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Tag Archives: Morality

Big Dog: Our Selves

Witness (and I do mean witness…behold) the latest robotic lifeform, Big Dog.

What I am most interested in are my (and others) instictive ethics responses to this display. Watch the quadruped climb with jutting rhythm up the hill, making almost a prance of it, watch it recover elegantly from a sidelong kick, and wince as it stumbles upon the ice. It is large like a mammal we would identify with (it struggles within the same range of physics that we do). It headlessly searches. (Be aware of how the camera also constructs our response, as it rises from the lowground into our now accustomed docu-camera view of the Real.)

I am interested in how our bodily foundations of ethics and rationality come from how we view other things to be as ourselves (a primary Spinozian thesis…the imitations of the affects: E3p27, If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.). I recall Wittgenstein’s gnomic advisement about the difference between the capacities for pain between that of a fly and that of a stone:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.-One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing?…And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems to get a foothold here…(PI 284)

Now, the composite of behaviors from a thing we are most predisposed to think of as being closer to a stone than a fly suddenly, ephiphanically (and my wince is epiphanic), “get a foothold here”. We can conceptually separate out ourselves from the imitations of our actions, but then we get to an interesting ethical divide. Our predecessors are admonished by history for not being able to perceive how the Black, the Jew, the Muslim, the Indian, the poor, the woman, the animal, the child was “just like us”, bled and winced as we did. Some elements of the soul (aspects of mentality) were denied certain classes. The operated like “us”, but internally their experiences were at variance, only dimly similiar.

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our witness ?

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our dismissal of mechanism as mechanism?

Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the Abstract Machine in the confluence of this witness I think takes “foothold” as well. When concrete machines sympathize, the abstract machine seems to show through:

We define the abstract machine as the aspect or moment at which nothing but functions and matters remain. A diagram has neither substance nor form, neither content nor expression. Substance is a formed matter, and matter is a substance that is unformed either physically or semiotically. Whereas expression and content have distinct forms, are really distinct from each other, function has only ‘traits’ of content and expression between which it establishes a connection: it is no longer even possible to tell whether it is a particle or a sign. A matter-content having only degrees of intensity, resistance, conductivity, heating, stretching, speed or tardiness; and a function expression having only ‘tensors,’ as in a system of mathematical, or musical, writing. Writing now functions on the same level as the real, and the real materially writes.

a thousand plateaus

[quote courtesy of Fractal Ontology, whose recent post reminded me of the text]


Martha Nussbaum and Hecuba: The Living Latticework of Ethics

Polyxena (much welcoming) and the Chorus

University of Chicago professor, Martha Nussbaum, speaks emotionally and clearly about the tender nature of ethical binding, “we are more like a plant, than a gem”, as she summons up the lessons from Euripedes’s play. She communicates in body and mind the tenuous connections which make up our sense-making dimensions of the world, the fast and terror-ible filaments which communicate our living nature: ethos.

[from grundlegung, from The Brooks Blog]

We can become shattered and animalized, when the bodily components of our trust become broken. And goodness is the openness to this kind of risk. But Nussbaum’s personal appeal, “I wake up at night thinking of Euripedes’ Hecuba…” calls to mind the haunting moment wherein the chorus women speak as one woman, a conflation of plural and first persons: she readies herself for bed, unbeknowingly perched on the destruction all that makes sense, in the towers of Ilium. This is the scene of two that “haunt” me from the play:

I, my curls in twisting
Turbans was rhythming,
Out from golden mirrors gazing
Into the bottomless rays,
That readied I might fall into bed,
But up a roar rose in the city.  (922-927)

How this is the tension of Iium in all the twistings that satisfy and pacify, golden, and the then discordant escalation that amplifies and signals. The “I” collapses into a single horrifying moment.

Secondly, there is the report of Talthybius, to Hecuba, of the kind of death that Polyxena her beautiful daughter suffered, when the Greeks had commended that she be put to death as a sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles so as to sate his ghost (the ghost of their inequities):

And when she heard the word of commanders
Loosening the cloth from the peak of the shoulder
She tore it to the hollow of her ribs, navel-low,
And showed her breast, as lovely as a goddess’
Statue. Then sinking to her knees she spoke these
Words of surpassing bravery: “Here young man, if
It is my breast you want to strike, strike here… (556-565)

Apart from Nussbaum’s sensitive reading of the fragility of ethical behavior I think stands these two limits of the feminine body, that which is recursively wound in peace, the self-enjoyment which circulates upon its own, with an infinitesimal relationship to the depth of rays and their mirror in its own gaze (an operation which is variously projected upon the woman, yet in fact is polyvalent);

but also, unlike the shattered nature of Hecuba’s fate, her dog-becoming – and I disagree that becoming-animal is necessarily a “shattering”, as it is also a potentiating of the body, a fractaling – there is Polyxena’s display of the body in defiance, the abject resistance to order, subverting the very sexualized mechanism of a “breast”, making oneself a site of protest and eruption. This a core Greek Tragedy notion. In this way, the surface volume of the fragility that Nussbaum points out touches at its surface, the Body Without Organs, as how Deleuze and Guattari may have conceived it. The surface of the human is inhuman, there, the breast and the mirror meet.

If we are more like a plant than a gem, then perhaps we are more like a rhizome than a tree.


A Spoonful of Ought

Some Thoughts on the Is-Ought Distinction










Hume famously said that he noticed something very peculiar in the arguments of those making moral arguments. They would always conducted this curious kind shift, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. This is how he put it:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

– A Treatise of Human Nature

At first this seems quite formidable, for there does seem some kind of slippage. Suddenly one kind of thing seems to be talked about, and then another. And the assumption here is that these are really two kind of mutually exclusive things, that one really can’t go from one to the other. That is, one is really reefed on the one side of “is”, getting a glimpse of the sandbar of “ought” but just can’t agumentatively swim the distance.


But to change the metaphor (always exciting to mix metaphors, it makes the world turn), this apparent insolution is based a bit on a fork in the road, the so-called “Hume’ Fork”. He puts it this way:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.  

– An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Moral “oughts” just don’t have place in this dichotomy of “objects”. There are, by his assertion, no “moral objects”. One can see floating behind such a fork the Analytic truths distiction which Quine worked to undo. The question is, if this strict and categorical distinction is not maintained, can the from is-to-ought (and from ought-to-is ) prohibition be maintained? Is there really such a fork in the road? As a side note, Wittgenstein went far in this direction turning “Relation of Ideas” into the “grammar” of words but also relatedly, the realm of criteria referring reasons, but was this When one starts treating the grammatical or criteria as if one is treating “facts”, Wittgenstein wants us to see that one approaches a kind of non-sense. But I would like to keep my eye upon the is-ought distintion.

I would say that what one has to understand is that this difference between “is” and “ought” is not a matter of deduction, that is, one can differentiate claims into kinds, but not make them mutually exclusive. That is, again, knowledge is not something that we “get” from an environmental “is” which then we do stuff to (empiricism). No sense data enters into our brains, which then gets mashed up into different forms by ideas and concepts, which eventually gets transformed (appropriately, or inappropriately) into “oughts”. If this were the case, this would be an empirical picture of the world, and in such a picture one can get the sense that is and ought do not coincide. But because the analytic (saying something about ideas alone) and emprical (saying something about the world) distinction does not strictly hold (beliefs and criteria must always be included in statements of fact about the world), the normative cannot be categorical excluded from any “is”. Further any “is” statement, pulls along with it a communitarian inforcement quite related to “ought”.


To show this conceptual inter-relationship: “That is a ‘cat’.” (A simple ostensive defintion), is certainly differentiatable from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'”. But the second form is wrapped up in the first. I certainly can tell the differences between them, but I can also see that the two are intimately related. Now, there is a very long way from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'” to “You ought not to murder”, but the essential, thought-to-be-unbreakable transition is already there. Prescription lies at the heart of description.

As one employs these ostensive, and otherwise established criteria, to describe the world, the normativity of use is subsumed in the process.

To argue the length of it, from the one (of use) to the other (of murder) is a perhaps worthy but lengthy task. One that I would not readily engage in this particular post, under this particular question. If one wants to get a taste of it, one can visit Spinoza’s Ethics. One can, as I have done elsewhere, put his “imitation of the affects” principle which governs sociability and conflict,

If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

Spinoza, E3, Proposition 27:

in close relation to Davidson Principle of Charity and Triangulation (more on this in essay “Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification“). If one does, I believe they will see that because the Principle of Charity is not a wise adage, but a componented part of all interpretability and sense making, any description presumes a prescriptive. Any communicability of what “is” draws in with it the normatives of community, which enable it. The Deontic is a folded into the Ontic, so to speak. First at the level of performative force, secondly at the level of affective binding. The mistake is, of course, to think that any ONE prescriptive has deontological standing, which cannot be violated (this was Kant’s mistake of universal law-making). Just like beliefs where any particular belief can be false, but all beliefs cannot be false, any one rule can be broken, but not ALL rules can be broken, and one still remain a describer of the world.