Posts Tagged ‘Cicero’

Morality Is Contagious: Draco, Nazism, USA CEOs

May 16, 2015

Brains learn, that is, become, the examples they see, hear, feel. What brains are exposed to is what they become. So what we decide to be exposed to, or engaged in, is itself a moral choice. [For the meat of this essay, my opinion, see the second part.]

This is in particular true for morality. The word “moral” was coined by the lawyer, Consul, “new man”, progressive, and philosopher Cicero. Cicero was looking for a word originating from Latin that would adequately translate the Greek “Ethikos”. That latter word, in turn related to ethos, the disposition, habitual character, ‘genius’ of a people. So Cicero went for “moris” genitive of mos (same meaning as the Greek ethos; mos is related to a Proto-Indo-European mood, mode, Mut (German for courage), etc.).

Here is an example of a recent degradation of morality:

We Are Headed Back To Middle-Age Inequality, Led By USA CEOs

We Are Headed Back To Middle-Age Inequality, Led By USA CEOs

[Economics Nobel Prize] Paul Krugman relates in “Broken Windows And American Oligarchy” how Chief Executive Officers’ drive to grabbing all the money for themselves, may have come from watching American football stars earn enormous compensation for euphorically bashing their brains in public, while on drugs, wearing pantyhose.

I have long thought, for decades, that it is literally immoral to watch American football (and I liberally despise those who do; this includes family members tight with Obama, I want them to know, lest they are too comfortable).

Instead of re-iterating my venom about this American football horror, complete with latent homosexuality in denial, drug abuse, couch potato spirit, and money for doing nothing good, and everything bad, let me I highly recommend Krugman’s little essay. Let me quote him:

….”it’s all the fault of Monday Night Football.

[A business man’s] story went like this: when games started being televised, the financial rewards to winning teams shot up, and star players began being offered big salaries. And CEOs, who watch a lot of football, noticed — and started saying to themselves, “Why not me?” If salaries were set in any kind of competitive marketplace, that wouldn’t have mattered, but they aren’t — CEOs appoint the committees that decide how much they’re worth, and are restrained only by norms about what seems like too much. Football, so my conversation partner averred, started the breakdown of those norms, and we were off to the races.

By the way, the timing is about right.”

I am happy to see that my psycho interpretation of history is gaining ground. No, ladies and gentlemen, please do not believe that your everyday little activities, down to drinking beer, do not have to do with your highest ideas.

Napoleon, rightly, pointed out that an army marched on its stomach, and Nietzsche, that one thought, with one stomach (something rediscovered by 28 year old Giulia Enders, whom TV networks love to show in detail how pretty she is; she sold already more than one million of her book on the stomach… “with charm).

Krugman was encouraged, he says, by an “interesting post by Vera te Velde on tests of the “broken windows” theory, which says that people are more likely to break social norms if they see other people violating norms, even if there’s no direct connection — you grab handbags if you see graffiti, you litter if you hear people ignoring noise ordinances, etc.. As she notes, there is now overwhelming experimental evidence for that theory. So it’s not crazy to think that CEOs might start violating pay norms because they see quarterbacks getting big checks.”

It helps that Vera is a fellow economist, thus honorable (and same observation as with Giulia). I sent the following comment which Krugman published within minutes (Krugman was in Oxford at the time):

***

ONE IS EITHER MORAL, OR ONE IS NOT SO:

At least, this is what the Ancient Greeks and Romans thought. The very idea of morals recognizes that lack thereof will lead to the contagion of immorality. Thus that immorality propagates like a plague has been recognized for more than 26 centuries. Then the Athenian legislator Draco set-up a legal system which punished most offenses (such as stealing a cabbage) with the death penalty.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(lawgiver)

The notion can be fruitfully used today: minor offenders can be arrested and their DNA can be documented. As big offenders tend to start as small offenders (that’s the point when they become immoral), as they commit a big crime, their DNA collected during their previous small crime will often allow to identify them. Hence the increasingly fast and accurate detection of big crimes nowadays. This is discouraging for would-be big time criminals, so the big time crime rate is plummeting.

However, internationally the effect can play the other way: when states see that aggression by other states is not punished, that immoral behavior is in plain sight, and nobody does anything about it, then immoral states so far rather innocuous tend to join in mayhem. This is why, in the 1930s, war and bad actions by states spread around the planet in a few years.

In the same spirit, the Nazis executed 200,000 handicapped people, starting in October 1939. The idea was not just to see if they could get away with it, but also to habituate the population to general moral depredation: their cooperation would be needed when millions were to be assassinated at their doorstep (an extermination camp such as Dachau was in Munich’s suburbs, and so were many camps next to urban areas; there was an astounding 20,000 Nazi concentration and extermination camps!).

More generally this is why one war does not generally happen alone, and why tolerated international abuse tend to lead to apparently unrelated wars in the same time frame.

Hence a war such as the one in Syria has a general deleterious moral effect for all those who hear about it, or watch it, and learn to tolerate it.

It is no coincidence that Putin decided to invade Ukraine after he saw his domestiques in England saw nothing wrong with their investor, Bachar El Assad, and Obama called off the Franco-American strike against Syria with minutes to spare.

***

IF YOU WANT TO AVOID WAR, EXHIBIT A HIGHER MORALITY:

The lessons of 1930s is that imperial racist aggressions from fascists in Italy, Germany, Japan (and also the USSR, and a few other smaller powers) would not have been allowed to propagate, if Great Britain and the USA had stood with France. Instead, they stood with Hitler, and Mussolini (through various treaties, and investment, combined with an anti-French attitude). Seeing this, the Japanese high command, and Stalin, felt much encouraged (and secondary fascists in Eastern Europe, Portugal, and Spain).

Thus, right now, it is important for democracy to bark in a timely manner. And to show some bite. The fascists of the 1930s really believed (headed by Hitler) that democracy was weak. That impression ought to be dispelled in a timely manner. Lest we want mayhem.

Those who want a better morality long towards love, conversation. Due to their will to goodness, they tend to forget that all which exists is the result of force. The kindest type of force is debate (from the Thirteenth Century French debatre, to beat completely).

However, morality is always imposed by force. Cicero himself, as a Consul, came to that conclusion. In the aftermath of the Second Catilinarian Conspiracy, Cicero, unfortunately (?) executed the five main conspirators without due process. Later, before and after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero tried to use force for the best, in his attempt to save the Republic. First supporting Caesar, and, then, as the most Senior Senator Octavian (against the much more fascist Marc-Antony).

Marcus Antonius had Cicero’s hands and head nailed on the Rostra, for all to see. After Marcus Antonius’ wife had repeatedly stabbed Cicero’s tongue with an hair pin, to extract vengeance from his power of speech.

After such horrors, the path was paved for 2,000 years of plutocracy, and the rise of American football, and how it impresses weak minds, and made greed into the only morality worth having. Meanwhile, just as impressed, by this generalizing degeneracy of morals, the North Korean dictator is piling as many nuclear bombs and intercontinental missiles as he can, while the USA president plays golf, and obsesses about free trade for his wealthy friends.

This requires discipline. So the dictator fed his uncle, who had put him in power, to dogs (some say it is not true; official pictures, though, show that the uncle was definitively not happy, humiliated and uncooperative). Now the young, “Western educated“,  dictator, has been betrayed by the lack of respect of his Defense Minister, and he, as dozens of other North Korean officials, was executed (possibly with anti-aircraft guns, in the presence of many officials).

In such a moral ambiance, who can doubt that the present North Korean dictator will not order the execution of whoever, even millions, perceived to be in his way?

As examples teach, and create minds, one should not forget that plutocracy inside the West causes much more vicious plutocracy out there. But, out there, is much capacity for mayhem, thanks to weapons of mass destruction.

Such weapons of mass destruction do not have to be gross. Canada’s just announced perfidious CO2 targets are an example of mass violence with a hopeful face. In truth, Canada, whose CO2 emissions have constantly augmented in the last few decades, is exactly giving the worst example: it will soon produce 40% of its CO2 emissions from just one province, Alberta, out of greed, producing tar sands oil.

Canada used to be a nation propounding peace. Now it propound CO2 and tar, all over the planet. Canada has become the symbol of greed and mass criminality, triumphing above reason. (And Canadians do not have the excuse of, say, Israel. With ten million square kilometers for a population smaller than Spain, Poland, or California, Canadians cannot claim to be scared and destitute.)

One should expect dictators and plutocrats to pay attention, worldwide, to Canada’s immorality, and triumph of Earth slapping greed. And to be inspired accordingly.

Patrice Ayme’

Virtue Ethics Devalued

September 25, 2014

Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness (Eudaimonia)… I will explain why this is erroneous.

Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary… (Let me add immediately that Greco-Roman slavery was apparently by far the worst of those suffered by the Middle Earth in the last 5,000 years; only the Muslim habit of impaling slaves who had attempted to flee compares: and look what Islam did with civilization; in other ways the Muslims did not treat their slaves as badly as the Greco-Romans; the fact both civilizations collapsed is no coincidence.)

By approving of slavery Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that the founder of virtue ethics could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute. I have, and will show, this in other essays. Let me offer just a few words here.

It was virtuous for Aristotle to enslave. Yet slavery is unnatural.

It was so unnatural that, arguably, it caused the fall of the Greco-Roman empire (by enabling Senatorial plutocracy, which undermined the Republic). A civilizational collapse is no way to survive.

The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day. So debating the nature of ethics is all very practical: it’s about why, when, how, and for whom, or what, to go to war. Look towards the Middle East for practical applications.

Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”. If one thinks about deeply, surviving as a species (or group) is the fundamental purpose of moral behavior. Ethics, or “mores” comes from “habitual character”. What’s more “habitual” than what insures the survival of the species. True, wisdom, foresight, prudence, fortitude are necessary to insure survival. But they are consequences.

Some brandish “religion” as something natural ethicists ought to respect. But there is more than 10,000 “religions” known, each of them actually a set of superstitions to enable the rule of some oligarchy (who adores the Hummingbird god of the Aztecs, nowadays?).

“Religion” means to tie (the people) together. A secular set of beliefs can do this very well, as long as it embraces the Republic of Human Rights, and, thus, survival. Indeed, human rights are best to insure long term survival of the species. They define the virtues Aristotle extolled, but could not define properly enough to insure the survival of his civilization (which was soon destroyed by Alexander, Aristotle’s student and friend).

The Republic of Human Rights is the only religion upon which all human beings can agree on, and, thus, the only one to respect, and found ethics on.

To this the editor of Scientia Salon objected (September 25) that:

“This idea that because Aristotle lived in a society that condoned slavery therefore virtue ethics is bullocks keeps rearing its ugly head, but seems to me a total non sequitur. You might as well say that we should throw out Newtonian mechanics because, after all, Newton was also interested in alchemy and the Bible.”

My reply:

I was unaware that I was ambling down a well-trodden road. Thus I can only observe that the notion that virtue ethics was a personal sin of Aristotle, although admittedly ugly, is entirely natural (as a naïve, untutored, independent mind, such as mine, discovers it readily).

Slavery, as practiced in Athens’ silver mines, and, later, Roman ore mines, was the worst. It was quickly lethal. And it did not stop with treating foreigners as less than animals. Aristotle’s student, and others he was familiar with (senior Macedonian general Antipater) enslaved all of Greece, shortly thereafter.

When the mood is to enslave, it does not stop anywhere, short of the brute force of invaders (and that’s exactly what happened).

Greco-Roman slavery was particularly harsh. There were much milder forms of slavery in Babylon, a millennium earlier, and Egypt used no slavery (except for captured enemy armies).

Peter Do Smith claimed that I suffered from “presentism” by condemning slavery. I guess, in the USA, slavery is just yesterday, and condemning it, so today.

But the Germans, at the time, condemned slavery, at least to the industrial scale the Greco-Romans engaged into it. Archeology has confirmed that small German farms did not use slaves.

Resting all of society upon slavery was not cautious: as soon as the Greco-Romans ran out of conquest, they ran out of slaves, and the GDP collapsed (it peaked within a couple of decades from Augustus’ accession to permanent Princeps and censor status). Another problem was the rise of enormous slavery propelled latifundia, giant Senatorial farms which put most Romans out of employment, and fed plutocracy.

Newton’s researches in… shall we call it proto-chemistry? Or Biblical considerations, were not viewed by him, or any smart observer, as consequences of his mechanics.

Aristotle’s ethical shortcomings were not restricted to his opinion on slavery, and one can only assume that they were consequences of his general ethics. Whereas Demosthenes was a philosophical, and physical hero, ethically, Aristotle sounds like someone raised at the court of the fascist plutocrats, Philippe and Alexander of Macedonia. As, indeed, happened (his father was physician to the Macedonian crown).

There were consequences to Aristotle’s ethics. Alexander had ethical reasons to annihilate Thebes, and sell surviving women and children into slavery. It’s natural to wonder if he shared them with his teacher. Another example of even heavier import: Aristotle’s enormous influence on Rome’s first moralist, Cicero. Cicero, literally, invented the word “morality” by translating the Greek “ethics”.

Aristotle comforted important Romans, centuries later, into the comfortable mood that ethics was all about feeling virtuous.

When Consul Cicero repressed savagely the Conspiracy of Cataline, without bothering with proper judicial procedure, he felt himself to be the incarnation of the eight virtues.

Cicero’s enormous ethical breach helped demolish the democratic Republic.

At all times, tyrants have proclaimed themselves virtuous. That’s tyranny 101. Proclaiming that, from now on, virtue will dominate ethics, besides being self-evident, and thus empty, is just self-congratulatory. Self-congratulations lay at the evil end of the spectrum of the examined life.

Instead, as Demosthenes pointed out, ethics ought to rest on survival. If the aim was survival, the non-conflictual, disunited approach to Aristotle’s bankrollers (Philippe and Alexander) was suicide.

Greece recovered freedom 23 centuries later. Thanks to the European Union.

Patrice Ayme’