according to the Divine Command theory God’s doing something makes the act god. God’s judging would thus seem to be good and bad at the same time
[2] General irresponsible action would be rightly considered inhuman
[3] How judgment and responsibility relate to the capability to accept criticism would provide for an interesting continuation of this investigation

Monday, February 6, 2012

beans^2 + revolution^2 = insight^2 ?

Pythagoras, said to be one of the intellectually most important men who ever lived, would have had a hard time in Yemen. This is not due to Yemeni’s disrespect of geometry; beautifully shaped semi-circles decorate traditional windows, but due to the prevalence of beans in Yemeni diet.
Pythagoras made groundbreaking advances in mathematics and founded a religion, based on the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. While Islam’s account of paradise would have certainly pleased him, the amount of beans munched in the country would make him turn in his grave by more than 180 degrees straight.
That Pythagoras would not seem entirely at ease here is altogether fitting, as I find notions of my journey reflected in the combination of mystic and rational elements of his philosophy.

Beans, fuul in Arabic, are easiest to dispose of, and shall be treated first. Pythagoras presumably banned beans drawing on an older pagan cult. Yet even the people of his times would have none of it and revolted wherever Pythagoras managed to get his religion instigated. In Yemen, it did not take the prohibition of beans for people to revolt, but I shall come to this later, and talk about Yemeni staple-food before. Apart from fuul, which is the poor mans, breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are many other exciting dishes. One that is only found in Yemen is called Salta. I personally do not like Salta very much, but eating out in a Salta place is an experience. Salta, a mixture of eggs, tomatoes, spices and meat, served with fresh bread, is prepared in enormous pots on deafening gas-burners. The chef and his pots usually stand somewhat elevated and a crowd gathers before the pot, shouting up their orders while wielding the corresponding money. Once ones pledge has been heard, one tries to find a place at one of the many simple tables in the eating hall and waits for the waiter to eventually bring the order. So hot is the massive iron pan containing the food that the waiter, amid much shouting, literally cuts his way through the crowd.
What is interesting is that all this could clearly be organized differently, as a Yemeni friend remarked, but people seem to like it that way. One cannot help and wonder if something of the Yemeni warrior tradition manifests itself in the Salta place, as the people in the melee wear wild turbans, scarves and the obligatory swords, adding to the unique atmosphere of eating Salta.

 I now come to the revolution. As I said, it did not take a bean embargo for Yemenis to revolt, but an equally important philosophical concept: Freedom. Inspired by similar revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis have been trying for a year, as I write these lines, to rid themselves of their President. The result of which was the deployment of troops in the city, massive shootings, demonstrations, artillery shells raining down on some quarters, protester camps, security forces, tanks on each crossway, clashes and explosions.. for a year, until President Saleh finally left the country.
While people are incredibly proud and hopeful about the future, one can barely imagine what kind of ordeal normal citizens have been through. Living with an ordinary family, I get to see the family view, with young kids terrorized and parents in deep worry about their family’s future. Now that most of the ordeal is over, I remark how happy they are for their children to play again, as a notion of returning normality.
In a journey trough the city I am told all the places where tanks would be positioned just until a week ago, and which places came under artillery fire. I see the schools that have been used by the government as ammunition dumps and firing positions and on some days I watch fighter jets landing at the airport. (where they come from, I do not know). In the old city, I try to avoid the buildings with Baghdadesque security. Earth walls reinforce the many concrete blocks, barbed wire, armored vehicles and forward shooting positions even hundreds of meters before the fortifications.
Yemen is a politically very diverse environment, and one never quite knows who the fortifications, vehicles, soldiers and planes belong to, but fears that they might not necessarily be on the same side and unleash their respective shells onto the other side at any moment.

According to the theory of the transmigration of souls, the immortal soul leaves the body after the body’s death to continue living somewhere else. This is what seems to have happened to Sanna, too. After the death of the former regime, life has clearly come back, and there is a sense of a new beginning. People are back fighting for Ghat, instead of their lives, the souk in the old city bristles with life and the overall feeling is one of people celebrating their country’s rebirth. The celebrating is also extended to the nights, though, in which I often lay awake, struggling to distinguish wedding fireworks, wedding shootings, door knocking, real shootings, explosions, falling onto the floor on top of me of heavy items and kids setting off improvised fireworks in the street.

I want to finish with some thoughts about why I have come here. Pythagoras, as it happens, exemplifies a philosophic schism that I have found useful to explain my wanting to come to Yemen. As happens often in dialectic writing, it is only by way of many detours that we arrive at the final conclusion, and, it dawns on me, the many postings about earlier journeys have helped me to both physically and mentally arrive here.
The conflict between our rational and instinctive side is a timeless one, and also lies at the heart of the current European crisis. In the struggle between self-mastery and satisfaction of bodily desires, everybody has to find his own equilibrium, but is advised to stay clear of the extremes. In Pythagoras’s philosophy, ratio and mysticism are closely united, as can be seen in his understanding of progress in geometry as a way to get closer to god.
My journey here has also been one of self-mastery and satisfaction. As I understand that coming here, against all odds, is yet another exercise in emotion control (fear), I also dwell in the energy and chaos of Sanaa, like there was no tomorrow. As I think about this, I realize that my desire to risk my neck has gone, but that I can nevertheless enjoy the place.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

elevator arithmetics

I am fascinated by elevators. Each of the many times a day I employ one of the four means of horizontal locomotion in my workplace, I think about ways to further optimize speed of transportation, overall throughput or waiting time. My deliberations have nothing to do with my general unease about awkward situations involving co-workers, but date back to my first independent living experience in (or better said, on top of) an old peoples home. The only way to reach the ground floor was to traverse, by means of lift, 5 floors of old peoples home, smell of fumigation included.
The four top-notch high-speed hoists that now ease my daily displacements are a far cry from the sole elevator in front of whose door I remember often having waited for the better part of 10 minutes. Something good has come out of the sufferance, though. Having spent so much time awaiting (and understanding) the lift, I am now well equipped for elevator analysis.

Many people neither understand nor appreciate the two-tier elevator button system, by which one can indicate whether one wants to go up or down. One can only wish them to never have to wait for ones lift to grind its way up through five floors of a residence, taking a 1 minute break on every floor, only to do the same again on its way down. The two-button system is constructed to avoid redundant stops for multiple persons showing up after each other, on the same floor, when the lift travels to another floor in-between. The following situation exemplifies. Person A, wanting to go down, stops the lift on its way up. Person A gets on-board, and the lift continues its journey upwards to fetch person B, after which it starts going down. In the meantime, person C shows up on the same floor where person A got on. Had the lift initially not stopped because the two-tier button indicated that that A wanted to go down, and fetched person B directly, person A & C could have boarded in only one, rather than two, stops.

The above behaviour is all the more nasty the longer a lift stops on any given floor. A well placed door-closer button helps in situations in which the lift has been accidentally stopped (or colleagues change heart and/or continue chatting). This is the more appreciated the longer it takes for the doors to close; memories of the door-inhibitors in my first lift still let me lay awake at night.. 20 seconds ARGHHH... In my current workplace, the door closer button certainly features prominently on top of the ranking of most pressed buttons, even above the cafeteria one. Why this is so is everybody's guess, but possible explanations are that this is an expression of peoples general unease of the elevator situation, or the haste with which business is conducted nowadays.
What I have been wrestling with, though, is whether the door closing buttons make an actual difference. My inbuilt clock tells me that the door does not close any sooner, despite repeated button pushing. I intend to investigate the matter, by way of stop-watch, shortly.

Once these rather trivial issues are addressed, one can get down to the high-art of elevator optimization.

Having multiple cabins, the responsible lift optimizer should not simply leave the lift where it stops. It clearly makes no sense to have more than one cabin waiting on the same floor, except in exceptional circumstances. Instead of leaving them to linger alongside, it would reduce waiting time for people on other floors, if a lift was waiting for them there already. By rule of thumb, a good approach would be to preposition cabins equidistantly from each other, such that the waiting time on any floor is minimized.

While this gives already a quite good result, there is still some room for manoeuvre. The equidistance scenario is only the best solution if people appear randomly on random floors. However, experience shows that that the lift load of different floors vary over time. Statistical analysis of past demand, can send lifts to those floors where demand has been highest around this time in the past.

The elevator enthusiast's conundrum heads to its daily climax between 12.30-14.30h when one lift is cut off from the main system, to ferry passengers between the ground floor and the cafeteria only. Ostensibly this is to prevent guests entry into the organization, but one wonders why nothing is done about lunchers trying to penetrate from the cafeteria on. Since the measures' merit for security is shaky at best, I wonder if they at least contribute to the systems' efficiency, e.g. by providing extra capacity where it is needed most.
At first glance the measures seem to be a distortion. Capacity is reserved for one trajectory, to the detriment of all others. While those travelling from bottom to the top (and back), enjoy a quick ride, everybody else disposes only of three, instead of four, lifts at the crucial lunch time, when most people undertake their displacements.
But there are also reasons supporting the arrangement. Due to the high passenger volume from outside the trajectory ground-floor attic would be in constant demand anyway. This means that these resources are not diverted from the rest than would be the case under the normal arrangements. But the fact that the special lift cannot stop in-between means that unnecessary halts are avoided. Since the special cabin is almost always full, these stops would not serve any purpose, since nobody could get on.
An additional benefit is that by reserving resources for a trajectory in high demand, overall waiting time is reduced. Since a lift cannot know how many people are waiting when the button is pushed, equal treatment of all floors would prejudice a majority. It is better to go and get the 10 people downstairs than the single one on the second floor.

The ultimate measure to unload the system is to take the stairs though. A variant of this is to refrain from calling the lift wherever it suits, but to take the stairs to a high volume floor where the likelihood of getting a "free ride", with someone who was there already, is higher. Practically, this is what I do in the morning after storing my bike in the garage on P1. Instead of calling the lift and divert resources, I climb to the ground floor, where almost everyday someone is getting on the lift anyway.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Out of touch?

Being in Barcelona always triggers a lot of soul-searching in me, although things have gotten a lot better recently after a fortunate if casual encounter with a girl who, like me, came to Barcelona, but stayed on for 10 years, after which she finally left the city for good. Coming here is nevertheless insightful as it provides me a way to compare what is, with what could have been.

I realize that I am seriously out of touch. When I speak to my friends, I talk about New Delhi, Sofia and Teheran, and the many things that have happened since I was here last, factually not very long ago, even though it seems to me that ages have passed. My friends, conversely, do not seem to have done much, apart from living their lives, tranquilly and peacefully in the same place. My sensations are reminiscent of the ones I had when I visited friends in Hamburg, or even Munich, for that matter. The only place where my kind of live seems to be normal is in Geneva, where I happen to be living. I have been suspecting this for a while, but it is becoming ever more evident that there is a gap between my life-style, conception of live and topics of conversation and almost everybody else’s. I am restless, global and troubled, while my friends are calm, local (in bad moments I would say provincial) and happy, even though many of them struggle with ordinary life much more than I do.
I am most astonished by the different of speed. Taking in so many impressions, locations and people has become so much of a habit that it is priceless to see how much beauty of detail lies in a life that is focused on a home in which you see people and things evolving gradually.

One of the themes relevant to the discussion of friendship in one of my last postings is certainly also time. Friendship intensifies as time is spent together and lives overlap. To the contrary, superficial friends nobody really cares about are made in a high-speed and super individualistic environment like the one I call home.
As my friends will enter into the next phase of their lives (I struggle already to get to grips with them living with the same partner for years), the situation will probably only get exacerbated.

Monday, October 17, 2011

man's motivation

A mass mail forwarded to me by a friend a while ago, exacerbated my fundamental fears about the human situation. It is only today, one and a half years later, and after having revised Darwinist accounts of life for my philosophy exam, that I feel confident enough to see what truth there is in the calamitous claims and that I shall examine if my fears about my genes’ timely demise are, after all, justified.

The text in question, clearly written with abundance of testosterone and shortage of sex, claims that everything men do, they do, directly or indirectly, to get access to women. Civilization, as opposed to chaos and Barbary, so the author, is being upheld by women’s insisting on proper male behaviour. Here is some of the stuff (the full text can be read here).

If science is progressing, it's not because of man's need to know. It's because of man's need to let other people, namely girls, know he knows. Men want to invent shit so they can brag about it to women.”
“Thanks for being smart and for having high standards cuz if you weren't into buff guys and sick cars no man would work out or buy a sick car.”
Despite the obvious lack of structure, badly expressed argument and other evident errors, charitable reading can unearth an argument, namely about male motivation, that is worth being considered. It raises the question of the motivations behind our actions, about the existence of objective moral standards and constitutes a practical example of applied game theory.

A reading of the text produces the following main claims.

  • Whatever men do, they do it to get access to woman, either by directly impressing them or by increasing their social status, with the ultimate view of attracting women.
  • Women have proper standards and are only attracted to men living up to them

From which it follows

  • Everything that is that is good about the world, is brought about by women insisting on suitable male manners. Otherwise the world would go down in barbaric behaviour.

One problem with the text is that no evidence is produced for the claims made. Is it so that everything men do they do to impress women? Clearly the author feels that it is so (he longs for woman on the bus in the morning, in the university etc), but he gives no evidence that would justify believing his claim, for example evidence involving people outside his age class (he excludes kids below 15), which would make the sample more representative. He says his claim does not apply to everybody, but is unclear who exactly does not have this behaviour. On the other hand, it is true than common sense and observation of daily life suggest that men do want to impress women. But it is at best unclear if his claim is true. A counterclaim “I do the science for the sake of science” produces a draw in a prospective discussion.
The other claim, about women having the “right” moral (and hygienic) standards is even less well underpinned by evidence. It is true that some of the issues the author cites are usually accepted as proper behaviour (showering) and more associated with women, but this is less clear with others (sick cars, going to the gym), which seem to be more male fantasies about what women like. This would of course not rule out male behaviour as under point 1), but shows that there is something dubious his claim that women have the correct answer to all questions of moral and hygiene.
Like before, too little evidence is produced, and counterexamples (fear of spiders, gossiping, shopping-sprees) suggest that not everything women do is good, all things considered.
However, the author might grant that point, and say that even though what women insist on is not “the right thing” in all cases, men will still be forced to accept it due to their desire for women.

The preliminary discussion has shown some issues with the author’s claim, but his modified argument (that the world is as it is, because men will do whatever women think is right) stays intact, if we grant him his empirical premise about male desire.

However, there are more problems with the text, which probably went unnoticed by the author due to his high testosterone level. His conclusion rests on the assumption that men do not have bargaining chips in the game of attraction between men and women. He touches the issue when he introduces his claim that male motivation is to get women, but does not seem to notice what follows.

Why any man would do any of things he ever did past the age of 15? PUSSY. It's not money, money is a means to pussy itself. It's not fame or success. Those are the tools men use to show off and get pussy.

Here he at least implies that some form of competition is going on between men, meaning that women, according to him, are more attracted to men with certain characteristics (a PhD in neuro-biology, the winner of Mister Universe). This in turn would mean that at least those high status men would be in a position to select from suitable women, which means that, logically, some sort of competition would take place between these women, too. (this of course is also borne by common sense and observation of daily life). Since not every woman can get the Mister Universe and/or PhD, they will have to settle for the second best, displacing other interested women. The chain-reaction continues successively, bringing about competition between women for men on (almost) all levels.

Thus, the text is inherently incomplete and would have to be amended by a roughly similar account, just seen from the point of view of women. A good point of departure would probably be a woman of child bearing age, struggling to find a partner. The woman doing science, on that account, would then also do it to attract a high-status partner, knowing that intellectual capacities are currently an important selection criteria. This would give a more complete account of what is going on, and would end up in a game-theory in which men are pinned against women in a competition of mutual self-exploitation, such as in the theories put forward by adherents of evolutionary psychology, even though interesting aspects, such as for example the question whether attraction is mainly environmentally or genetically inducted, would have to be settled and there is no hint in the text about what the author could possibly think about it. (the attraction to high status partners might be genetic, while the evaluation of the actual position might be cultural).
The text is also incomplete about the reasons why everything anybody does would be motivated by a desire to attract potential partners. Humankind (womankind?) being a reproductive species, evolutionary success will ultimately depend on your ability to get your genes into the next generation, and part of this is attracting suitable partners. But this does in no way imply that everything we do, we do to attract a partner. So that our offspring live, we need to earn money, build a house and hunt for food etc. Our desire for socially high positions might also be motivated by that. Crucially, the motivation of people renouncing procreation to pursue their careers (or the ones being beyond the age in which it is possible) would not be explained either. Another questions left open is to which degree the motivation is conscious. I might seek a high social position due to a) socially- or b) because of genetically-induced behaviour. In both cases I need  not be aware of my motivation, and it would be unfair to say that I do the things I do to attract women.

Finally it should be said that the text is incredibly sexist, despite his worshipping of women, because he reduces women to rather object like figures and a traditional role as objects of desire, rather than independent actors.

In the final analysis and on the authors account of things, the text is a cheap intent to get the attention of women, desperately accepting the account of life he thinks women appreciate, making in the process, according to his own argument, a powerful statement about the size of his own wee wee.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

about true friendship

Some days ago I had an interesting discussion with my flatmate. The topic of our dispute was friendship, and as the discussion dragged on, I realized that an interesting philosophical question lay at the core of our disagreement. ¨

The conversation started, like so many others, with a seemingly innocent inquiry of mine about the reasons behind our feeling at ease with some persons, but so remarkably clear not with others. (I had hoped to shed some light on why I am always at ease with myself in conversation, except when things matter to me, emotionally spoken). But, as so often, we got slightly sidetracked and the discussion finally settled on the somewhat related subject of the nature of friendship. The differences could not have been more striking, and apart from the philosophical dimension, I also sensed a cultural aspect in our disagreement.

My flatmate’s view was that friendship is ultimately a matter of self-interest, and that friendships are sought, consciously or unconsciously, to obtain a variety of benefits, such as contacts, emotional needs or material advantage. This is reminiscent of Geneva international culture, where I frequently find myself lunching with people (friends?) whose company I don't enjoy, and just about everyone is friends with everyone, despite neither knowing nor caring much about the other.
I took a different view and argued that the nature of friendship is the precise absence of clear-cut expectations of a friend and a readiness to, altruistically, give without expecting concrete returns.

In philosophical language, the conundrum would be cast as the question whether we are friends with someone because of his or her instrumental or non-instrumental value to us. Instrumental value is the value we attribute to something due to its well defined function (for example to have access to a certain social-circle), while non-instrumental value is valuing something intrinsically for what it is.

At first, it seems my flatmate is up to something. We first observe that I am clearly not friends with everybody and then follow that I must thus expect something in return. Otherwise I could as well just be friends with anyone. But that misses the point, because I can well not be friends with someone, without having to subscribe to the notion of not benefiting from him or her. I might just not intrinsically value him or her.
For my flatmate the situation is easy. He can simply weigh the pros and cons of what is inn for him in a friendship, and decide if he wants to be that persons friend. Things are more complicated for me because the intrinsic value makes it more complicated for me to appraise (to avoid the word evaluation) a friendship. But on the other hand, his instrumental valuing of his friends commits him to view them as mere means to an end. This, of course, is reminiscent of unfettered markets and wild capitalism, in which people and things are exclusively evaluated in terms of their benefit, maybe reflecting on his Anglo-Saxon culture.

But I wonder how I then appraise a friendship of mine. Is it plausible to appreciate a friend for what he or she is without having to commit neither to being friends with everybody, nor to having to expect a specific return? My flatmate would point out that there must be something, in the unconscious domain if necessary, which makes me expect something from my feeling good about my friend being happy, and would probably justify this with an evolutionary psychology theory according to which a non-altruistic trait could impossibly have survived in natural selection.

He is probably right with this, but forgets that he has in the process defined altruism as something that is logically impossible to exist. To get a grasp of the issue, one is thus better advised to not dig too deep into the origin of our, at any rate not fully understood, emotions and stay at a level that is accessible to us. Hence, for me a true friend is someone whose company I enjoy without expecting conscious benefits, which is opposed to someone who I try to “befriend” for a concrete advantage.

What is potentially dangerous about seeing friendships mainly in benefit terms, is that one risks getting trapped into a depressing world view, in which one must ultimately see oneself as only valuable to others if providing a certain functional value, which I find distressingly dehumanizing.