22 December 2009

bloggingheads again

everyone hates avatar

I haven't seen much written in favor of this being a great film with a great message anywhere... there seems to be universal approval of the technical achievements. Although in some seriousness, the "tall blue aliens" routine has been done.

And the Dances with Wolves thing has been done. If I am press-ganged into having an opinion of my own on this thing, I may have to go see it merely to confirm my low expectations. I've already seen Aliens and the Abyss several times though (which were both halfway decent movies), so I'm not sure what new message I'm getting here. One essential argument that gets cut out but made toward the end was the distinction between Aliens and Avatar. Aliens the marines are good guys who get screwed by the "company". In Avatar the marines are mercenaries who work for the company. It's pretty clear what he seems to think is supposed to be the bad guy, but it was a far better sub-textual plot in the Aliens movies than here.

Hitch wins

More amusing to my mind was seeing Hitchens debate Wright. I sit somewhere in between the two of them. Although it would help if Wright could advance an argument in nearly the same eloquence or force of reason that Hitchens does routinely. I disagreed with his specific policy suggestions for Afghanistan/Iraq, but he does advance them much more sensibly than one's typical right-wing philosophizing.

The problem Hitchens has is that there's quite a bit of dogmatic rhetoric to be deployed and it de-evolves what should be pertinent arguments about meta-ethics into routine diatribes about who has killed more people over human history. I think it would be a fair point to describe that religious organisations represent some of the very worst examples of tribalism in history, but the sort of us-them dynamics that religious leaders have exploited or advocates for some abhorrent policy have abused religious dogma is no less common to communism, nationalism, imperialism, and so on. The main distinction has been that religious indoctrination, particularly in the absence of a largely educated population, has been so much easier to create and abuse by any leader willing to do so (ie, the exercises of cynicism that are attributed strangely to Nazi Germany when they were in fact strongly religion based appeals, just as appeals against homosexuals are now or slavery was for centuries). Nationalism does not survive so much scrutiny because its beliefs are often expressed in measurable tones. Religion, by having an off-the-board source of righteousness, does not suffer this flaw. You can attempt it by using propaganda and controlling the flows of information as best as one can, but you cannot permanently sustain it in the face of military defeats or economic troubles. People, for whatever reason, are perfectly willing to suspend such reasonable objections to the flaws in their religious orthodoxy. I think that suspension still exists where people make it for their country or for some ideological fault line, but it's a lot harder to sustain on a mass scale for the centuries of time line that religious institutions have operated on.

Perhaps in several centuries people will look back upon the dogmatic operations of liberalism's assumptions (in the classical sense of the term) and find some repressive mentalities that have resulted en masse. I rather doubt it given that people have been expounding upon it positively and negatively for roughly three centuries already and it has, with no thanks to a few conservative notions and abuses of the terminology of freedom(s), gotten stronger and more developed. It's very hard to find other ideological positions which have advanced as social institutions have developed in the modern environment and proven sustainable other than the religious. For example, communism has been more or less dead as a systematic way of life for nation-states and thus had a rather short-lived flame of interest. Political parties maybe. But there again it is rare that a country orders the deaths of people who belong to some oppositional political party (at least in an actual functional liberal democracy).

The meta-ethical issue is far more interesting. It's hard to explain to people who have grown up with an insistence that ethics comes from some spiritual foundation what exactly constitutes ethics to begin with, much less to explain how people have so easily and often twisted that spiritual foundation to justify things that are commonly considered as criminal and terrible acts and continue to do so (see: any poll on torture broken down with who supports it and who opposes it). The sentiments that Wright opens with, the utilitarian assumptions of a collection of self-interested parties who must cooperate or at worst, co-exist, to create the best possible outcomes for themselves and for each other over lifetimes seems to be about the only working assumption I can safely rely upon. I find questions of consent, coercion, and compulsion to be useful to guide my thinking in governance or large scale public decisions, and to allow individuals to co-exist, but you would first have to assume that there are differences or competing interests over which they must co-exist in the first place and that the individual self-interest is a source of importance enough for consent and compulsion to be concerning topics. But explaining that and pointing out the flaws in the distilled versions of this sort of ethical mandate as provided by religious organisations (that is, that killing and raping and stealing are bad) 1) shouldn't discount that it's possible that simply giving people the general principle that killing and raping and stealing are bad has been helpful for some, perhaps many, people not to do those things (depending on how cynical you are about the properties of human beings as altruistic caring beings.. I myself am incredibly skeptical of the ability of most human beings to do much of anything helpful or cooperative at all, much less not kill and maim each other in the absence of even the most basic rules to the contrary, regardless of their source material) and 2) shouldn't excuse people who do those things, or who contort religious teaching to allow others to do them, from examining the reasons WHY those things are bad and having to try to explain themselves (and generally or usually fail to do so). These are the most basic rules of social attitude available to us to debate and if we cannot nail those down, and accept that they do make sense and will and should be commonly held even in the absence of religious faiths, it's going to be a lot harder to debate meta-ethical principles relating to objects of law like property, animal rights, environmental legislation, or economic artifacts like externalities and free-riders. That would be a discussion I'd be happy to see happening.
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