Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I. the motivation

what i've been thinking and writing about for the last month or so is rational agency and how morality does and doesn't depend on it. it matters, and i'll tell you why: we have social institutions, and through our social institutions we do things to people. we tell people where they can and can't go, what they can and can't do. sometimes we put people in a building and hold them there while years of their lives pass, or until they die. sometimes we cause people to die. we strap people down and kill them. we have to say why. with stakes like that we can't just say "this is for the greater good", or "you deserve this", we have to say what "good" means, where "deserve" comes from, and who decided and why they get to. if we can't, then we're just burying people alive, consigning them to the nightmare of being unjustifiably restrained. it's no small matter to take away a person's life, or some part of their life. no matter what they've done we've got to explain to them, and to ourselves, in a meaningful way what we're doing, why, and what gives us the right to. and it's got to square with what we know about the world and about people. and what we know about the world, and about people especially, is changing.

there are, of course, philosophical principles at the foundation of our justice system. this is a liberal democracy, founded on social contract theory, which has been profoundly successful in some ways. but this theory is itself built on a particular conception of human beings as rational agents-- as persons whose actions are best explained in terms of free and measured deliberation. it was all worked out a few hundred years ago, before we even knew the chemical make-up of water, let alone our own bodies, our own brains. before freud, before darwin, before watson & crick.

and the story that is both larger and more intimate is how we treat each other, not as citizens, but as friends and colleagues and hook-ups and competitors. we cause a lot of harm to each other with our jealousy and anger and righteous indignation, and i think that these intimate harms should be attended to as well. if my feelings and the behaviors that they prompt can cause harm, i have to think about what justifies them, or if anything does, or if there the sorts of things that can be justified.

i'm tired and i haven't gotten anywhere near my point yet. i think that i'll have to do this in installments. but i'd like to explain what i've been working on, and why it's relevant and accesible, and interesting, and urgent. how it changes me, and how i hope it can be used as a lever to change things larger than me.

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