Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The devil in our mind

It has been a heavy time in a certain sense: Nagasaki, a few days later Hiroshima, and then last week ─ the remembrances of the other human made calamities were still fresh ─ Auschwitz. In all these cases people who had no personal relation to the killers, who had no personal relation to the motives of the killers were killed. They were victims in the most objective sense.
Hannah Arendt spoke once of the “banality of evil”, in the sense that this evil did not come from a diabolic attitude but from a kind of thoughtlessness. If that is true, it means that everybody can have a devil in his or her mind. Most people are lucky that he does not come out, but nobody can guarantee that his or her devil will never escape.
Sometimes I wonder why so few people try to take the other person’s perspective before they act. Actually, this was the kind of thoughtlessness that Arendt was referring to in this context. The question is, of course, as Arendt puts it, whether “the activity of thinking as such [could] … be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it” (The life of the mind, p. 5). On the other hand, by taking the other person’s point of view, maybe they would realize that their own viewpoints are not as absolute as they think, and that there may also be some truth in the other person’s side. I do not want to say that this will make that the devil in our mind does not come out but I am convinced that it helps a bit.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Right, duty, and virtue

In his book on Gandhi’s philosophy, Parel writes: “Modern society … has placed its bets on rights rather than on virtue, which to Gandhi was a matter of deep concern. He wanted modern society to place equal emphasis on rights, duties, and virtue” (Anthony J. Parel, Gandhi’s philosophy and the quest for harmony, p. 98). Maybe that is the problem of present society: We ask too much but do not feel obliged to give.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Social problems cannot be solved as if they were technical problems

In my last blog I talked about the problem of double interpretation: each person has his or her own frame of reference for interpreting the world. This frame is also used for interpreting other persons, as we have seen there. Now it is so that if we see a problem, we often try to find a solution for it. For example, if we have a problem with our car, we bring it to a garage for having it repaired by a car mechanic. The knowledge the car mechanic has received at school and then through his or her experience forms the frame of reference that helps him or her to repair the car. For technical problems this kind of behaviour is rational and it works well. However, when we have a social problem to be solved, many policymakers like administrators, managers, parliamentarians, government ministers and so on who are involved in solving social problems think that it works the same way. What they forget then is that cars do not have brains with a frame of reference but that human beings do have and that these human beings use it for interpreting the world in their own way. For this reason, the solutions that policymakers make for social problems often fail. For what is a rational solution for a problem from the point of view of the policymaker need not to be so for the people for whom the solution has been made (the “objects” of the solution). The latter give the solution proposed often their own turn and execute it in their own way, which may be quite different from what the policymaker had imagined. Or the “objects” of the solution do not understand what the policymaker means with their measures. Or they simply try to use these measures for their own benefit, they evade them or they succeed to ignore them, or whatever they do. The result of all this is that proposed solutions for social problems often do not have the effects as thought of in advance, as long as social problems are simply treated as technical problems. For the people which are to be helped with a solution or are in one or another way involved in it are not objects like cars but they are subjects with their own frames of reference.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On prejudice

The problem with seeing the culture of another person is that one has always to see it through spectacles with glasses coloured by one’s own culture. One cannot remove these spectacles for then the picture will become blurred. The most one can do is changing the colour of the glasses, but the glasses will always have some colour. In philosophy we call this the problem of double interpretation. People interpret their own situation by means of their own frames of reference (what I called mind schemes in another blog). But people that are looking at them and that are maybe studying them have their own frames of reference. Usually both frames of reference do not automatically fit. Therefore, understanding other people involves the double act of understanding their understanding (finding out what the colour of their glasses is) and understanding one’s own understanding (finding out which colour the glasses in one’s own spectacles have). Often the first kind of understanding fails, which is the basis of prejudice (one thinks that all spectacles have glasses with the same colour and that the colour of the glasses is the colour of one’s own glasses). In analogy with a distinction made by Chalmers, one can call the first kind of understanding the hard problem, and the second kind the easy problem, although I must say that also understanding oneself can be a very hard job.