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  • To care, or not to care?

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | by Bryan

    A friend kindly sent me a link to a story about the plight of Zimbabwean children in the face of the country’s social and economic meltdown. On a different day, I’d be tempted – as entertainingly as possible so as not to come across as a dull, liberal bore – to make some point about the ethical significance of the quality of life disparity between the Zimbabwean child in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean child in the Diaspora, and the average European child. But since we’ve already established that we generally don’t care about the plight of hundreds of missing foreign children, why bother?

    Instead, I’m going to ask a different type of ethical question. Western liberal societies tend to project a certain ethical standard; one that, among other things, prioritises human rights, individual freedom, the equality of all people, and so forth. But is that really what the people who make up these societies believe? Or when push comes to shove, when upholding those liberal values comes to cost us something, are we all Hobbesians who believe that the state of nature is a war of all against all? Are we really pragmatic Darwinists who believe in the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest?

    Is the answer anything but academic? I think it is. If the liberal rhetoric that we freely espouse is no more substantive than a politician’s election promises, then paying any heed to it is at best, silly. Besides, my new year’s resolution to not Bug Out includes not repeating and trying to build arguments based on make-believe.

    If that is the case, if there isn’t really a moral code, at least not one that so-called liberal societies really hold to, if the state of nature really is a war of all against all, then perhaps it is time to stop behaving as though the plight of Zimbabwean children, or the disappearance of hundreds of minors from Irish state care, matters in the slightest?

  • Why we aren’t bothered

    February 28, 2010 @ 11:42 pm | by Bryan

    Breda O’Brien’s disturbing article, What happened to all the missing foreign children? demands, I think, an answer. She asks:

    Are we, as Phil Garland, HSE assistant national director for children and families, suggested, simply racist? … I can only imagine the resources that would be marshalled and the blanket media coverage if Irish children whom I teach went missing. Between 2000 and 2009 a total of 501 migrant children went missing from HSE care. Only 67 have been successfully traced.

    How is it that hundreds of children disappear from the state’s care, and almost no-one takes any notice? Does this simply boil down to racism or some variation of it? Or is it something else; the outworking of the same phenomenon that makes the death of a few individuals in The United States or Western Europe considerably more news worthy than the deaths of scores of poor rural Asians or Africans? The outworking of an accepted, albeit rarely acknowledged human life value index? The same index which confers some missing children and their families near celebrity status while leaving others in their anonymity?

    Maybe what’s really at work has more to do with the same things that allowed children to be abused by priests for so many years. Could it be that Irish culture, like many traditional African cultures, has an aversion to the discussion of unpleasant topics? Maybe, for the sake of ‘peace’, or something like that, we just don’t like to disturb the many with the difficulties of a few? And perhaps the secular variant of that culture is what informs the prevailing attitude towards gang violence, and criminality in general: provided it is contained, so long as it does not spill over into the nice parts of town or affect innocent people – while it remains out of sight in other words – we seem to be perfectly capable of living with the scourge.

    Before we collectively lost our minds, before power and the pursuit of material gain intoxicated much of Zimbabwe, people generally held the view that life was sacred. For some, this went so far as to believe that the lack of respect for the sanctity of life leads to all sorts of calamities, personal and collective, ranging from natural disasters like drought, to things like financial ruin.

    That a lack of respect for human life leads to ruin has been upheld in Zimbabwe. I think the same can be said for Ireland. Had the nation taken time out from its frenzied pursuit of development, progress, and wealth in order to look for missing children, to deal with allegations of clerical abuse, to focus on crime and the factors that give rise to criminality, and the like; had the priorities been different, who knows? There may never have been a financial collapse, or even a housing bubble for that matter. But as things stand, several hundred missing foreign children aren’t nearly as important as a few hundred potential Ryanair jobs, or speculation on the extent of the dysfunctionality of the FF/Green marriage. Not in Zimbabwe, Ireland, or very many places for that matter.

    That being the case, if the old folks back home are to be believed, we should all brace ourselves for disaster. Or, if you prefer Hobbes:

    Seeing every man, not only by Right, but also by necessity of Nature, is supposed to endeavor all he can, to obtain that which is necessary for his conservation; he that shall oppose himself against it, for things superfluous, is guilty of the war that thereupon is to follow.

  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 4

    February 25, 2010 @ 11:35 pm | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self

    Moral Sources

    This week’s was definitely my favourite reading so far. It felt as though sticking with Taylor is really starting to pay off as I understand much more of what he was trying to express. He makes to main claims in this chapter: whether or not we admit it, whether we claim that all moral positions are equally valid or that none are, we all hold to some conception of ‘the good’; furthermore, that conception of ‘the good’, is what determines our view of ‘the self’, as well as of what society aught to be.Taylor states, for example, the following:

    The point of view from which we might constate that all orders are equally arbitrary, in particular that all moral views are equally so, is just not available to us humans. It is a form of self-delusion to think that we do not speak from a moral orientation which we take to be right. This is a condition of being a functioning self, not a metaphysical view we can put on or off. So the meta-construal of the the neo-Nietzschean philosopher – ‘in holding my moral position , I am imposing (or collaborating in the imposition of) a regime of truth on the chaos, and so does everyone’ – is just as impossible as the meta-construal of the empiricist – ‘in holding my moral position, I am projecting values onto a neutral world of facts, and so does everyone’. Both are incompatible with the way we cannot but understand ourselves in the actual practices which constitute holding that position: our deliberations, our serious assessments of ourselves and others. They are not construals you could actually make of your life while living it (p. 99).


    …our visions of the good are tied up with our understandings of the self … We have a sense of who we are through our sense of where we stand to the good. But this will also mean … that radically different senses of what the good is go along with quite different notions of the self. To trace the development of our modern visions of the good, which are in some respects unprecedented in human culture, is also to follow the evolution of unprecedented new understandings of agency and selfhood (p. 105).

    So far, so good. I think Taylor’s definitely onto something. But this work is centred on the making of the modern Westerner’s identity. I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not he tries to universalise his ideas, and if so, how he justifies expanding a philosophy which he sees as being rooted in European history to peoples who are not of European lineage or cultural descent.

  • In whose name?

    February 24, 2010 @ 3:10 pm | by Bryan

    PSNI forensic experts at the scene of last night's car bomb attack outside Newry courthouse in Co Down. Photograph: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

    PSNI forensic experts at the scene of Monday night’s car bomb attack outside Newry courthouse in Co Down. Photograph: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton.

    I drove past the odd police checkpoint and had to follow a few diversions as I was going through Newry last night. Having listened to news reports on the bombing, read newspaper articles, seen photographs, and having caught a glimpse of what this sort of attack means for directly affected communities through Pól Ó Muirí’s Daddy, there’s a bomb scare blog post, I’m confused.

    In his Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela is candid about his role in the perpetration of what the apartheid government might have called ‘acts of terror’. In Mandela’s defence, a case can probably be made for attacking the infrastructure of an oppressive regime when such acts are supported by the majority.

    Maybe it’s just ignorance on my part – ignorance of Irish history and Northern politics – but I really don’t understand the justification behind the Newry court bombing. I don’t understand how actions that do not have the support of the majority, that are more likely to lead to political disengagement that engagement, can be cloaked under the banner of republicanism, dissident or otherwise.

    When those who had planted the bomb celebrated their success, I wonder in whose name they thought they were celebrating?

  • Reflections on Sr. Ncube and Dan Boyle

    February 22, 2010 @ 4:08 pm | by Bryan

    I had the pleasure of listening to broadcaster Eamon Dunphy have a go at Green Party chairman Dan Boyle on radio last week. The Greens, Dunphy contended, have sold out. Not only has the party that was elected on the back of promises to change the prevailing political culture learnt to live with it, Dunphy alleged that the same party now actively legitimises that culture by keeping their government partners in office. For his part, Boyle seemed to concede quite a bit to Dunphy. He mumbled something about being pragmatic, change being slow, the Green party being an unusual kind of political animal that can survive outside the Dáil if need be, and so forth. But for all of that, it sounded to me like Boyle, at some level, agreed with Dunphy.

    That radio exchange reminded me of South Africa’s 1996 parliamentary vote on the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. The ruling ANC wanted to enact legislation allowing, among other things, pregnant women of less than 12 weeks gestation access to a medical abortion. To ensure that this legislation was passed, the party refused its parliamentarians the option of voting their conscience, except in some specific circumstances. Commenting on that decision, party whip Geoff Doidge said, “I’ve been taught that abortion is wrong. But I am in Parliament as an ANC MP. People voted in 1994 for the ANC, not for Geoff Doidge. I’m not there as a Catholic MP, but as an ANC MP. In terms of that I must follow party discipline.” Catholic nun and fellow ANC member, Sister Ncube, obviously agreed with Doidge. She voted for the bill.

    I’m not sure how much distance there is between a member of a political party, like Sr. Ncube, and the junior partner in a coalition government. In the same way that Ncube relied on the ANC for whatever power she had to act on behalf of her constituents, Dan Boyle and the rest of the Greens seem to think they need Fianna Fáil to make Ireland a greener nation. I’m not sure if that is the result of political immaturity, or if that is just the nature of coalition and compromise. Could the Greens have got more from their government partners, or is it just the nature of political engagement that the weaker gradually morphs into something very much like the stronger?

    Should the likes of Sr Ncube and the Green Party even get into politics? I’m not questioning whether or not they should be involved with the political process or whether they should try to see certain laws passed or otherwise. But I can’t help but wonder if membership of a political party requires a type of political ‘agnosticism’. People who don’t believe in anything, at least not passionately, and not publicly, aren’t going to have to juggle their political roles with their activist ones. Maybe politicians should be like civil servants – bureaucrats who submit their own predilections for the will of ‘the people’?

    And maybe that’s why Fianna Fáil have been so successful. They are a little like your bland bureaucrat who won’t let ideology or values get in the way of things; who is happy to do whatever you ask of her, within reason. And maybe that’s why substantively, there is very little between the mainstream parties. Maybe they all realise that elected office is no place for believers; that those who enter will be stripped of those beliefs?

    Scripture asks, “What shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Similarly, my question for Boyle, Ncube and other like them is this: is political power worth attaining if attaining it means compromising things that are fundamental to who you are?

  • Indifferent

    February 19, 2010 @ 5:53 pm | by Bryan

    Maybe it’s just me. Maybe being enveloped in a wave of indifference when all sorts of exciting things are happening in the political world is a natural response to sharing a room with an infant with no respect for the sanctity of sleep. Then again, I did resolve not to bug out, or to be taken by buggin’ out this year.

    I almost feel sorry for the now former minister of defence. Others have done worse at better times and have escaped unscathed. Were Mr O’Dea’s fate the first fruits of a new ethical season in political circles, there would be something to celebrate. As things stand, all that has happened is that the opposition’s sustained pressure on the coalition government’s junior partner has necessitated some blood letting, and O’Dea happened to be in the firing line at the wrong time.

    But what has changed? Cabinet ministers will watch what they say in front of journalists. O’Dea has the good fortune of not having to be on the forefront of what must be the mammoth task of helping his political party claw its way back up into contention for the next election; not to mention the responsibilities of running a government ministry. The Greens will keep trying to pretend that they still bear some resemblance to the activists who entered government two and a half years ago, all the while morphing more rapidly into an entity very much like their new big brother. And most of the electorate will, after complaining very bitterly about how the country is being run, remain largely indifferent to issues of governance; few will be moved enough to act, change or do something else. All of these things can be summarised in the words of a caller on RTE Radio 1’s Liveline this afternoon, who expressed disgust at O’Dea’s resignation. He said words to the effect of, ‘We need men of action in government. Why did they make Willie O’Dea resign? It’s like they’re trying to turn us into Sweden, expecting things to happen properly here!’

    I’m sure many people would like this country to resemble Sweden a little more, but I’m not sure we make the connection made by that caller. Replacing personalities, be they the minister of defence, the Taoiseach, or the entire government, won’t change a country. Only changing its culture will do that. Yesterday’s resignation and the events which precipitated it were in keeping with our political culture. Hence my indifference.

  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 3

    February 18, 2010 @ 9:18 pm | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self - Ethics of Inarticulacy

    Ethics of Inarticulacy

    This was another heavy reading, and the fact that it was almost 40 pages long didn’t help matters. Again though, I found the chapter to be incredibly thought-provoking, even if I struggled to synthesise all the ideas put forward by Taylor. But before tackling this week’s text, I’d like to address a question from last week:

    …what worries me about this is the hint of determinism and the possible lack of freedom. If I am a product of my environment or community why put me in jail for killing the local postman. After all I am a product of my environment…

    …what exactly does the forest monk add to his “self” or identity after 30 years of meditation. I mean if he is merely reploughing his upbringing in a community whats the point. Where is the added value of his contemplation? Can he fundamentally change his identity by contemplation?

    …One other question. I like this phrase “the self in moral space” heading this thread. Does Taylor define “moral space”? I would like to see that definition.

    I think those questions are a good place to start because I’m finding it hard ti maintain a sense of continuity between the chapters, which are obviously meant to build upon each other. In chapter 2, Taylor defines moral space as ‘a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary‘ (p. 28). He goes on to say that this space is not the creation of individuals, but is formed by communities. In fact, in chapter 3 Taylor is at pains to stress that the moral realm isn’t neutral, a blank canvas waiting for people to turn it into whatever they please, but something that takes place as members of a community interact.

    The questions above also come to the fore in this week’s reading. On the one hand, Taylor seems to be determined to stress the role of communities, and yet there is something almost individualistic about the way he presents communities. He devotes most of the chapter to the idea that there is something flawed with a procedural view of morality as opposed to a substantive one. The procedural one is the sort that is dominant today, where provided your thinking is sound, you get to define to a large degree your own view of ‘the good life’ and morality within the bounds of that good life. In fact, the different views moderns have of the good life generally isn’t articulated. But because we inhabit a moral space that we create in common, there’s an internal contradiction to our views of morality. Taylor, I think, feels the sensible thing rather is to communally come up with a vision of the good life then morally ground ourselves in that.

    That said, communities (very broadly defined I suppose) are culturally different and so would have different views of the good life. I’m not sure about this, but if I read him correctly, he seems at this point to be happy to accept that it is impossible for someone from a community that prioritises equality as its greatest good to understand a practice like FGM.

    The quotation of the week:
    Our qualitative distinctions, as definitions of the good, rather offer reasons in this sense, that articulating what underlies our ethical choices, leanings, intuitions. It is setting out just what I have a dim grasp of when I see that A is right, or Xis wrong, or Y is valuable and worth preserving, and the like. It is to articulate the moral point of our actions. That is why it is so different from the external reason. I can only convince you by my description of the good if I speak for you, either by articulating what underlies your existing moral intuitions or perhaps by my description moving you to the point of making it your own. And that is why it cannot be assimilated to giving a basic reason (p. 77).

  • Michael v Mary

    February 17, 2010 @ 11:06 pm | by Bryan

    Tánaiste Mary Coughlan makes a phone call in her office following her meeting last night with Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

    Tánaiste Mary Coughlan makes a phone call in her office following her meeting last night with Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.

    The spat between the Tánaiste and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is fascinating. It begs the question, who is more powerful, a bunch of elected politicians, or a businessman with the capacity to create lots of jobs?

    Granted, the playing field is uneven in that we are in a recession and jobs count for a whole lot more than they normally would. Also, there isn’t very much goodwill towards politicians right now. So maybe it’s wrong to read too much into the fact that, from what I can tell, the consensus is that O’Leary is right and the government is made up of ditherers who either don’t care enough, or are too incompetent to get a handle on the jobs situation.

    I come to this issue with my own bias. I think the market dictates the range of options available to politicians. The market in my opinion, is really just the interests of those in society with the most capital. Simply put, while the likes of the Tánaiste get fancy titles and all sorts of administrative responsibilities, people like O’Leary are the ones who really run things.

    But maybe I’m wrong. If Michael O’Leary was really that powerful, he probably wouldn’t have had to take his beef with Mary Coughlan into the public realm. He’s thrashing her there, but maybe the fact that there’s even a fight means that the O’Learys of this world aren’t quite as powerful as I thought?

    …unless of course this spat precipitates the fall of the government. The rest of the political establishment is well and truly behind O’Leary in this matter. The ability to replace a government with like-minded politicians would be a most impressive display.

  • Our pragmatism

    February 15, 2010 @ 11:06 pm | by Bryan

    In Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization, Kwame Nkrumah wrote the following:

    …philosophical systems are facts of history. By the time, however, that they come to be accepted in the universities for exposition, they have lost the vital power which they had at their first statement, they have shed their dynamism and polemic reference. This is a result of the academic treatment which they are given. The academic treatment is the result of an attitude to philosophical systems as though there was nothing to them but statements standing in logical relation to one another.

    Perhaps, but something similar occurs to the said ‘philosophical systems’ in the realm of everyday life. The lofty ideals they encapsulate, ideals like the equal dignity and worth of people, tend to be smothered by the realities of material existence.

    Take the previous post for example. Pragmatism makes it nearly impossible to look beyond the specifics of Pamela Izevbekhai’s case, and dwell on questions around the allocation of citizenship, the benefits and burdens that come with that, and ultimately, questions of global distributive justice. The specter of economic ruin; the terror induced by the thought of one day being in the same position as the least well off; these things shield us from seeing such ideals as anything but the impractical musings of idealists. That is just as true on the streets and in the market place as it is in the halls of academia.

    Then again, maybe I’m just clinging to ideas that belong to philosophical systems of the past. Maybe today’s dominant philosophical systems are just a little more pragmatic and a little less idealistic than their predecessors. Maybe the pursuit of personal freedom and autonomy culminates in less regard for the other, which increases with the other’s distance from me.

  • Arbitrary citizenship

    February 12, 2010 @ 10:00 pm | by Bryan

    Pamela Izevbekhai with her children, six-year-old Jemima and eight-year-old Naomi, at the High Court in Dublin on March 29 2009 where she challenged a decision to deport her and her daughters. Photograph: Garrett White/Collins

    Pamela Izevbekhai was again in the news today. There is a good chance that she and her two children will be deported from Ireland in the not very distant future. Because neither she, nor her daughters were born in Ireland, or in an EU member state, the government has no obligations towards them. They aren’t citizens, so their fate isn’t the concern of Ireland Inc.

    My newborn on the other hand, is an Irish citizen. He was born in here, and his parents had legally resided in the state for the requisite period. Interestingly, had my wife and I had a baby a couple of years earlier, that child would not have qualified for Irish citizenship regardless of his place of birth. Because we waited, he can call himself Irish and the state will agree. That to me seems a little arbitrary.

    Similarly, my American friend who has diligently served his local community for years, leads something of an uncertain life in that every couple of years, he must ask the state for permission to stay put. Although he and his family aren’t reliant on public funds, a favorable decision is not guaranteed. His Irish born daughters on the other hand, are citizens. A day may come when he and his wife are denied permission to live here, while their three young children are allowed to stay. But who is more of a citizen, the parents who are involved with and concerned about their local community, or the children, who probably couldn’t spell the word ‘citizen’, let alone explain what it means?

    I like rules. I’m a fan of order. But I also think that order should be build on the back of rules that both make sense and are just. Pamela Izevbekhai is almost certainly more of a citizen of this country than my child or my friend’s children. She is probably a better citizen of this country than many native Irish people. Even if it were proved that she used dodgy papers and a made up story to get into the state, I’m not convinced that chucking her out while holding on to local criminals, addicts, undesirables of other kinds, my son, or for that matter, any other child in the state, is just.

    The concept of the citizen seems too arbitrary to me, to be entrusted with something as important as who gets let in, who gets to stay, and who gets kicked out.

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