Choices

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

“Man is what he eats” is a famous pun from the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Being a defender of materialism, he wanted to emphasize the materiality of human identity, against the idealistic philosophical trend of his time. If eating equals being, however loose that might be intended, choosing what to eat defines to a certain extent what we are. In certain historical periods and places, choices about what to eat have been constrained to the point that the alternatives couldn’t have been but two: to eat anything you could find or die of starvation. But in the world of today, especially in what is called the “western world”, we face the opposite problem: we have an endless amount of things to eat among which to choose, and finding the criteria of choice has become an issue.

Last summer I read an article from Spiegel, about the many ways we construct our identities by means of eating: there are reasons based on health, ethical reasons, religious reasons, and many others. None of these reasons is apparently transparent enough as to give a guarantee that our choice will escape incoherence and inconsistency. One could be tempted to say that the only perfectly rational choice would be to weigh price and value and find each time a solution. But this proposal begs the question of what criteria we should consider to understand value. Again, is it how healthy a product is (its nutritional value)? Ethical considerations? Religion? Else?

In this letter I would like to defend the vegetarian and vegan choice (from now on, VVC) as a rationally plausible one, not strictly insofar as it is ethical, but insofar as it is a cultural phenomenon. To be more precise, I will consider vegetarians and vegans as people who choose what to be by choosing what to eat, namely to give up meat and derived products. The criterion of choice is based on emphasizing ethics, however sharable the ethical considerations might be.

Defending VVC against what, you might legitimately ask? Against the worry that individual choices to contrast vast-scale ethical problems, such as the capitalistic exploitation of animals, offer no solution to those problems at all. This critique is found among people, who are skeptical about the possibility of changing our systems of production without structural changes of the economy. Since individual choices have no influence other than slightly re-orient the market, those choices will always be taken in a capitalistic framework and are doomed to be either irrelevant or just to change the nature of the problem without solving it, say by destroying forests for the mass production of soy instead of directly killing animals.

My defense is simple and I have already exposed it. If you consider VVC as a strictly ethical choice, to be evaluated in terms of its practical consequences, the worry just proposed will be valid. But VVC is also a choice about what certain people want to be: they don’t want to be insensitive to animal sufferings, to waste and to ecological damages. They possibly don’t find any truly successful theoretical or practical solution, but they want to understand themselves as “caring for those matters”. And they find expression of their distress, hopes, value system, etc. in VVC.

This is also a way of putting ethics into practice, however less demanding it might be. It shouldn’t be a way to feel ethically superior, but it is a way to show some sort of “existential commitment”, which resembles a religion, and just like all religions it can sometimes fall into fanaticism. The difference with religion is however, that the foundation of VVC doesn’t come from unconditional faith in a divinity, but rather from theoretical and factual assumptions on reality and coherent and consistent deductions from those assumptions. How far reaching and comprehensive of reality those assumptions are, is certainly questionable. But ethics and rationality require us to get to action, even if sometimes we don’t have enough evidence for stating the perfect morality or perfect rationality of our actions. Likewise, not making a pondered decision, would be clearly more ethically and rationally controversial. There is no escape.

I really don’t see a way of believing that the phenomenon of VVC should be a priori labelled as an irrational trend for rich people, forgetting the “true enemy”. The “true enemy” remains, and VVC is most probably not a way to fight it successfully. But, as far as vegetarians and vegans are concerned, please, let them eat cake (vegan, if necessary).

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Islamization

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Talking about Islamic culture in western societies is an extremely hard task, which needs multidisciplinary knowledge and can’t be settled by simplistic political standings. Still, Islam has grown in recent years as a major worry for many political parties, which catalyze fears and insecurities of the masses against what seems to be a clear and well defined enemy. The major worry of such parties is not Islam within traditionally Islamic countries. It is rather the process sometimes called “Islamization”, taking place, according to such politicians, in western societies.

But what is this so-called Islamization? To my understanding, the term is often understood as referring to a group of phenomena regarding the growing presence of people of Islamic faith and habits in western societies. I try now to sparsely list what I think certain people find most worrying about this presence:

  1. There is a neat incompatibility between “western values” and “Islamic values”;
  2. Islam, as a religion, has a higher potential to lead people to violence than other religions, especially the Christian one;
  3. Islam is intrinsically oppressive of women and lgbt people;
  4. Western populations have a lower birth-rate on an average than people of Islamic culture that, together with immigration, would result in the uncontrolled growth of Islamic population and a consequent negative influence of Islamic values on western institutions;

I know few or nothing about Islamic culture, but knowledge of Islamic culture is not necessary to analyze the four points I consider constitutive of the worry of Islamization.

Let’s start with point 1. How can we understand this incompatibility between western values and Islamic values? Is Ramadan incompatible with Christmas? Or the religious prohibition to drink alcohol incompatible with wine and beer culture? Such things are not incompatible, they can perfectly coexist in a multicultural society. So what does this incompatibility consist of? I see no answer other than connecting point 1 to points 2 and 3. Islamic values are incompatible with western values because they would have a higher potential of spreading violence and they would be oppressive of women and lgbt people.

The question is now: are western values innocuous and not oppressive of women and lgbt people? What do we understand as western values in the first place? If we think of western values in terms of Christian values we have a history of compatibility of Christianity with spreading of catastrophic violence and oppression of women and lgbt people, which goes on nowadays. If we think of western values as the evolution of the ideas of Enlightenment, feminism and progressive social phenomena, we must understand western values as liberal and secular values. But then, the contrast with Islamic values would be void, for liberal and secular values are overarching religious and cultural values, not exclusive of them. What gets excluded are archaic cultural and religious understandings of moral and scientific matters, but not cultures and religions themselves. If such incompatibilities were intrinsic to religions, there wouldn’t be place for Christians in secular societies.

We can think of the incompatibility of point 1 as the one existing between Christian and Islamic cultures, but then again, do we think western values are exclusively Christian? If this were the case, we would be blind to centuries of social, moral and scientific progress, which has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and was often condemned by religion. Instead, if western values are supposed to be those of culturally-inclusive secularism, then there is nothing intrinsic to Islam that would imply “neat incompatibility”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that integration is an easy process or that western societies are as secular as they should be. But the hardness of reality isn’t a good reason to draw false conclusions about Islam.

Finally, point 4 addresses the concrete issue of the growing number of people of Islamic faith in western societies. This has of course to do with very complicated migration policies as well as with the birth rate of different populations. Still, if we think about the true causes of migration and uncontrolled birth rates, we see that religion is just a contextual factor. Migration crisis are caused by wars, famines, but mostly by lack of opportunities and poverty. Uncontrolled child birth by lack of education and (guess what) poverty.

“Ok with that” might say the defender of the I-word, “Islamization is contextual, not necessarily depending on religion and not necessarily incompatible with western societies. But still it coincidentally takes place and we have to deal with that”. The problem now is one of definition: do we really think it is fair to label all the phenomena related to people who by chance happen to be of Islamic faith and/or customs “Islamization”? Isn’t this term putting too much weight on religion, when the big problems are actually to be found in the global history of economic and political inequality? Religion certainly doesn’t help simplify such issues, but does it give enough reasons to talk about Islamization?

I don’t think so and I’ve explained why. Not only is Islamization a simplistic myth about a much more complicated reality, it is also dangerous for it might easily hide xenophobia. Let’s hear the words of experts on the topic rather than those of politicians talking about apocalyptic “clashes of civilizations”, for we might start believing that we owe all our modernity to Christianity, and witches certainly wouldn’t cherish.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Afterlife

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It is a shared opinion among those who are sometimes called the “New Atheists” that there is no life after the material death of the body. Being an atheist myself, I find very convincing the argument that, in the absence of any evidence of the continuation of life after death, or of the existence of life separated from its bodily existence, the very possibility of the question regarding afterlife stands on shaky ground. Why then not be agnostic or surrender to skepticism? Because I don’t take the problem of afterlife as a matter of ignorance in front of a certain question, since the question’s validity itself can be doubted in the first place. And if the question is doubtful, we need either to better formulate it or to abandon it. I chose to abandon the theoretical question about the existence of an afterlife, but that does not mean, from my perspective, that it is impossible to formulate it in a meaningful way.

In order to argue for this possibility, I invite you to take a step back and try to understand why the problem of afterlife is so interesting. When our intellect glances at the expanse of the universe and at the natural laws governing it, we are assaulted by the thought of being little and insignificant. But more than our limitation in space, what scares us the most is our limitation in time. We all must die, and death comes with the question of the sense of life. What is the meaning of life? Many religions, like the Christian one, have tried to answer by saying that our lives don’t find an end with death. I take this solution, read as a theoretical approach to the question, to be quite spooky and unconvincing.

On the other hand, the New Atheists are used to answer that the meaning of life (if there is one at all) is in the possibility of leaving a trace of our presence for the future generations or, more poetically, to do something to change the world that will continue after our deaths. But also this solution is problematic, for at least two reasons: (1) what meaning is there for the life of the subject who dies? It can be said that the world has a meaning insofar as there’s human life, or that the lasting things one discovers or creates have meanings for others in the future, but not for a single life: the individual life, from the individual perspective, stays meaningless from its point of view; (2) the new atheists’ solution is quite elitist: who can really leave a meaningful trace of one’s presence on this earth? Aren’t we approximately seven bilions currently? There are influential politicians, famous artists and writers, international pop stars, but the rest? Would we say that only certain lives have meaning and not others? Or that some lives are more meaningful than others?

In my opinion, all these problems are originated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the theoretical question regarding afterlife with the practical one. The theoretical question is meaningless from an atheist perspective, not yet the practical one. With the concept of an afterlife, religion gives hope to people, and the possibility to hold on through the struggles of life. But the New Atheists are doing precisely the same: they depict some sort of “idealistic immortality” based on being remembered, which gives hope and, through hope, meaning.

The practical question about afterlife is not only meaningful, but it looks like as if religious people as well as New Atheists give pretty much the same practical solution!

When we talk about the practical domain regarding the meaning of life, we enter a universe of relativisms, where the most different philosophies and religions try to sell their brand in the most creative and equally valid ways. However, if and only if we are willing to give a practical meaning to our lives that is coherent with atheist demands, it seems that the New Atheists’ solution is quite out of track. An atheist practical solution must take into account the limitation of our individual existence and give meaning only within the perspective of a single life, because with the end of that life, we encounter the end of that life’s meaning from the individual’s perspective. Even with such constrains, the practical solutions appear to be almost infinite: from hedonism to stoicism, from oriental religions to western utilitarianism, and so on. So far, the most convincing and inclusive solution I have personally found, follows somewhat the old-but-gold Aristotelian teaching, namely that meaning is given by the endless attempt to become a better version of ourselves, from as many reasonable perspectives as possible. Do you think it’s trivial? Maybe so, but as long as it doesn’t contemplate hell, I will be willing to embrace any more original solution you would like to offer!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Loss

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In very recent times, I have been thinking about the reasons of the special treatment we reserve to children and adolescents when they die. There are many anthropological theories about these phenomena, drawing from cultural studies, psychology and even evolutionary biology. Such theories are not of my concern. Instead, I would like to briefly inquire the possibility of a plausible moral justification for the special character of grief regarding young people.

At a first glance, if we agree that human life has a priceless value in our societies, it seems already hard to defend the claim that some human beings deserve to be mourned more or more intensely than others. Under normal conditions, there is no unit of measurement available to understand why lives of adolescents would be of greater moral value than those of older people. I stress the fact that I am thinking in moral terms, and not in terms of, say, reproductive potential, working potential, and so on.

From a moral perspective, all (at least human) lives are incommensurable in value, independently of how long they lasted, other things being equal. Therefore, it can’t be a matter of value, to look for the moral reasons to justify the great attention devolved to the death of children.

I talked to my flat mate about this puzzling matter and he suggested to consider the traditionally Christian focus on the innocence of children. I understand the term “innocent” as having two main meanings: the etymological one, which is said of a person “not committing any harm” (lat. in-nocens); and the religious one, which is “being without sin”.

The etymological meaning of the word simply doesn’t apply to children in general. We all know what great harms children are capable of, even if they lack the means of adults. Bullying and egoistical behaviors are just two of many examples. Of course, someone could claim that “innocence” actually implies being naïve, independently of the harm committed. But this would be a reason to be less morally sensitive to a child’s death rather than more, because being naïve can be morally reprehensible.

On the religious view – or so I take it, children are “without sin”, whereas adults are sinners. It seems to me, that when you commit a sinful action, your whole being gets somehow infected psychologically. It is as if you contract a disease (the sin) and the only way to get rid of it is to repent and let the divinity wash away the stains from your soul. Morality, however, talks only about actions and not about the soul and psychology of people. When you commit a bad action, from a moral perspective, the only thing being bad is the action and, on other accounts, the bad intentions. But there is no compromised soul, and psychology is left to psychologists.

If innocence, in the etymological sense, is not observable among children more than among adults and the religious sense is addressing a domain of meaning not of direct interest for morals, we are better off without it.

After all, there could be no moral justification for the great attention given to the deaths of young people. However, I suspect that we have been ignoring a very important element of morality so far. Children and adolescents are indeed “special” moral subjects. And it’s definitely not because they are “intrinsically good” or “better” than adults. Indeed, they are less, because their understanding of morality is, on an average, less developed than the one of adults. By “being less good” I don’t mean “being morally worse”, but rather not being yet full-blown moral subjects.

If children are potential moral subjects, their loss is a particular one. When an adult dies, her death has a meaning: that person, as a full-blown moral subject, held a moral position in this world, and has left meaningful and personal traces of herself along her way. What traces can a child leave, if all he has done so far has been reflecting like a mirror his education? What traces leaves an adolescent, as she struggles to find her place in this world like a chrysalis trying to develop its wings?

We can’t ascribe any moral meaning to the death of children. They were not autonomous defenders of any moral value, they didn’t stand for anything with appreciable personal commitment, nor were they reprehensible for indolence. When they die, they leave holes.

Perhaps it is absurd to look for a moral justification for the mourning of children. But surely we feel an atypical moral bewilderment when they leave this world.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Fundamentalism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The topic of this letter is fundamentalism in dogmatic religions. Everywhere you can read of people attacking religion as the source of fundamentalism, whereas others try to defend religion detaching it from its extremist deviations, as if the two were different phenomena. I call the defenders of the former view absolute secularists, and those defending the latter absolute liberals. I won’t consider the third position defending a particular religion while attacking another, because it is self-undermining.

My aim is to argue against both views, and propose a rationalist alternative.

I start with absolute secularism. To think that fundamentalism can be tracked in the Scriptures or in the predicaments of clergymen is to think of religion as something way more static than what it actually is. We have read of Christianity, Islam and Judaism accepting slavery, corruption and massacres of innocents, even if nowadays most of our religious friends are very open minded, and share the same difficulties and hopes of the rest of the population when faced with social changes. Why? Because Scriptures are subject to interpretations, so that they can adapt to the transformation of culture.

But does this mean that Scriptures are like empty shells we can fill with whatever content we like? I don’t think so, and the reason is that religion and, say, moral principles against slavery, belong to different domains. Religion can give meaning to our lives with its books and practices, and be the light against the distress of existence. Science and rationality are of no help here, because their domain is theoretical and experimental, and they can’t work as a “social glue” the way religion does, nor do they give shelter in front of the paradox of existence.

On the other hand, moral principles are principles which apply only and insofar as reason, experience and moral intuitions tell us what is the case – no “word of God” has authority over here. Being good is a matter of morals, not of observance of religion. The proof is given by saying that you can be good without being religious or morally bad and still religious, with respect to thus and such scriptural interpretation. On the contrary, you can’t be at the same time good and immoral, or bad and moral.

Religion is not intrinsically conjoined with anything bad or good. It becomes fundamentalism when people mistake it for having authority over morals, science and reason. And the same mistake is made by thinking that its “good predicaments” are good in virtue of their being religious, whereas in fact, if they are good at all, they are good only and insofar as they are moral. Absolute secularists forget that fundamentalism comes from a confusion among domains and doesn’t belong to religion itself, which is dynamic and can adapt both to good as to bad intents, thanks to interpretation.

On the other side, absolute liberals argue that fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion and is some sort of parallel phenomenon, for which religion is simply a distraction or a label. I don’t buy this position either. If I am right in arguing for the rationalist separation of domains, we shall see what sorts of domain they are.

The domain of reason obeys only to reason, but the one of religion doesn’t obey to “religion”. It obeys to the contextual interpretations one gives to the Scriptures. This allows religion to be a powerful medium to guide society and individuals instrumentally, as to follow a certain interpretation one gives to the Scriptures. And its power relies in its “meaning-giving” role and its “social-glue” role.  Therefore, it is not a distraction from other intents. It is rather the necessary means for fundamentalism to gain supporters, reunite them and lead them to action.

Absolute secularists think religion is the cause of fundamentalism, when it is the means instead. Absolute liberals attribute improperly to religion the possibility of neutral isolation only reason has.

My conclusion is that both positions are false, and that we shall consider religion as different in nature from rationality, morality, etc. and much more malleable, also because it addresses a different realm of life. It is a constituent of our society that we can accept insofar as it stays within its domain. Furthermore, we should blame religious fundamentalists not for their being religious, but for their being extremists, keeping however in mind that, without religion, we wouldn’t even talk about them.

Forever Yours,

‘Miasha