A Meander through Existential Lack

I have been attending a series of talks recently on existentialism. The series is by Peter Rollins, and it is essentially a walk-through of his book The Divine Magician. Not being a believer, I am much more interested in the series as a refresher and exploration of existentialism than in the rethinking of Christianity, and in this post I am going to start by exploring the existentialist themes.

Probably the most fundamental idea of the series is that humans have a fundamental absence or lack in their being. Rollins compares us to swiss cheese: we are full of holes. Here I believe that Rollins said he was essentially just following Sartre: beings are either for themselves or in themselves. That is to say, either something just is (in itself), or something has an awareness of itself (for itself). To have an awareness of something, however, requires a kind of distance. The very structure of our being is therefore to be somewhat removed from our own being. We experience this lack as a kind of emptiness or longing, we (initially) feel fundamentally incomplete, and we set about trying to make ourselves whole, or to fill the gaps in our being. We try to fill this hole in a number of ways: through love, god, money, ideology, etc. Unfortunately, none of these methods can make us whole: the only way forward is to somehow accept the emptiness within ourselves.

All standard stuff, if you’ve studied existentialism before. However, as Rollins briefly mentions in the presentation, knowledge of something is not necessarily the same thing as believing it, and, at least for me, the phenomenal lessons of existentialism are often worth revisiting. It is so easy to think that if you just have this job or that person or this money (or a distinction on your dissertation), that you would be complete. It is so easy to see others with those things as being complete. Don’t get me wrong, it is not impossible that you can envy someone else who actually is happier than you, and they may get intense pleasure out of the things they have which you desire. The important thing to remember is that they are not completed by thing: they do not transcend the human condition.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1MzaSgb

Are Pets Slaves?

Are pets our slaves? Initially it may seem that this question demonstrates some kind of category error – perhaps a being can only be a slave if it meets some requisite level of intelligence. I will therefore divide the issue into two parts: first, what is a slave, and second, do pets fit the definition.

What is a slave? Initially it seems like a slave is someone who is bound against their will – a person forced to work for another. Slavery, in other words, is forced labor. However, on reflection, this seems like a problematic definition. For I think we would usually say that even a willing slave is still a slave. It doesn’t matter whether the slave consents because they enjoy their life – even if they are pampered and given a good life, they remain bound to service. I think my meaning can be clarified through analogy to the definition of a prisoner. I think that a prisoner is commonly understood as someone whose choices are restricted by circumstance: a prisoner is imprisoned by virtue of their limitations, not their subjective (i.e. personal) experience of their confinement. What is the difference between a prisoner and a slave, then? I propose the difference is the intention or reason that the
subject (prisoner or slave) has their movements restricted. Note that I use restricted here in a rather non-standard sense – I would include forced labor as a restriction because it is an imposition on the slaves liberty. A prisoner has his or her movements restricted as punishment or out of practicality (depending on whether the jailer is moved by forward or backward looking concerns. A slave has his or her movements restricted in order to benefit their owner. This does leave an ambiguity still hanging which I did not expect: how do we differentiate between the use of a slave and of forward looking imprisonment? Does not the utilitarian jailer use her prisoner in some sense? I’m unsure how satisfactory a distinction can be drawn, except to maybe suggest slaves are enslaved for positive projects whereas prisoners are imprisoned for negative ends (i.e. stopping future crime). The slave is a tool towards an end, whereas a prisoner is an obstacle towards the achievement of an end.

So, a slave is someone who has their possible actions restricted in order to complete positive projects or ends of the slaver. However, at the beginning I also noted that intelligence was an important feature of the issue. We obviously do not think that a shovel or a rake is a slave. Only beings can be enslaved. What is the essential mental apparatus that makes this the case? We have already determined that it is not mental suffering that makes one a slave or a prisoner, so what? I think the answer is simply that only beings have choices that can be limited. It is not that a slave or prisoner wishes to choose otherwise, but that their options are artificially limited at all.

So what of pets. Are pets slaves? We restrict their movements for our own ends (the enjoyment of having a pet). They seem to fit within the definition that I have set out. The only puzzle, it seems to me, is whether pets can have their option sets limited in the same way that we humans can. Here I will invoke an argument of Peter Singer in which he draws the comparison between lower functioning humans and animals, the question being whether we can draw a meaningful moral distinction between the two. I am inclined to agree with Singer’s conclusion that we cannot, meaning if one of them is a slave then it seems that the other is as well. In other words, if one of them can count as enslaved, so can the other.

So, our pets are our slaves. Let me know what you think!

Thanks for reading,

CreativePhilo

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1MXXSnH