Lazy Luddite Log

26.8.06

Mammalian Morality

I have chanced to be in a number of conversations recently on the topic of ethics and this has got me wondering at the origin of moral behaviour. Also a number of incidents that I have become aware of have likewise got me thinking on the applicability of particular kinds of morality. The comments that follow are hardly original but just map my own personal exploration of the topic of late.

Origins

From whence do morals arise? The exponents of some kinds of morality propose a supernatural basis: God tells us to do this and what God instructs is good by definition. This may be fine if you accept the existence of God or gods. But many of us cannot be sure of such things. We can be sure however that these allegedly God-inspired morals themselves exist. But what origin other than God do they have? Many advocates of religious morality refer to 'nature' as the source of moral behaviour.

Thomas Moore states in Utopia (1516) that good behaviour arises from following ones natural inclinations. A quick consideration of this comment suggests many shortcomings with it - surely some very bad behaviour arises from following such urges. Moore was prepared for this by saying that in some of us natural inclinations are distorted so that we "confuse the bitter with the sweet" (even if you accept this answer you still have to find a way of determining exactly what urges are in accord with nature and which are distorted). For Moore 'nature' is God by proxy but we can take it more literally and that is a matter I will return to shortly.

If we move onto secular morality we find that reason is frequently the proposed basis of moral behaviour. And just as religious persons can give God a mundane face as 'Nature' so too some advocates of 'Reason' with a capital R have a tendency to deify what is just a method of processing and assessing information (I have some of those heroes of the Enlightenment like Newton and Jefferson in mind here). Reason is an incredibly useful tool which can very effectively help us to decide the best course of action in arriving at an objective. But methods and aims are distinct things. Reason can tell me how to get something but it cannot tell me what it is I desire. For that I need to refer to something more basic and many forms of secular morality do just that.

Possibly the most well-known and successful form of secular morality is Utilitarianism which uses reason to assess the morality of alternate courses of action but draws on the human capacity to feel both pleasure and pain as its metric of what is right or wrong. Utilitarianism has huge shortcomings in that pleasure and pain can be both interpreted and assessed in different ways (indeed I would argue that wildly divergent forms of modern secular politics all draw on Utilitarianism but interpret ways of maximising utility differently).

How much of a problem are such shortcomings? I personally think that our desire to have some code of conduct which tells us exactly what to do in all cases may be the problem. Nobody as yet has devised a form of morality free from valid criticism. All we have in practice is a mishmash of decision-making methods drawn on in different ways depending on circumstance and personal preference. We get by somehow.

I want to get back to the notion of nature with a modern understanding of human behaviour as something that is grounded in human biology. I am surprised at how much this aspect of ourselves is overlooked in moral philosophy but it is hinted at in both religious (e.g. 'nature') and secular (e.g. pleasure and pain) forms of morality. Our sense of what is right and wrong maybe shaped by culture but its raw fabric comes from who and what we are. What are we? We are animals which have powerful urges to preserve our selves and (by extention) our genetic heritage. More specifically we are mammals whose progeny must be cared for while they are young. More specifically still we are a kind of mammal that lives in packs and who instinctively help others within the group whether they are children or adults. Also we are the product of sexual reproduction and therefore every one of us is unique.

As humans we have extended these behaviours in new and intersting ways. Our genetic uniqueness can have a respect for personal autonomy extrapolated from it. The instinct to care for an infant can become the call for the strong to protect the weak. The pack we serve has been extended bit-by-bit over history and can now be recognised as the whole species rather than ones extended family. The heritage we wish to preserve can be cultural as well as natural and so things like historic records and artifacts can become an important part of what we are. The territory we defend can become as big as a planet.

This basis for morality will be flawed like any. One can very quickly cite many cases in which mammalian insticts produce bad as well as good behaviour. If I can think of an answer to that it may well be as flimsy as that of Moore on 'distorted' nature. We shall see how we go if there are any comments forthcoming to this entry.

Applicability

One thing I will say for it is this: To follow 'mammalian morality' all you have to do is be human and do what comes naturally (keeping in mind that culture is just a product of our nature). Nobody has to study and master any complex philosophy to feel empathy for another person and then act on that motivation. Just be yourself.

For a long time I have considered 'enlightened self-interest' to be the morality for me. One acts in a good manner because one understands ones small part in an interconnected world and holds to notions of "what comes around goes around". However I have recently felt (and it has been a case of feeling more than thinking) that I need to go further than that. Enlightened self interest is missing something: Compassion. If all we ever did was for apparent personal benefit (however remote or abstract) then I think we would have a much more clinical and sterile world than we do. There would be fewer instances of kindness and affection and there would be plenty of taking care of oneself but less taking care of others.

I saw a total stranger on public transport lately and they were visibly weeping. My inclination was to go and comfort them and it had nothing to do with me sitting there and calculating how the happiness of that person may in the short or long term come back to benefitting me by some complex causal process. My desire to help was instant and emotive. Did my culture put this desire in me? You may well think that but I could also say that it was my culture that made me resist my feelings and sit still and do nothing to comfort the person. It may be just as well that I did let them take care of things themselves but at the same time the feeling to help was there nonetheless and in some other circumstance may have been much more appropriate.

I cannot think of any nice clever way of bringing this post to a close. So a long rambling entry ends with a fizz rather than a bang. I suppose what I want to say is that how we behave and how we should behave comes from more than just thinking hard at a problem in the hope that that will make it go away. We sometimes have to go with what we feel as much as what we think. Course in saying that I hope that you will feel something akin to what I feel...

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19.8.06

Opinions as Facts of History

I got a letter published in the Australian on the topic of history education in schools. Yay me!

It’s good to see the federal Government emphasising the importance of history in the school curriculum ("States told to rewrite history”, 18/8), but the call for more emphasis on “dates and facts” can only go so far. What are facts in the context of a history lesson?

Certainly, it’s a fact that Federation occurred in 1901, but are the reasons behind this historic event “facts” or opinions? That event was the product of a whole host of different opinions that motivated people to behave and interact in various ways, with Federation as the end result.

To understand any event, we have to go beyond dates and delve into the varying opinions of the people who made that history. In human endeavour, opinions become facts because they impact on what happens. They have to be conveyed in the classroom in an objective and open-minded way, which will inevitably lead to students forming their own interpretations of history. This may sound “postmodern” to those who prefer their history cut-and-dried, but it’s unavoidable.

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16.8.06

Flow of Words

That last post was the longest I have put on this blog, so this one will be much shorter. Why, I wonder, is it that I can write over 2000 words (admittedly in instalments over a few days) of a blog entry with barely any effort, yet I remember writing uni essays of similar size with huge difficulty? Both my Aphra Behn post, and old essays, are non-fiction, and both on topics of interest to me, but I suppose the difference arises from the fact that, in this case, I am free of the conventions and formats of academic writing, which allows me to simply write, and I am writing for nobody but me, which makes it feel like a hobby rather than a chore, thereby motivating me more.

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7.8.06

Who is Aphra Behn?

I have gone and done something rather foolish: I have developed a crush on someone from the 1600s! Her name is Aphra Behn and she is fantastic. Or rather, in keeping with the nature of crushes, it is the impression I have formed of her that is fantastic. How accurate that impression is, is very much a matter of conjecture, for the life of Aphra is very much a maze of mirrors.

It all started some weeks ago. I happened to be visiting Wikipedia and glanced at the 'Feature Article' of that day. It was on the novel Oroonoko (1688) written by one Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) who is described as "the first professional female dramatist and novelist" in English history and also as someone who worked as a spy for Charles II. Her historical significance as a writer was only part of what attracted me. The notion of a 'she-spy' practicing her art in cavalier times fired my imagination, which I had recently been feeding with swashbuckling movies, and I resolved to get to know Aphra better.

To that end I hunted for the biography The Secret Life Of Aphra Behn (1997) by Janet Todd. My own local library service (City of Monash) lacks this book so I had to go and get it from another (City of Yarra). Once it was in my hot hands I began perusing it and have enjoyed it very much. The biography blends the best elements of both non-fiction and fiction, much as did Aphra herself, and it is the key source for my own writing herein.

Exploring the life of someone from so long ago can be a very difficult task and many gaps in the record have to be filled by speculation. Evidence of the past is subject to the ravages of time. The Great Fire of London in 1666, for instance, destroyed much documentation. Furthermore, writings are coloured by the prejudice and sensitivity of those writing them, so any comment or description of a person must be understood with that in mind. Aphra was a figure of some controversy living in a time dominated by faction and intrigue.

Aphra incorporated elements of fact into her works of fiction, sometimes to make a play or novel more relevant to its audience, and sometimes to effect a kind of propaganda for the causes she supported. Conversely, Aphra may well have incorporated elements of fiction into writings of fact, such as letters to friends and colleagues, in order to present a well-cultivated self-image, and to further her own needs in some way. And if her public and private writings can be difficult to interpret, then what of her secret writings as a spy? Some correspondence between her and her spy-masters survives to this day, but how much of her activity was never documented because of its covert nature? As a some-time spy, and as a woman engaging in the power-play of a male-dominated society, Aphra had to become adapt at disembling.

Her Life

Some of what follows is true, and all of what follows may be true. Aphra was born and spent her childhood during the Interegnum (the time of 'Commonwealth' existing between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II). She was a commoner whose father was a barber and whose mother was a wet-nurse. They lived in Kent. At sometime in her childhood she became the companion or playmate for the child of some local minor nobility. It was from this experience that she got a familiarity with writing and literature. It was then that she may well have developed a fascination with the status and manners of the nobility.

By the time she was twenty, the monarchy had been restored, and in that time she may have had some small hand in the Restoration as a covert messenger for agents supporting the return to power of Charles II. Later, Aphra visited the New World colony of Surinam and observed the lives of British settlers alongside those of African slaves and Native Americans. She may even then have been there in the capacity of a spy. On her return voyage she wed a merchant mariner but seems to have been widowed a relatively short time later.

Following this she went to Flanders on the Continent and was definitely there as an agent of Charles II. At the time war was brewing between England and the Netherlands and her mission was to extract information on Dutch military plans from an exiled Englishman, in exchange for a full pardon and return to his homeland. Seems this fellow vasilated and prolonged her mission, much to her frustration and the taxing of her limited purse. There may have been other times in the 60s that Aphra acted as a spy for the Crown and her destinations may have included Paris and Venice. She was always prepared to serve in hope of the honour and reward that may follow such action, but the Crown often neglected to pay its dues. By the 70s Aphra had turned her hand to the writing of plays for the resurgent theatrical scene in London.

Aphra focused on romantic comedy and explored the lives and mores of young men and women living in a libertine age. Many of her heroes were 'rakes' but so were many of her heroines. Much of this libertine storytelling drew on her own observations and experiences of the theatrical scene which overlapped with the fringes of court society. She had a number of relationships, as evidenced by letters written by and for her, but whether they were affairs as we think of them, or simply affairs of the heart, or both at different times, is a personal matter for Aphra herself.

Into the 80s she worked less on plays and more on the newer format of the novel. Her work also became more politicised in response to a more politicised time in which forces were moving to push for one successor or another for the throne. She never succeeded in becomming part of the courtly society she admired and supported as a propagandist. However she did win fame and notoriety in her day and participated in many poetic debates with rivals both in public and private.

Getting along...

My 'crush' was very much the product of the scantest of descriptions combined with my own fanciful notions. So, for me, the Aphra of Wikipedia became a "witty playwright by day and daring spy by night" almost in the manner of comic book characters. How do I feel now that I have explored a comprehensive scholarly work on the same historic figure? How would we get along if we were to meet? Aphra is described as affable and gregarious so that is an good start. She has a passion for conversation which is even better.

But once we start discussing anything substantive issues may arise. Aphra was a committed royalist and stern critic of anything 'republican'. We need to understand this in the context of her life and times. The republic of Oliver Cromwell had been a regime of Puritans - imagine a nation ruled by the same wowsers and killjoys who vex us to this very day! Even a secular republican such as I may welcome the rule of an hereditary monarch if it was the only alternative to the oppression of such moralisers. And the Stuart monarchs were never the absolutist rulers they wished to be and had to accomodate the power of Parliament. So there, maybe, we could find some accomodation of opinions. Still it went further than that. Aphra resented notions of democracy and was very suspicious of 'the mob'. But then for her those who opposed monarchy did so only for the sake of personal aggrandisement, and the common masses were merely a tool for them to advance themselves. Peace and prosperity only arose from the stability that comes from having one universally accepted ruler.

It was with this in mind that Aphra supported the succession of direct legitimate heirs. Under such a schema James II (son of Charles I) should succeed Charles II, but many Protestants could not accept this because James was Roman Catholic and represented the risk of a return to Papist power in England. They, then, supported the eldest illigitimate son of Charles II, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, as successor. All the manouvering and plotting of the 1780s over the matter of succession served only to frustrate Aphra, for whom religion had never been particularly important. She may have been Protestant, but only nominally so, and was something of a 'free-thinker' in the mould of many libertines and other children of the Enlightenment. It was fine to invoke gods in poetry, but in matters of both personal and political life, I am sure Aphra would have liked the Divine to simply butt out. It was the here-and-now that mattered and life should be lived to the fullest. If ever we had political differences I am sure we could always agree-to-disagree and divert to other matters.

Aphra embraced life and forged paths that women had rarely if ever walked at that time. In reaction to the inhibitions of the Interegnum, the Restoration era was more free and accepting of new and different ways of thinking and acting than many other eras had been. Nonetheless, it took a brave and brilliant woman to partake fully in such a life, and to challenge traditional assumptions. She always lamented the fact that, as a woman, she was deprived of the Classical education in Latin and Greek that her male counterparts had, but more than compensated for this by her commanding fluency in the vernacular. She wrote with the assumption that she could write as well as they did, despite prejudices to the contrary. However she suffered regular lampoons and criticisms, based more on her gender than on the quality of her work itself. It seems that what offended others was not simply that her writing depicted some risque topics, but that it was a woman who had been holding the pen. Aphra, then, was a strong and enduring person to live the life of a professional writer "writing for bread and not ashamed to own it". This is someone, it seems to me, well worth knowing and having the company of, but, there is the matter of oppressive time confining us forever in separate eras. In which case one can always resort to the time-honoured practice of admiring from afar; admiring, and promoting to others.

Presenting the Past

Why is it that I had never known of Aphra till this chance glimpse on the Internet? It seems that many others are ignorant of her too. I have been surveying friends and, with a few exceptions, she is a stranger to us, and we are a well-informed sort. Those who did know of her did so because of specific expertise in literature or history or feminism (e.g. Virginia Woolf, in her own writings, added Aphra to the roll-call of feminist heroines). But then Aphra is just one of a host of figures from history and there is only so much limelight for any one personage. But if sober academia can only give so much space to Aphra, then what of pop-culture?

As far as I can tell, there has never been any movie made of the life of Aphra Behn, which is a pity, as it is a story worth adapting. What kind of film do I fancy would do justice to the life of Aphra? I suppose we could always get the BBC to make some worthy, if stodgy, costume drama, focusing purely on personal relations and private introspection. But for me another way is more promising, and more reflective of the way Aphra did things herself. Her life was interesting, but in her own writing she made life seem more interesting, more exciting, more outlandish, than it may truly have been. For me, then, the way to go is to have a swashbuckling adventure, in which the mature-aged Aphra, played by one actress, tells a small gathering of close literary and theatrical friends, anecdotes from her younger days.



Those days would be depicted in flashback, using another actress to portray secret agent Astrea (a name she sometimes used) with much exaggeration of the truth, for the sake of both amusing its audience, and provoking pulses to race [thanks for this image to Karen Eterovich of Love Arm'd]. Aphra's friends could occasionally interject to comment on some inconsistency in her tale, to have her brush it aside with some quick-witted retort.
With the recent success of Pirates Of The Carribbean, the swashbuckler is back on the menu, and I think it is time we took liberties with the biography of Aphra and turned her into a modern heroine of the silver screen. I think this sort of thing is very in keeping with the way things were done in her day and would be a lot of fun. What I would like to offer, then, to Aphra, is yet another mask to wear, and I am sure she would wear it well.

Postscript

I am aware that The Libertine starring Johnny Depp is currently in selected cinemas. This is a dramatisation of the life of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a contemporary of Aphra, with whom she was acquainted. Given my current interest in that era I really have to go see this movie. Depp is apparently superb in it (which is hardly surprising). I have since seen the movie and it is fascinating but way too gritty. The screen depiction for Aphra would need to be just that bit more polished.

Post Postscript

I finally penned my own short historical fiction drawing on the life of Aphra Behn and presenting it with a dash of swashbuckler and even a dose of 'bodice-ripper'. Take a look at it here.

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1.8.06

Passing Time

I have recently been asked what I do with all my spare time. I only work part-time and am free of even part-time study (O the joy of never having to meet assignment due dates!) so I can understand them wondering. It can be difficult to give a quick and convenient answer to this. Now if it was a matter of accounting for my evenings that that is simplicity itself:

Sundays: Spent at home relaxing and preparing for work days (except for those few occasions in which friends decide on impromptu gatherings to play games or whatever and they convince me it is worth giving into temptation).

Mondays: Also spent at home and relaxing (sometimes getting takeaway food with housemates).

Tuesdays: Monash Uni Choral Society (MonUCS) rehearsals (sometimes followed by 'Pub'). Tiring but fun.

Wednesdays: One night a month it is a meeting of the South Eastern Science Fiction Club (SESFC). Other nights it may be swimming or another night at home.

Thursdays: This is the crazy night of the week. Once a month it is a meeting of the Australian Democrats Bruce-Chisholm Branch. Once a month it is a meeting of Nuclear Free Australia (NFA). And any spare night I have the opportunity to pop into a lovely weekly craft night for some sketching and chatting.

Fridays: I deliberately keep this free because it is frequently a night in which someone wants to do something fun whether a dinner or video night or whatever.

Saturdays: I also keep this free because it tends to be party night and there is usually something on and sometimes even clashes.

But this is all one big digression because nobody much cares what one does at night. But during non-working days how does one spend time? If only I were sitting at home in my PJs watching Jerry Springer - everyone understands this as a time-honoured way of spending the day. But I barely see any TV at all. There are plenty of other ways to kill time.

To start with I sleep more on free days. Then I refuse to use public transport within my own suburb so walking to and from local things takes a bit extra time. Then I use PT to get to things further away so that takes a lot more time. I will do weekly shopping. Possibly some 'window shopping'. Possibly run some errands utilising banks or post offices (I know the Internet saves time with these things but if I am at the local shops anyway then I may as well do it in person). Checking the internet at a local library. Taking a walk in local parkland (yet to do this in new area). Visiting student friends in the Caf on Campus. Visiting one or the other parent. Seeing a movie (which can still be fun alone).


At home there may be chores. There is recreational writing or reading. And finally I am constructing a working orbital satellite from used iced coffee bottles (okay that last one is a boldfaced lie).

I do have a lot of spare time. In the past I filled it with things like study or political voluntary work. Now however I have pared back on all of that almost as if I am preparing for something to replace it but as yet lack any plan for what that something is. I do think I can do more with my spare time and that that includes ways of converting it into something that is recognised by others as 'used time' rather than 'spare time'. This I will do in my own way and in my own... um... time.

Update: I have written an updated version of this entry here. Some stuff has changed...

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