Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Chicken Factory

Today in class we discussed a philosopher who I have studied in a few other classes at Rhodes, Karl Marx. Marx argues that Capitalism has forced laborers to accept the lowest wages possible due to competition. The 'army of unemployed', or reserve of laborers, are waiting to take any available job and willing to work for cheaper, enforcing the idea that laborers are a tradable commodity. The division between the bourgeoise and proletariat classes grows larger every day that laborers are forced to work for the lowest possible wage. There is a Tyson Foods poultry-production factory in Springdale, Arkansas that should have Marx turning in his grave. Sociologist Steve Striffler applied for a job at the Tyson Foods factory, which predominately employs Mexican immigrants who cannot speak English, to examine the treatment of employees. Striffler was one of the only American employees at the company that was not in an upper level position. The cultural difference between the laborers and their bosses just heightens the misunderstanding between the two groups. In the factory he witnessed the daily horrors which the employees were faced with on the 'assembly line'. The laborers work fifteen hour days, with little hope of moving up in the company. At one point there is company downsizing, and the remaining laborers are forced to compensate for the cut employees. After these reductions Striffler finds himself working two jobs on the assembly line, but still receiving the same pathetic wage. The Capitalistic mantra of maximum speed and maximum efficiency is drilled into all the workers minds, and when a machine breaks down the employees suffer. Also, the employees are not alerted when changes to a machine's speed is made, and find out when they are unable to keep up with the faster pace. At the end of a hard day, the laborers are given boxes of fried chicken, the very product they were making, as a reward. Striffler mentions that none of the employees want to eat the chicken, but really have no choice because they cannot afford to throw away free food. All of the events that the employees of the chicken factory encounter reinforce Marx's theory of alienation. When humans 'sell their labor' to work in unforgiving conditions, for the lowest pay, they lose themselves. Their alienation with the final product is shown by their repulsion to the free fried chicken, which they helped prepare by slaughtering, bredding , injecting chemicals into and frying the meat. It is articles like Striffler's that make me skeptical of Capitalism. Yes, it can have it's positive points, but the negatives seem to be a black cloud looming over the system. Nobody in the workforce should have to toil in the conditions that those in the Tyson Chicken Factory do. Their employees work in unforgiving conditions for fifteen hours a day, which is not exactly the American Dream. The laborers of the Tyson Chicken Factory reside in America, but do not seem to actually be a part of it, since they are stuck as second class citizens in the proletariat class.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hegel Takes the Easy Way Out?

While thumbing through Hegel’s thoughts concerning the dialectic, I was struck by the similarity they bear to a quote I came across in an anthropology class. The quote reads as follows: “One of the most significant facts about us may be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but in the end having lived only one” (Clifford Geertz, The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man). Geertz – and the whole of anthropology, for that matter – is trying to make a case for the equality of any given way of life – the rejection that one lifestyle is inherently better, more advance, etc. Hegel seems to share a similar idea, but applies it to a discussion of truth: according to Solomon, “our shared concepts are not in fact universal but quite particular and provincial, aspects of the truth…” (Solomon 57). Found in both is a respect for others, a humble understanding of place, and an embrace of diverse coexistence.

Hegel’s idea seems to resonate more universally than those previously studied in this course, and for good reason. His description of the process by which ideas are built upon each other, improved, and move toward a single idea is attractive because it draws comparisons to the scientific method. And his ideas of universality and the recognition of the relatively equal worth, which are based in humility and equally attractive, stand as a stark contrast to the polarizing theories of human nature and objective morality of previous thinkers. But as Solomon points out, there is a contradictory tension buried in Hegel’s philosophy, and I am beginning to wonder if perhaps his attempt to create a system that aims to justify everyone’s beliefs isn’t just taking the easy way out.

A tension arises between what Solomon calls “the conservative search for the Absolute,” and the “recognition that there may be no such Absolute, but only the possibly endless diversity of different forms of life and consciousness, each of them relative to and dependent upon its own historical, conceptual, and social epoch” (Solomon 59). There seems nothing inherently contradictory about his aforementioned process of idea improvement, so long as it applies to ideas, but the contradiction arises when each is labeled “equally true.” His intention is noble, but two conflicting statements cannot both be true at the same time.

For Hegel, the truths and moral values of one culture are just as valid as those embraced by the next. But is he simply taking the easy way out, failing to take a stance concerning these topics? He seems to be trying to simultaneously validate the subjective and objective approaches. And what are the implications of such an approach? Are ethical or moral rightness or truth determined circumstantially? Or is it objective, such as Kant suggests? Hegel doesn’t make a definitive case for either.

Categorical Imperative

I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to study Kant. It was the first thing I had read in a long time that truly stopped my brain. You can’t just say you disagree with something he says—his arguments are nearly impossible to argue with logically. I like to think that I am, more often than not, a moral person. But Kant’s categorical imperative makes that tougher to claim.

According to him, moral actions are only those whose maxim you can will to be universal law, those that treat people not only as means but also as ends, and to act only in such a way that the maxim of your actions would be adopted as a universal law in a kingdom of ends. This puts a huge amount of pressure on every action I take.

Originally, I took issue with the categorical imperative because it meant that a lot of the things I do are, according to Kant, immoral. And that bothered me. Lying to protect people seems like a good thing to me, but on reflection I realized it’s not really rational. What if I needed to find out what was true, and someone I would consider immoral lied to protect them? How could I judge them for that? I can only judge them if my morals are absolute, and the categorical makes them so in a way that is more appealing to me than I initially assumed.

The categorical imperative makes every action we take that much more meaningful. If we are trying to act in a way that we can will all of humanity to act in without negating reality/logic altogether, we are making a decision much greater than whether to lie just this one time. And if and when we do decide to lie, the decision has that much greater of force, because we are really choosing to do something despite its illogic. I don’t know if that means that emotion has necessarily overpowered logic in these scenarios (though that is definitely not what Kant would suggest), or if it simply means our immoral decisions are that much more immoral, but I think it brings a greater weight to our decisions.

Do you all think it’s a stretch to say that the categorical imperative gives greater meaning to the things we do? It obviously holds us to a higher standard, but do you think it makes things mean more, no matter which action we choose?

Rand's Influences

Throughout these first weeks of class, while learning about the philosophies of famous epistemologists, I am reminded of another more modern philosopher: Ayn Rand. For those unfamiliar with Rand, her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, (both of which I’m attempting to read) laid the groundwork for the modern philosophy known as Objectivism. Her ideology was highly significant—influencing prominent Americans such as Alan Greenspan and Nathaniel Branden. Objectivism holds (in part) that “reality exists independent of consciousness; that individual persons are in direct contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic; that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest.”

Rand’s writings portray the principles behind her philosophy, many of which are directly related to concepts previously introduced by certain philosophers discussed in class. Such similarities are evident upon comparing Objectivism to aspects of Hobbesianism and the philosophy of Descartes. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, Rand describes her ideology as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” This statement, as well as the one introduced in the first paragraph, portrays certain concepts formerly established by the aforementioned philosophers.

Firstly, the notion of morality as defined by one’s pursuit of happiness and self-interest is unmistakably Hobbesian. Hobbes proposes that the state of nature is inherently self-interested. Clearly, Rand agrees, and states not only that self-interest is an essential part of humanity, but that one’s furtherance of it defines morality. While (to my knowledge), Hobbes does not define moral worth in terms of selfishness, Rand is effectively in agreement with his claim that self-interest is psychologically imperative and the governing force behind human action.

Secondly, Rand claims that reason is humanity’s only absolute. Such a statement is reminiscent of Descartes’ method of hyperbolic doubt. Descartes states that there is no way of objectively knowing the nature of existence. As such, res cogitans must be utilized to determine the validity of existence. It alone, as an Archimedean Point, can prove the existence of itself—reason— and from there forward can be used to gauge the veracity of other concepts. Nevertheless, it stands that reason as derived from res cogitans is humanity’s only absolute truth.

While Objectivism is hugely different from the teachings of Hobbes, Descartes, and other European epistemologists, it is evident that Rand utilizes their philosophies as a means of crafting Objectivist thought. Given its influence, learning about Objectivism and the philosophies which influenced its formation can lead to a greater understanding of the modern world.

Scrutinizing "Cogito Ergo Sum"

Hyperbolic doubt is the process of doubting one’s own beliefs, or being skeptical of one’s own beliefs. This method of doubt was proposed by French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes in his treatise Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes intended to systematically doubt all of his beliefs in an attempt to build a belief system consisting of only true beliefs. Eventually, Descartes would apply this doubt to the fact of his own existence. His famous resolution, “Cogito Ergo Sum”, or, “I think, therefore I am”, was the end result. Descartes attempted to doubt his own existence, but found that his doubting proved his existence. It is impossible for one to doubt if one does not exist. This realization led to revolution of thought in philosophy and culture. However, this argument has a few areas for criticism or concern. The main crux of the problem is the assumption revolving around the “I”. The idea is that the cogito or thought itself justifies existence of an entity(in this case, Descartes). In some sense, the conclusion is an incomplete syllogism. Cogito Ergo Sum fails to assert a necessary extra premise, that whatever has the property of thinking exists. Descartes could have argued that this premise is merely self-evident(that being that for something to have the ability of thinking, there must be a thinker), and therefore not subject to his model of doubt. Logically, this makes sense, because the Principle of Instantiation states that “Whatever has the property X, exists”. If that property is thinking, then there is a thinker. For the previous argument against the cogito, this defense might serve. The extra premise is an area for contention, but the justification of the “I” is still the main issue. Perhaps Descartes should have simply stated “thinking is happening”. That does not mean that the thought occurring is the result of an entity existing. When we talk of a thought, or when we say “I’m thinking”, we’re referring to something happening from a third-person perspective. Through our experience of consciousness or our introspection, we can’t verify the existence of any third person “fact”, namely that of our own existence. You can’t objectively state something based on the content of consciousness. The mind’s subjective content doesn’t allow for a verification like that. I think Descartes’ assertion has more of a mental appeal than merit based on logical infallibility. It provokes lots of questions about the nature of objectivity and subjectivity in relation to existence, and is an interesting implementation of Descartes’ own doubt process. However, it remains an argument rather than a fact.

Finding it's way into our lives?

After reading all of these different philosophers I can’t help but wonder how it will affect the decisions I make in the future. Especially when we bring up things like the trolley theorem in class, we all felt different about what actions were acceptable, then we would find ways to defend our actions. However, after that there would be a subtle change in the circumstances we would find ourselves having to completely re-evaluate our position on the topic because of that change.

It just authenticates the concept that nothing is certain to me, it seems that everything has some outside force that hinders our ability to make clear and important decisions. I have personally found myself thinking more and more about simple things that I once did without thinking. Thinking about how we treat people for example, while Kant speaks of using people as ends and not as means. It reminds me of Montaigne and Plato’s views regarding friendship, it makes me think about what relationships/friendships are, and why they are the way they are.

I was just wondering if anyone else was having these same thoughts, maybe not exactly in line with my own. Maybe, in just seeing how the things we learn in this class are slowly integrating themselves into our lives?