ad astra per alia porci

it’s the last lap
January 9, 2011, 3:51 am
Filed under: diary, Law, Lifeskills

After 3.5 years of slogging, I have finally reached the last semester of law school. I am on course for what I want, the prize is firmly in sight, and I want to go out on a high. This semester is crucial and I need to cement things.

This might seem a bit late, but I guess some self-troubleshooting and advice always helps, regardless of when it is dished out.

Regarding study…

  • Quality not quantitative study – stop thinking that more time spent studying will necessarily result in better results.
  • Think more and read less
  • Speed is not quality.
  • Do not be an intellectual snob – stop being stuck in your own paradigm, embrace and fully understand new views, learn learn and learn more
  • Interact and synthesise the ideas of other writers to make your own unique view with its own justifications – being able to advance your own view is much better than parroting another person’s views
  • Interact with the teacher – understand and interact with his or her point of view
  • Speak up and shut up when you have to
  • Lecture notes must be transferred onto my personal notes within one day of its making – do not stockpile lecture notes and transcribe them all at one sitting

Regarding computer habits…

  • Do not play computer games. Period.
  • Stop shuttling between work and the internet
  • Check emails and IVLE only two times a day
  • Visit my regular news websites only two times a day

Apart from these concrete advice, there is always the less tangible, affective and attitudinal aspects. I do not think that I am doing much wrong in this area so far, but it is worth stating explicitly the values and attitudes I think are good and/or I should display:

  • Education is cultivation of both intellect and character.
  • Do not settle for easy at the expense of cultivation and integrity
  • Exercise the mind
  • Passion – care deeply, without being blind and insensitive.
  • Put in your best effort and create quality work – the quality of work is a reflection of the character of the person who did it
  • Intellectual integrity – make sure that your views are your own and make an honest effort to understand and interact with the views of others, and admit and confront the limits of your knowledge.
  • Humility – never think that you are always right. There is usually something to learn from others.
  • Compassion – help other people who deserve the help; do not help those who do not help themselves
  • Wonder – let the mind wander – think of possibilities
  • Scepticism – challenge convention and always ask questions

This is it. School starts tomorrow and before I know it my law school career will be over. Here’s to a great last semester.


the edge of creation

At a recent dinner with my secondary school class and form teacher, I commented that studying law is easier than philosophy. My friends were quite surprised since law is commonly perceived as an exacting and tough subject to study, in comparison to the “fluffy” humanities. They did not pursue the issue and ask for my reasons.

I really do think that as an academic discipline, law is easier than philosophy. I might not have engaged in the study of philosophy for my entire undergraduate career and indeed I have in fact studied much more law than philosophy, but I think that I have enough experience to give an informed opinion.

It is important to explain exactly what I mean when I claim that it is “easier”. In what way is it easier?

Studying law is easier than studying philosophy in the sense that one can become proficient and adept in law through sheer hard work alone, while the same cannot be said of philosophy. The law is in essence a closed set of explicit rules and principles that, when applied to particular facts and cases, will yield certain results. These rules and principles are all readily found in the textbooks, statutes and legal cases. If one knows and understands the technical machinery of the law, one becomes proficient in the law. It does not take a lot of innate ability to become proficient at the law; it takes only a strong will and hard work. If a student is less adept with language or learns at a slower pace than another student, that student just needs to put in more effort and she will get there eventually.

Something more is required for philosophy. Philosophy has no concept of precedent. Aristotle might be a great philosopher but he has no special claim to the truth by virtue of his reputation and authority alone. His words cannot and must not be taken as absolute truth. Instead, philosophers looks for reasons and arguments that support or run against propositions and subject them to critical analysis. The field of possible arguments are limitless. This lack of limit translates readily to creativity. Philosophers have to perform mental acrobatics and challenge pre-existing presumptions, finding new and viable ways to make good arguments or destroy unjustified belief.

In contrast, for law, the arguments that are required in the conventional cases that may be resolved by pre-existing legal principles and rules are limited by precedent. Certain arguments cannot be made while certain other arguments must be made. There is a correct answer, and all we need to do is do sufficient leg and mental work to find it out.

So far I have treated the study of law as limited in its application to the “easy” cases. What about (to use Dworkin’s term) the “hard” cases which existing legal precedent do not cover and the court has to fashion new rules of law and/or reject existing rules? I readily concede that we see more creativity in the hard cases, because there is no existing legal rule to be applied and a new rule must be fashioned. However, this creativity is not limitedless, as would be the case in philosophy. Dworkin’s interpretive approach to law reveals this. Dworkin suggests that in the hard cases, the judge must seek to fashion a rule of law that presents the entire corpus of law in the best light possible. He calls this approach “constructive interpretation”. Constructive interpretation requires the new legal rule to both fit the past corpus of legal rules as well as bring the law to where it should be. It must be noted that under this view, the new legal rule in hard cases must show respect for past precedent. Hence in this way, the kind and form of legal arguments that may be raised in support of particular new legal rules are still limited in some way by what exists already in past precedent. It is perhaps less limited as compared to the situation in easy cases, but it is still limited.

Personally, I like the challenge of hard legal cases. I like the creativity required, the room to wander intellectually and the opportunity to construct from existing material as well as non-legal material coherent and sustainable arguments in support of new legal principles and rules. I like the tension between respecting precedent and testing legal boundaries. The easy cases fall within the comfort zone of law students and are correspondingly unexciting. It is in the hard cases, at the edges of legal creation, where the really exciting and demanding things are done. I tend to think of this as the legal equivalent of a geological phenomenon: the creation and destruction of land through movements of tectonic plates. When the tectonic plates of the Earth move against or away from each other, existing land is destroyed and new land is created. Similarly, in the hard cases new law is created and old law is destroyed. I have always regarded the edges of the law as particularly interesting, engaging and intellectually exciting since opportunities abound to create better laws and destroy bad ones.

This is the reason why I specifically chose to do my pupillage in the appellate department of a law firm. I hope that I will be engaged in appellate cases, so that I can stand at the edges of legal creation and contribute in some way to the creation of good laws and the destruction of bad laws.  I think that practising in this area of the law will be intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, and I certain hope that I am not wrong to think so.

there is beauty, even in the ugly bits
December 25, 2010, 5:28 am
Filed under: diary | Tags: , , , , , , ,

It is joy to watch a butcher focused on his work, expressing the hidden intricacies and careful gentleness of his craft. I do not think that butchery is a craft that many youths today would seriously consider as their profession of choice, and it is sad that it has become popularly viewed as blue collar, mindless, rough work. So what’s wrong with being “blue collar”? This whole class talk is nonsense and the further we move away from it the better.

If this video tells me anything at all, it tells me that there is nobility in any profession, and hidden depths of knowledge, skill and care in everything we do, and we should accord respect to anyone who does his job with heart.

The Pig & The Butcher from Paper Fortress on Vimeo.

best article title, ever
December 13, 2010, 2:30 pm
Filed under: diary, philosophy

I just met the best title I have ever encountered for a philosophy paper:

The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill

Written by Michelle Maise, in a very good collection of articles on running, Running & Philosophy, edited by Michael Austin. Review and reflections on the collection due soon.

philosophical stock-taking

Now that my little sojourn into university-level philosophy is over (for now at least), I find it appropriate to state my position on the range of philosophical issues canvassed in my philosophy modules and to mark my progress in philosophical thought. These positions are not in any sense at all set in stone; they are certainly, and should be,  prone to refinement and revision.

For my minor in philosophy, I took courses in metaethics, moral philosophy, political philosophy and the philosophy of religion.

I am a newly-minted deontologist. I always had my niggling feelings of doubt about utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism, and my modules on ethics confirmed them. Consequentialism cannot be the correct ethical theory. It faces deep problems of proving intrinsic value and matching our considered judgments. In this respect, deontology has the upper hand. However, deontology faces its own problems – a priori justifications are that much harder to accept and prove, compared to empirical justifications which consequentialists like Mill usually rely on. Virtue ethics have a very strong “common sense” appeal, but I would regard virtue ethics as either subsumed under deontology or providing an account of the good life, not morally right action.

For political philosophy, I believe that Rawls provides a much more convincing and persuasive account of distributive justice than the utilitarians and libertarians (particularly Nozick). I use the words “much more convincing” deliberately to show that Rawls has a better theory in relative terms, not that Rawls is absolutely correct. I do not think that his contractualist justification of his principles of Justice as Fairness is convincingly enough. I think that his argument against desert is more successfully, but it does not prove that his particular idea of justice is right. In fact, it justifies non-desert-based pattern theories in general. It does not tell us which one is correct, unfortunately. Despite my doubts about Rawls’ theory, I think they are more likely to be right than what the utilitarians and Nozick advocate. Utilitarian justice is, simply put, not justice at all. Nozick blindly advocates liberty, and it is not apparently clearly why liberty must be the sole and only value that distributive justice advances.

On the metaethical front, I am a moral cognitivist. I believe that moral claims are belief claims. I reject moral non-cognitivism, which states that we essentially engage in cross-talk when we express our moral views and moral claims are expressions of blunt emotion and are not claims about beliefs, largely because it does not properly characterise and does not take seriously what we mean when we engage in moral discourse.

I am a moral realist. Unlike Mackie and Harman, I believe that there are objectively true moral principles or beliefs, and we can find them out, even though the path might not be a very easy one.

I think moral anti-realists make the common mistake of transplanting the scientific empirical method into ethics and thinking that ethics works in the same way as science.

I am undecided whether I am a ethical naturalist or non-naturalist. My rejection of utilitarianism is the main reason for this indecision; utilitarians can more easily (and consistently) claim that they are moral realists. Deontologists need to find some second order theory that coheres with their first order deontic principles, and it seems that it is hard to have a second order theory that is naturalistic, particularly in the fully reductionist sense.

I am an externalist about the motivational force of moral reasons and believe in the Humean theory of motivation. I do not think that reason alone suffices to motivate action, and I do think that desire is almost always the root of all motivation. Man has always been at least partly if not fully animal  in nature. The explanatory power of the Humean theory is great and conversely it erodes the credibility of internalist accounts of moral reasons.

The philosophy of religion is extremely technical and profound, once one delves into it sufficiently. Hence I cannot say that I have understood the material sufficiently to have a very well-formed stance.

Given what I have been taught and the little that I know, I am an agnost. I do not find the arguments supporting the existence of the theistic God to be sufficiently persuasive. Neither do I find the arguments against the existence of the theistic God to be knock-down arguments too. However, I think that the weight of the evidence and arguments lie against the existence of God. This presupposes that “rational” argument and empirical evidence are appropriate means to arrive at truth in this area at least. The philosophy of religion might have a difference epistemology. Faith may be a viable alternative. I need to learn more about this.

From the way I have presented by final views, it might seem that I have separate views in separate areas. But this is not so. As with most other subjects, philosophy cannot be studied and understood properly in isolated areas. It simply cannot be compartmentalised, with each area of philosophy hermetically sealed off from the other. For example, assessing Rawls’ argument from the rejection of desert (ostensibly a question for political philosophy) requires one to understand and have an opinion on the compatibility between free will and determinism (a question for the philosophy of free will).  For example, assessing the tenability of the doctrine of double effect (ethics) requires one to know the philosophy of cause and effect.

Hence a proper and true understanding of any philosophical issue requires wide and deep knowledge in many areas. Herein lies the roots of both frustration and joy. Often, the student of philosophy (alright, myself at least) gets frustrated whenever one hits a brick wall, that is when one meets a philosophical issue that requires one to dabble in other areas which the tutor does not tread into and the scope of course does not encompass. The student then has to do some independent work, but without tutelage and guidance, this might be a uphill task. Yet every triumph delivers satisfaction.

So even though I have learnt something about the various areas I have covered for my philosophy modules, there is a huge amount of things which I do not know and would like to know. Studying one area of philosophy opens up even more questions requiring knowledge of other areas. Studying ethics have given me much impetus to learn more about epistemology and metaphysics. For example I was introduced to ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism in my metaethics class; to understand which view is more tenable, one needs to learn something about metaphysics. For example Rawls’ reflective equilibrium is now considered a major method in ethical inquiry; I tend to doubt its efficacy and prefer a priori methods. To resolve this problem, I need to learn more about moral epistemology.

So in essence, there is so much more to learn and discover. Philosophy will continue to be in my life, in some way or another. It is going to be a part of my intellectual and leisure (!) life at least, if not my career and academic life in the future. I am still pondering over whether I should go into academic philosophy and law.

I like the blurb on the NUS philosophy T-shirt which some of the professors wear now and then. It sums up my experience of studying philosophy: “Come for the answers, stay for the questions.”

Moore’s non-naturalism, but with a touch of… love

The nature of goodness has perplexed many and generated a huge corpus of diverse philosophical works. For theists, the concept of the Good is intrinsically bound up with God, for God determines what is good. Philosophers however in general tend to be of the secular persuasion, and hence tend to view the Good and God as distinct and separate, and place the Good above God. Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is one of the attempts to construct a metaethical view without God, a project which is of particular interest to me from an intellectual and personal point of view.

Murdoch is a unabashed neo-Platonist, an increasing rarity in today’s academic landscape which is increasingly moving away from the Platonic worldview. Murdoch’s view of the nature of the Good finds it roots in Plato’s concept of the Forms, where the Good has an ethereal, non-natural quality, and is a close cousin of G.E. Moore’s ethical non-naturalism. Murdoch rejects the pervasive rationalist influence on the conception of the Good, which states that in the absence of God, the Good is purely the product of human will. In the gap that God left, the existentialists and rationalists fill it with human will. In Murdoch’s words, “Kant abolished God and made man God in his stead”, such that the will is the creator of value and “values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will”. Murdoch sees the Kantian man as “the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal”.

Murdoch advocates a return to conceiving the Good as being identical to God’s characteristics. While some philosophers view Good as materially different from God, Murdoch’s concept of Good is essentially God without God. Murdoch defines God as “a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention”, and suggests that “moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics”. Murdoch’s view of the Good is mystical, and almost religious:

“A genuine mysteriousness ataches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects. The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue… Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend… And if we look outside the self what we see are scattered intimations of Good. There are few places where virtue plainly shines: great art, humble people who serve others. And can we, without improving ourselves, really see these things clearly?”

She suggests that Kant looked at the wrong place when he tried to find the Good without God: the self. The Good stands outside of the human self, and is a non-natural singular entity that can be perceived but never fully defined.

A unique aspect of Murdoch’s view is her introduction of elements that are seldom seen as the core of ethical deliberation: love, beauty and the arts. Rationalism has formed the core of much of ethics since the Enlightenment, with Kant being the most prominent advocate of the use of reason as a neutral objective means of determining the Good. Even Plato was suspicious of the power of the arts and argued that the arts distorted reality. To the contrary. Art, to Murdoch, is closely connected to the Good. Murdoch rejects the Platonic suspicion of art, and argues that instead of distorting reality and manipulating man’s perception of reality, art offers a more accurate view of the real, and ultimately the Good. Murdoch hand suggests that beauty and the arts are a means to access the Good, the apprehension and comprehension of which is part of the process of “unselfing”, where an existence that exist independently of the self is perceived and validated. Love, while not being the Good itself, “is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to the Good and joines us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good”. “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves”.

I think Murdoch makes several important points. Firstly it seems to stand to reason that the Good probably is acutely similar to God. If philosophers replace God with the Good, it seems that replacement suggests compatibility and similarity. God is mystical, unknowable and all-encompassing. If human experience tells us anything, the Good is also similarly impossible to fully comprehend and retains a mystical allure. How much of this is due to Murdoch’s possible deep-set desire to cling on to the vestiges of Christian thought is probably a moot (but interesting) point. Secondly the Kantian grip on moral philosophy should be reexamined and perhaps rejected. The self and its will, unlike what existentialists say, is not the creator of all value, and is not the sovereign entity in this world. The world outside of us is much bigger than the single consciousness that apprehends it, and anyone who has encountered the beauty and immensity of nature will have to admit so. Anyone who apprehends art will know that concepts like beauty and love exist outside of the human will. If anything, the will is at the mercy of hard reality, and anyone who claims to be doing the Good is exerting a claim of objectivity, which presupposes an objective existing source of normativity that stands outside the individual. Third, and this is linked to the second point, it seems that we should start being honest with ourselves and give proper consideration to the role that emotions and beauty have to play in achieving the Good. The arts seem to me a means to reveal reality and the Good, and appreciation of the arts itself is at least commonly accepted as something that is prima facie good. Love, to me, seems to be as mystical and unfathomable a concept as Murdoch would view the Good. It has a strange attracting quality, and its mysteriousness is the reason why countless poems, novels and songs have been written about it. Its complexity is fascinating, while its simplicity is understood by all humans.

Non-religious ethics, be it at the first order or second order, is a particularly young and exciting field of growth in philosophy, because of growing secularism and an increasingly interconnected world we find ourselves in. Many people who grow up without God or rejected religion remain (I hope) genuinely interested in what is the right thing to do. Problems like pollution and financial meltdowns are global in nature and are no longer localised, and it is important to find a common ethical ground upon which people of diverse cultures and religious affiliation are able to agree upon and formulate enlightened global policies. In an interview I watched a while ago, Kwame Anthony Appiah went further to suggest that it is inevitable and necessary for the world to find a common ethical system, as our formerly local spheres collide with each other in this cosmopolitan world.

And this is where philosophical ethics can step in. Rational argument is the basis of philosophy, and the means through which men of different backgrounds may come to agree upon certain points. Hopefully, philosophical ethics may in the future provide a viable ethical code that any rational man would accept, upon which global action may be based upon and misunderstandings and divisions may be erased.

These are exciting times for me, on the intellectual front. Finishing Murdoch’s book coincided with the start of a new academic term, in which I will be continuing my exploration and deepening my understanding of ethics. Particularly, I taking courses on first-order moral philosophy, political philosophy and normative ethical theory; these courses are exactly the courses that I have wanted to take since my junior college days, and the focus of my interest in philosophy. I always had my reservations about the apparently elegance and simplicity of utilitarianism as well as the otherworldly abstraction of Kant’s categorical imperative, and found the inadequacies of consequentialist and deontological approaches to ethics to be somewhat patched up by virtue ethics. I would like to listen to what my professors have to say.

August 3, 2010, 3:08 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,

“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”.

– Oleg Gazenko, 1998

Despite my interest in graphic novels, I have not read anything that got me close to shedding tears. So it was a strangely pleasant experience when Laika came close to doing so.  A well-crafted and ultimately heartbreaking mix of fact and fiction, Laika tells the story of the eponymous dog, who was the first living creature to be sent to space. Through Nick Abadzis’s simple yet evocative drawings, we are introduced to a dog who touched the lives of those she interacted with and while unable to speak had an ocean of emotions. Laika came to trust the humans who cared for her, and earned their love and affection. However by the end of the book Laika was unfortunately reduced to a pawn in the former Soviet Union’s plan to boost its national pride during the Cold War, a casualty of the folly of human pride and carelessness, as she was hastily sent on a one-way trip to outer space as a test subject on the Sputnik II, which was commissioned to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution.

There is something deeply heartbreaking about sending a sentient creature who cannot speak and cannot make its feelings known to anyone else to die alone in space in a metal container, thousands of miles away from the nearest breathing creature, because of some mindless, meaningless and ultimately childish contest of power between two impersonal blocs of power, under the guise of “progress” and “the greater good”. I believe that anyone with some heart, not just animal rights advocates, will be moved by Abadzis’s able and sensitive portrayal of a dog’s remarkable journey from the streets of Russia to the lonely heights of outer space. One of the best graphic novels I have ever read, not on the basis of technical accomplishments but rather its strong emotional pull.