Monday, April 30, 2012

Woody Allen's fictional philosopher Prof. Louis Levy in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors has some interesting thoughts to share...

* “You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox. The paradox consists of the fact that when we fall in love we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand we ask of our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us. So that love contains in it a contradiction, the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.”

* “But we must always remember that when we are born we need a great deal of love to persuade us to stay in life. Once we get that love, it usually lasts us. But the universe is a pretty cold place. It’s we who invest it with our feelings. And under certain conditions, we feel that the thing isn’t worth it anymore.”

Saturday, April 28, 2012

I would like to talk about a very insightful paper in this post and some future ones: Virtue Theory and Abortion by Rosalind Hursthouse. In this article Hursthouse defends virtue theory against some of the common criticisms against it which arise from an inadequate understanding of the theory, and illustrates the usage of virtue ethics by applying it to the issue of morality of abortion.

In this post I am going to briefly summarize how her discussion of abortion from a virtue ethical perspective is radically different from much of the contemporary philosophical literature on this topic.

Most debates on the morality of abortion tend to revolve around two considerations:
1) the status of the fetus
2) women's rights with regards to their bodies

Virtue Ethics transforms (and refreshes, I'd say) the whole moral debate on abortion by showing how both of these considerations are fundamentally irrelevant to the morality of abortion. Consider women's rights. If we assume that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy, the only thing that follows is that a law forbidding abortion will be unjust, but it says nothing about the morality of the act of abortion itself, because even when exercising one's moral right one may act viciously: with cruelty, selfishness, stupidity, dishonesty, etc. Hursthouse notes:

'Love and friendship do not survive their parties' constantly insisting on their rights, nor do people live well when they think that getting what they have a right to is of pre-eminent importance; they harm others, and they harm themselves. So whether women have a moral right to terminate their pregnancies is irrelevant within virtue theory, for it is irrelevant to the question "In having an abortion in these circumstances, would the agent be acting virtuously or viciously or neither?"'

Regarding the status of the fetus, Hursthouse says that this issue is not in the province on any moral theory; it is a metaphysical issue and that too a difficult one. To be able to make a morally wise decision about abortion, must a virtuous agent first possess knowledge of the status of the fetus, knowledge that is as yet uncertain and subject to much debate? One of the assumptions of Virtue Ethics is that intellectual and philosophical sophistication is not a necessary condition of moral wisdom, and if accepted, it leads to the surprising conclusion that the moral status of the fetus is not relevant to the morality of abortion. What is relevant, in fact, are the familiar biological facts: that pregnancy arises as a result of sexual intercourse, that its duration is about 9 months, and this is the time in which the fetus grows and develops, that pregnancy is often painful and emotional charged for the woman, etc. Hursthouse feels that the conviction that one needs to go beyond these familiar biological facts to conclude from them something about whether the fetus has the right to life or not has terribly alienated current philosophical literature from the psycho-social realities of child-bearing.

Regarding what virtue ethics says about the morality of abortion, I'll save that for a future post.

(hat-tip to Komal for sharing this paper with me)
Post-Prozac Nation: The Science and History of Treating Depression
This is among the best articles that I've read on the patho-physiology of clinical depression in the context of the debate surrounding anti-depressant medications.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Me: It's interesting how we can have desires to have other desires. An example that occurs to me as I revise endocrinology: a patient with low libido may often still have the desire to have the sexual desire. It is not just the unfulfilled desires that trouble us, but also at times the absence of desires.

Aati: Interesting observation. Why do you think it is so?

Me: A number of reasons, I suppose. One important and common one is to possess a memory. A patient who once had an active sexual life remembers the pleasures of a fulfilled sexual desire, now lost to him. Compare this with someone who never felt sexual desire at all ever in life. Another reason that comes to mind: social norms. It is normal for a teenager to be obsessed with sex. An asexual teenager may end up feeling abnormal for lacking an interest in sex, and the desire for conformity may cause him to desire to have sexual desire.

Aati: And my two cents to that... it's like puberty in reverse, emotionally. Lack of desire belies the illusion you had that you know exactly what's going on inside you, inside your mind, supposedly under your control. Your body once again becomes a stranger to you, an obstinate stranger who sullenly juts out her jaw and refuses to budge. You push it, trying to order it so as to get back to the semblance of your own 'normal' that you'd come to accept, but the more you try to get back to the familiar, the more a stranger it becomes. This isn't like me! You want to say, and that brings with it the dreaded, disgruntling or despairing feeling that perhaps you never really knew what that sentence meant.
I happened to read an interesting paper today Women in the Nude: A Study of Susanna and the Elders by Han Xinzhen Pema, which is a comparative analysis of two paintings based on the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders; one by Jacopo Tintoretto and the other by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Susanna and the Elders by Jacopo Tintoretto

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Some excerpts are below:

* "One of the most popular themes was a story from the apocryphal Book of Susanna, Chapter 1, about Susanna and the Elders (1:1-1:64). Susanna was the beautiful wife of the prosperous Jew, Joacim. As Joacim was wealthy and honorable, many Jews came to him for counsel and two Elders who were elected as judges that year frequented Joacim’s house often. They began to lust after Susanna and conspired to seduce her together. Hiding in the garden where she bathed, they sprang on the unsuspecting Susanna and threatened to accuse her of committing adultery with another man if she did not submit to their advances. The virtuous Susanna  chose to die rather than dishonor her husband. Fortunately, she was saved by the prophet Daniel who uncovered the truth by interrogating the Elders separately. Susanna was proven innocent of adultery and the Elders were stoned to death for their crimes."

* "The two paintings, despite having the same subject matter and being painted a mere fifty years apart, portray Susanna and the Elders in vastly different ways. While Artemisia’s version clearly shows Susanna’s fear and repulsion as a woman under the threat of rape, Tintoretto’s version of Susanna seems designed to display her feminine charms to the viewer. A viewer would feel inclined to empathize with Artemisia’s Susanna and her plight as a victim of sexual harassment. However, a viewer would be more inclined to view Tintoretto’s Susanna with an appreciation for the beauty of her feminine form while remaining emotionally detached from her plight. In this essay, I shall compare the two paintings and show how Tintoretto’s version objectifies Susanna for  the viewing pleasure of a male audience, while Artemisia’s feminist version is able to show the unfortunate plight of Susanna and move the viewer."

* "Now, according to Berger “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”. This differentiation of the naked and nude is derived from Berger’s interpretation of Kenneth Clark’s statement “that to be naked is to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art”. Nakedness is essentially a state of undress whereas nudity involves the gaze, a “way of seeing”. A naked woman becomes a nude when she is the subject of a gaze. She is objectified in the process. 

In Tintoretto’s painting, the naked Susanna on her own is free to do as she likes and express herself however she wants to, but in the eyes of the Elders and viewer, she ceases to have any personal identity and is merely an object to be ogled at. Her nude body plainly acts as a magnet to attract the attention of the viewer. It has no other consequential purpose or worth. Her porcelain skin and immaculately done hair only serve to emphasize her perfection and show her objectification.
In the case of Artemisia’s Susanna, Susanna may be naked but she is not a nude. Susanna’s hair is disheveled and messy and her washcloth is draped across her thigh as if it was dropped in a hurry. Her appearance is that of a woman who was surprised in the middle of her actions instead of a mannequin posing in an aesthetically beautiful way like Tintoretto’s Susanna. The awkward twisting of her body away from the Elders and the positioning of her arms to fend off the Elders make it obvious that instead of appearing like an object, she is in the midst of a situation which she is actively seeking to avoid."

For some more paintings on this subject see here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Perhaps all self-identity begins with a pretense.
An excerpt from The Case Against Kids by Elizabeth Kolbert on New Yorker:

'Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s. The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything—schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B’s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.

And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone—that is, had the life never been created—no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes."'

Wait a sec! I don't think that the implication spelled out at the end follows from the reasoning at all. There is a huge difference between a life of terrible suffering due to a genetic disease and a life of utter bless punctuated by a single pin-prick! The B's would have no obligation not to procreate if their child were to have such a blissful life.

While the reasoning makes notes of terrible suffering, it doesn't acknowledge moments or lives of extra-ordinary significance: to possess a genius, like that of Mozart or Einstein, to do something of ever-lasting impact, like Jesus or Marx, etc. I am not sure even with these one can have a moral obligation to reproduce, but it does take the steam out of the reasoning presented above.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Two tweets by Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton):

* Society had to stop caring whether we're married to reveal that our motives for marriage are far weirder than social pressure. 

* Perhaps we get married in the hope we'll never have to suffer because of love again.


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