Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Can Art and/or Poetry Be Harmful?

Art and poetry can most definitely have harmful effects on humans. From slanderous caricatures to mind-numbing propaganda, art and poetry can contain concepts and ideas that are maladaptive and disruptive.

Anti-Semitism was rampant well before Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany. These sentiments were created and spread using caricatures and fallacious histories. Jews were blamed for all manner of ills, and were described as being evil, scheming, conniving, disreputable, etc. Racism in the US was spread in a similar manner. African slaves were commonly depicted as inferior than white landowners, and Native Americans as ignoble savages. These perceptions persisted in no small part because of their prominent depiction in cultural outlets.

Art that compels people to violence, such as propaganda, is also detrimental. Compelling videos of brave soldiers battling for the safety and well being of the home country, stark war posters suggesting a grim but unavoidable task, and portraits of the great leader that brings victory can be deployed together to change the outlook of an entire nation, stirring millions of people to violence. It glorifies death and destruction (of the enemy); behaviour we would normally strongly discourage in our nation now becomes sanctioned and organized. Television advertisements (including shows) operate in a way similar to propaganda. They motivate us, as a nation, to purchase goods in obscene quantities, well beyond any reasonable or responsible need.

In these examples, the underlying point to be made is the connection between forms of expression and what ideas they actually express. Racism makes for harmful art because it is a harmful and divisive idea. Blatant and nationalistic propaganda connotes obedience to authority and to the group (no matter how corrupt), appeals to drives of domination, and stresses sacrifice and the glory attained from it. Television trains humans to perform a disconnected act of exchange.

This is not to say that all art is harmful. A medium cannot be inherently adaptive or maladaptive, moral or immoral; as with fire, it is more how we use art as a tool than art itself that is harmful.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Free" Market

I planned to post a conversation I had with someone on StumbleUpon, but was told I did not have permission. This is not to comply with such a silly request, but rather to reduce the debate to something more streamlined.

Given: The free market produces the awful conditions in sweatshops, etc. (Agreed)

Claim: The free market maintains and is analogous to democracy.

Verdict: False.


Given: Mutual consent requires an even standing. (Agreed)

Claim: A free market is a market where the price of an item is arranged by the mutual consent of sellers and buyers (From Wikipedia)

Verdict: An even standing is rarely achieved, which undermines mutual consent, therefore the concept is more ideal than reality.


Claim: The war in Iraq is worthwhile because it represents the aims of the market.

Verdict: Fascism.

Note: These claims are not caricatures. I'm not allowed to show them, though.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Is A Creator God Responsible for Evil?

A creator god is not responsible for evil, a human concept, because evil is not inherent to the universe.

Humans define evil rather arbitrarily. Most if not all cultures have the concept of evil, but what specific actions constitute evil is entirely relative. That we should experience or understand evil is no surprise, as avoiding or regulating this behavior is very important to our survival. It is also no surprise that we react to the world as if it has human properties, as the bulk of our activities involve conversing and interacting with others. These two tendencies combine to fool us into believing that the universe conducts itself with some preconceived notion of morality. A flood that claims the lives of innocent children seems to the bereft parents the cruel act of a ruthless god; the same storm that caused the flooding might also have provided much-needed water for farmers to grow crops, which to them would make the occurrence a non-evil act.

Actions perpetrated by humans are only evil to the extent someone labels them evil. As an abstract concept, evil often has the connotation of free will, suggesting the agent of evil is aware of the morality of an act. In many scenarios this is certainly the case, but in situations where the perpetrator has no understanding of morality, or does not view an act as being evil, either the victim or some third party must judge the act evil.

The universe cannot have morality inherent to it because it would need a basis for its morality (and a way for us to know it!) and a way of determining and executing courses of action. Recent theoretical models suggest that the universe may have existed in some measurable capacity before the event we call the big bang. If this were the case, it would be presumptuous to suppose that the universe contains some innate morality that was formulated well before its present configuration. Moreover, the universe as a giant computer could not know anything beyond that which it was immediately computing, rendering questions of prepared or on-the-fly morality moot. Finally, applying some standard of ethics to the universe would require a non-subjective approach; otherwise its relative nature would make any particular ethical code just as acceptable as any other. Instead, humans use their own internal sense of morality as well as some higher reasoning to formulate a moral code by which agreeing members of a society may function. Implying that the universe behaves according to such a code requires it to have a neutral and objective basis that - assuming one even existed - we have yet to discover.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Can Virtue Be Taught?

Virtue is both inherent to humans and a matter of learning. Where built-in virtue ends, social conditioning begins.

Social primates require the benefits of a group to survive. Certain rules of conduct that aid in the continuation of the group become preferred. The chief advantage of social groups is mutual aid and reciprocity. By combining their efforts and cooperating, the group members achieve far more than they would alone. Behavior that facilitates this is to some extent built-in. Facial expressions convey emotional states, allowing other members of the group the opportunity to empathize. Being able to tell if someone is in pain or scared helps bind the group together; a person could rush to the aid of a sick friend or dispel the source of fear. Seeing these traits in others and recognizing them as noble or virtuous acts may also be part of our biology, an inherent morality.

Virtue can also be taught. Empathy and human emotions serve as the biological standard, but they have limits. Tribalism involves suspending empathy. Exclusively employing empathy to their own group but denying other groups the same luxury may be a biological boundary. Empathy need not have evolved to be used on the many multitudes of humans, just one small group.

Undermining empathy and emotions by teaching is also possible. Molding a mind to be even less receptive to ostracized groups, as in nationalism or racism, means the person does not factor in the feelings of others in their actions. Fortunately, a group could raise its children to accept all humans as sources of emotion. A child could learn to associate with others by using empathy. Explaining to children that the way they feel is the way other people feel, no reservations, no exceptions, makes it possible for a human to empathize with any other human - be they friend or foe, hated or loathed - simply by reading their emotions and imagining themselves in their place. The exact degree to which virtue is inherent or learned is unknown, yet the ability of humans to train their young beyond the scope of their instincts remains impressive.