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Once and Future Disruption

I've been called away on business this week, so blogging will be disrupted; I might get something posted near the end of the week, but we'll see how it goes. Then, after Friday 9th November I'll be taking my annual break for the Wheel of Fortune, resuming after Thanksgiving.  No Ethics posts until after then, so I don't know what I'll be talking about next week... I have a few general ideas for posts about game design, but I'll have to see if I have the time to develop them.

In the meantime, have fun everyone!

The Message from Evolution

Viewed with our crude understanding of the evolutionary processes, the message to us from the geological history of our planet appears to be: if you keep everything in balance, you can go on for millions of years. Otherwise, you're gone in the blink of a geological eye.

The Human Condition (6): The Modern Age

There are many events which stand at the threshold of what can be termed the Modern Age, but several in particular stood out in significance for Hannah Arendt. One of these was the conclusion of the process of exploration. We no longer live in a world which is in the process of being mapped – that task is now concluded. She also notes: “precisely when the immensity of available space on earth was discovered, the famous shrinkage of the globe began.” Arendt did not live to see the onset of the internet, which has driven the “small world” idea even further than she might have imagined. Along with this process has occurred a crisis of world alienation – it is as if the more we understand of the world as a whole, the more focussed we have become on ourselves. 

One consequence of this is the extension of prosperity and depression into world-wide phenomena. From the perspective of the West, we like to fool ourselves into believing that we have eliminated the “labouring poor”, the lower classes who used to drive the economy. On closer examination, we find that even where this claim can be validated we have simply moved the impoverished lower strata out of our own nations and onto the world stage. The prosperity of the great Western nations is in part supported on the back of the poverty of third world nations, who effectively provide slave labour to support Western prosperity.

Along with world alienation, another event (or sequence of events) is noted by Arendt of particular relevance – the discovery of the Archimedian point. Archimedes had said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Little did he suspect that such a point could be reached though the development of scientific knowledge! Beginning (Arendt argues) with Galileo’s telescope which delivered to human cognition “the secrets of the universe”, humanity entered into a new era where what had previously served as the model for reality fell away to be replaced by Cartesian doubt, the “school of suspicion”, as Nietzsche called it. 

Modern physics allows us to tap into forces which lie beyond our natural capacities – we can unleash the energy of the sun, initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, and obtain velocities in particle accelerators which approach the speed of light. We may not be able to stand on Archimedes' point, as we are “still bound to the earth through the human condition”, but we have found a way to act on the earth “as though we dispose of it from outside… even at the risk of endangering the natural life process…” This earth alienation has become the hallmark of modern science in Arendt’s view.

Along with this has come changes to humanity's chosen priorities. Whereas once contemplation was seen as the highest human endeavour, the dawn of the modern age came with the rise of homo faber – with the onset of industrialisation, the new scientific mindset and the resultant instrumentalisation of the world. Before long, instead of focusing on what was being fabricated, humanity was instead creating processes to deliver consumables. Almost as soon as homo faber had risen to prominence, the position was abdicated to the animal laborans. This happened through many factors – the rise of the consumer society, indeed, the rise of the notion of society at all, since society demands of people that they abdicate their responsibility to the State as their natural caretaker.

One peculiar aspect of this transformation are the ideologies attached to scientific research into evolution. Rather than confirming the uniqueness of humanity, scientific study into our origins (and ideological inventions that emerged from that study) concluded by viewing humans as simply animals. Viewed from this perspective, the achievements of fabrication and contemplation were perceived as mere consequences of the life process. Arendt provides an image by which to consider this: “Milton was considered to have written his Paradise Lost for the same reasons and out of similar urges that compel the silkworm to produce silk.” Arendt did not live to experience the heinous culmination of this degradation of human value into the gene-centric ideology (“the selfish gene”) which, when taken outside of its valid scientific context, destroys the dignity of humanity by claiming the primacy not of people, but of the constituents of their biological construction.

This reduction of the stature of mankind to a perspective of mere animal nature (and since, into the perverse and largely misleading perspective of humanity as the puppet to genetics) eroded and destroyed the capacity for speech and action, and the dignity of fabrication, while simultaneously elevating the stature of the life process, and hence the importance of labour. Again, Arendt sees the consumer society as a labouring society; all other considerations have somehow become lost. In this new world, ironically only the scientists seem to be able to act in concert – yet do so in isolation from the rest of the world that they live within. The action of scientists, working as it does from the standpoint of the universe and not from the standpoint of humanity, achieve action but fail to maintain the public space wherein speech and action can be allowed to work, and thus guide the action taken.

Yet this outcome is by no means inevitable, at least as long as we can cling to the conditions of political freedom that make thought possible. The future of mankind depends on our capacity to exercise this thought, to use it as the foundation for speech, by which to determine the action we should take. Rather than abdicate the process of politics to the family-surrogate of society which is alleged to behave in our best interests, Arendt suggests we should wield our capacity for thought to recreate the public sphere, within which the true political process of speech and action between people can emerge. By so doing, we can regain control of our world, and perhaps undo the damage caused by the earth and world alienation which, in Arendt's view, have so characterised the age within which we live. 

A new serial begins in December.

Aquadelic GT

Aq_reverse_angle This is a new boat racing game, made in the style of a kart-racer - simple to learn, but challenging to beat. The game is Aquadelic GT, by the Czech Republic studio Hammerware under the Arcade Moon imprint of our Slovakian friends 3D People and published in Europe by JoWood. My team at International Hobo has been helping them out on the design and script, and the finished game should be on sale shortly.

The game has been quietly coming together in the background, and as if from nowhere we were suddenly delivered a master candidate (the last versions of a game before it goes into production) which we've been frantically playing for the last few days. There are a few rough edges, but I've been having a blast with this game - the most fun I've had with boats in a videogame since Wave Race 64 - and that was fifteen years ago. It's hard to believe this was put together on such a modest budget.

Aq_fight There are a few interesting things to note in the design. Following the latest trend in "embedded menus", we did away with a menu structure for tying together the main play, and instead placed the player directly into the world. So you begin with your little rusty bucket in Russia, and can run people around as a taxi for cash, or get started on your racing career by going to one of the race sites. By making "free ride" the main game mode (racing being accessed from this), we allow new players ample opportunity to practice controlling the boats, and to learn the layout of the areas as well. It's a small thing, but it was worth the extra effort.

The racing gets quite frantic! The weapons are a good mix, and satisfying to use. The physics in the game means that hitting someone with an exploding frog or a shark torpedo can send them rocketing off to nowhere, but the player can always tap "R" to respot themselves if they end up somewhere inconvenient. It starts easy, but gets much harder as the game goes on. Finishing was a challenge, but it must be said that the final boat outclasses everything, so players who struggle can keep saving their money until they can afford the ultimate vessel.

Aq_at_home_in_greece Since the player is free to move around the world between races, there are also other activities beyond racing, including running taxi rides, going on a yacht cruise for coins, and dropping humanitarian aid from a seaplane. I had great fun with these too! Although there is little money to be made from the yacht, the environments are so beautiful that I found it was satisfying just to pilot my way around the islands. Quite relaxing. The player can also buy houses in some of the locations - there is a gorgeous villa in one of the Greek ports which I fell in love with (pictured left, in the right of the background), although my million dollar mansion in the Caribbean is also quite appealing.

The official Aquadelic GT site is here, and my web album for the game is here. It will be available in Europe very shortly, for PC only.


Measure_for_measure Justice is the transitional boundary between ethics and politics – it is the point at which our personal ethical systems interact with the legal system of the State or whatever source of judicial power is in play. Indeed, law can be seen as an attempt to formalise ethical ideas into precisely worded legal statutes. This process, thanks in no small part to the vagaries of language, often obfuscates the ethical perspective entirely, hence the inclusion of juries into most modern systems of jurisprudence: they provide a human perspective where it is most desperately needed, in the interpretation of the law.

There are two principle aspects of justice as it is usually discussed: distributive justice concerns how wealth, respect, power and opportunity are distributed, while retributive justice is concerned with allocating appropriate punishments for particular transgressions. Beliefs about both kinds of justice are exceptionally diverse. Political beliefs, as with all other beliefs, rest ultimately upon metaphysics, and thus are frequently quite insane when assessed by an external observer with different assumptions. Consider, for instance, how Republicans in the US can be opposed to taxation to support welfare measures, but support spending vast sums of money on war, while conversely a US Democrat can be vehemently in favour of civil rights, yet still support censorship. These strange positions are possible because different metaphysical justifications underlie the eventual conclusions.

In so much as we see formal justice as an extension of personal ethics, perhaps the key ethical issue in the context of justice is how we as individuals relate our ethics to the law of the place where we live. After all, we all have different ethical beliefs (derived from, or related to, our different metaphysical beliefs) so each of us is in a different position with respect to the law. If we only follow the laws that correspond to our ethics, we hold firm to our personal morality at the cost of becoming a lawbreaker and thus disrupting justice. If we enforce all laws irrespective of our own ethics, we risk upholding justice as defined by the law even at the expense of our own ethical values. This may only be possible for individuals who hold justice as a value, who (perhaps fortunately) seem to be in the majority.

Much political action is concerned with changing the law: individuals with particular ethics seek to adjust the law to bring it closer to their own morality. At the same time, any such change will move the law further away from other peoples’ ethics. In a democracy where majority rules, this practically guarantees injustice for minorities, since they are unable to assert influence on the law without the support of the majority. Situations of inequality such as this are of course vitally important to the subject of justice, especially if we take the view (popularised by John Rawls) of “justice as fairness”.

Historically, nations tended to come from a relatively limited metaphysical background – that is to say, they generally had only one major religion, or the religions of any given region had sufficient commonalities that a common ethical background could be constructed. This allowed the law to develop more easily, without having to deal with the problems of relative ethics that are pertinent to our modern society. Unfortunately, this also means that (for instance) the laws of many Western nations are dominated by Christian ethical conceptions, despite the great variety of different belief system that now flourish in our modern societies.

The issue of bringing different ethical notions together in the framework of a single system of justice is far from new. One of the most famous solutions to this problem is the millet system (pronounced with the emphasis on the ‘e’; mill-et) that was used in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. In essence, each religious group under Ottoman control was a separately organised community (or millet), each responsible for the allocation and collection of taxes, educational arrangements and other legal matters. The most common millets were the Jews, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Armenian Christians, all of whom lived within a society that was Muslim in its overarching organisation. The system functioned well until, as the twentieth century drew closer, European ideas such as nationalism and ethnicity began to undermine it.

Even today, some Muslim nations practice a millet system. In Egypt, for example, family law is applied on the basis of religion, although the State only recognises the Abrahamic faiths as legitimate. Similar systems exist in post-Ottoman nations such as Jordan, Lebanon and (to some extent) Israel, as well as in predominantly Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have separate personal courts and laws for each recognised religious community. Of course, outside of the Muslim world this dependence on religion as a distinguishment upon which a community can be based has severe limits, because of the number of people who would prefer to live in communities that are not defined by religion (not least of which because many people do not identify a religion for themselves).

In the absence of a system of relative justice, such as the millet system, we face greater ethical challenges because the commitment to a single legal system necessarily fails to provide the requisite conception of fairness which lies at the heart of many people’s idea of justice and, as already mentioned, minorities within a democracy cannot achieve effective political influence when they are in opposition to the majority. It is this threat of powerlessness that necessitates civil disobedience, of the kind pioneered by Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and foreshadowed by Henry David Thoreau’s essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. We shall explore this particular subject in more detail in the final part of the "Ethics Campaign".

Powerlessness is also the driving force behind terrorism, civil disobedience’s more extreme and generally less effective predecessor. Desperation leads people to violence, and the inability to tackle a military foe with vastly greater power leads to the motivation to target civilians. However, this application of injustice as a means of fighting injustice becomes radically self-defeating as we can clearly see in the case of the September 11th atrocities; the goal of the attackers was to strike back against perceived injustices conducted by the United States in the Middle East, including providing military backing to oppressive regimes, and the “plundering” of the region’s resources. Ironically, and inevitably, the consequence of these despicable attacks was precisely the opposite of what was intended: the overshadowing of any legitimate grievance by the sheer magnitude of the horror engendered, and a consequent greater US troop presence in the Middle East. It is difficult to see how the hijackers’ murderous insanity could possibly have been productive towards their aims, let alone just.

In most of our discussions of ethics, we have been concerned with appropriate ways for people to behave towards each other, and have concluded from almost every perspective that co-operation is necessitated, and compassion is highly desirable. As ethics collides with justice, and thus the individual is placed in juxtaposition to the State, determining the ethical course of action becomes much more challenging for everyone. We may inherit or derive our personal ethical system as an individual, but matters of justice are concerned with society as a whole.

How we choose to act in respect of the law is fundamental to our relationship to that society – shall we uphold the law at the expense of compassion and co-operation? Or do we hold firm to our ethical principles and take upon a willingness to challenge the State when it is condones or implements injustice, even at the risk of our own imprisonment, or death? It comes down to you, the ethical choices you make, and thus the conception of justice you wish to defend, whether the rule of law, or the spirit of fairness.

The opening image is Measure for Measure, by Hannah Tompkins, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

The final part of the "Ethics Campaign" begins in December.

Boundary Layer

Having covered one of the biggest issues in contemporary Ethics, I think we have covered all we are going to look at in Future Ethics for now. The final part of the "Ethics Campaign", Justice, will begin in earnest in December, but we'll have a brief preview tomorrow.

  • Many thanks for everyone who commented on The Rights of the Unborn. The politeness of the commentors in the face of such a sensitive issue spoke very highly of everyone's character.
  • Still no comments on last week's Serial piece on Arendt's view of Action - it's not too late, if you have something to say! The Serial concludes this Thursday.
  • My wife and I desperately need a new game, either a puzzle game (or something with co-op) on the DS, or something on the Wii. There's a chance I may splurge on Mario Galaxy when it launches; it's been too long since there was a good platform game around.
  • The leaves are changing here in Knoxville, bringing a splash of colour to the world. More than ever, it feels like I live in a forest... Sadly, I have not been able to get any good squirrel photos since moving, though.
  • As I have mentioned in the comments, we lost four players over the last month or so - mostly over the Nietzsche piece, I think. But I think all the important players are still in the game, so I'll try not to feel disappointed.

Good luck in the new week everyone!

Your Inner Hedonist

Hedonism is concerned with the pursuit of pleasure, and those who pursue pleasure are known as hedonists. By pleasure, I do not mean happiness, which is something quite different, but rather the experience of enjoyment, gratification and other sensual pleasures. Pleasure, therefore, is a transitory experience, while happiness can be a lasting state. We experience pleasure through a variety of methods including music, touch, sex, drugs, and myriad other activities, too numerous to mention.

Physiologically, pleasure is associated with chemicals known as endorphins, which are released by both pleasant experiences (e.g. laughter, music, sex) and also by painful experiences (e.g. spicy food, masochism). In the case of painful experiences, the endorphins offset the pain; in the case of pleasant experiences, the endorphins enhance the pleasure.

Everyone has within themselves an “inner hedonist” who enjoys the experience associated with these endorphins, and we all pursue our pleasures in our own ways. Even the strictest puritan still finds their pleasure somewhere – a monk who has forsworn the pleasures of the flesh may get their kicks from the austerity of their lifestyle, the music they make with their brothers, and their worship ceremonies.

The problem comes when this inner hedonist becomes the sole voice in our lives. When we are committed solely to the pursuit of pleasure we not only gravely limit ourselves as to our activities – abandoning all self-development in favour of immediate gratification – but we find ourselves on a slippery slope, since the dogged pursuit of greater pleasure is ultimately self-defeating, as the heroin addict will attest. Triggering a big endorphin release requires an even greater release in the future – this makes any pleasurable activity less satisfying if it is constantly pursued.

Young adults may be able to afford to let loose their inner hedonist every day – this is the time of life for experimentation and new experiences – but the rest of us should be cautious about such abandon. We must balance our desire for pleasure against the need to work on our lives – our relationships, our jobs, our families, our homes. The irony of hedonism is that the sole pursuit of pleasure is unlikely to lead to happiness, and the staunchest hedonist is likely to find themselves awakening one day, alone and desperately depressed.

Let your inner hedonist be your friend, but never your master.

For Bezman.

The Human Condition (5): Action

The related activities of speech and action represent to Hannah Arendt a vital yet rarely understood human capacity. The basic condition of both speech and action is human plurality, which has “the twofold character of equality and distinction” – that is, we are equal in status, yet quite distinct from one another. We do not share identical needs and wants, and thus we must communicate among ourselves in order to determine what action to take. Whereas labour and work are both possible in isolation, action (in Arendt’s terms) is not: “to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.” 

The capacity to take action comes from power, which in Arendt’s terms is generated by “the living together of people”. Indeed, she saw power as the means that maintained the public realm, where politics occur. As a result of this viewpoint, Arendt sees tyranny as preventing the development of power – the dictator maintains their position by stopping the people from exercising their power, by substituting violence for genuine power. Power – political power – is what is generated when people choose to take action together.

One of the key problems that Arendt sees as a squandering of our collective power to act is what she terms the substitution of making for acting. Ends and means, she contends, are meaningful in the context of work, of fabrication, but they fail in the context of action. “As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognised ends.” She notes that in antiquity the “end” was the protection of the good from the rule of the bad, in the Middle Ages, the salvation of souls, and in the modern age, productivity and progress, but in all cases this approach is flawed: the ends act as poor guides for action. 

One of the key problems is the unpredictability of action (which we have looked at previously in our discussion of future ethics). It was Arendt’s view that “uncertainty… becomes the decisive character of human affairs.” She notes: “The reason why we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action is simply that action has no end. The process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.” This is a double-edged sword; while it could be a source of pride that humanity can create such a lasting effect, we struggle to bear the burden of the “irreversibility and unpredictability from which the action process draws its very strength.”

The solution to these problem in Arendt’s view comes from somewhat surprising sources. The predicament of irreversibility (being unable to undo what has already been done) can be overcome through our faculty for forgiveness, while the problem of “the chaotic uncertainty of the future” can be resolved through our capacity to make and keep promises. In both cases, Arendt ties these to religious sources – forgiveness to Jesus of Nazareth, and promising to Abraham. She is keen that we do not neglect the value of these ideas on account of their religious element, noting in the case of Jesus that the fact that his ideas are expressed in religious terms is “no reason not to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.”

One distinction between forgiveness and promising worth noting is that while promises have always been admitted to the public realm (dating back at least as far as the Roman legal system, and likely further), forgiveness is “deemed unrealistic and inadmissible in the public realm”. She argues passionately for the importance of forgiveness in politics – although she does not make the observation, peace in the Middle East undoubtedly requires forgiveness. She equally argues for a realistic use of the capacity to make promises – we cannot treat our agreements as set for all time; the future is unknown, and the people of that undiscovered country must review their agreements in the light of the reality they face, else promises “lose their binding power and become self-defeating”.

Thus, Arendt’s suggestion for action – for politics – is to forgive the mistakes of the past, and make new agreements among ourselves in order to provide “isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty,” while honouring those older agreements that still accord with the needs of the present. She observes: “In so far as morality is more than… customs and standards of behaviour solidified through tradition… it has, at least politically, no more to support itself than the good will to counter the enormous risks of action by readiness to forgive and to be forgiven, to make promises and to keep them.”

Finally, Arendt observes that what ultimately saves human affairs from ruin is the miraculous renewal of humanity by the birth of new people. Each new generation represents a new beginning, and simply by virtue of being born the new arrivals to our planet inherit the awesome power and responsibility of action. It is this rejuvenation more than anything which allows humanity to change direction, to determine a new path, to reach fresh agreement on the action we should take together, exercising that power that is the natural product of our living together. 

Next week, the final part: The Modern Age