Consolations of a reflective landlord

Dtcwee has a great post today about the trials and tribulations of being a landlord:

There’s plenty of practical advice for landlords on the internet, like how to fix water heaters or evict problem tenants, but much of it is area-specific, and being demoralised makes it hard to even act on it. Sometimes I already know what needs to be done. The only thing stopping me is feeling like I’m fighting a losing battle.

So here is what I remind myself of whenever landlording difficulties leave me despondent.

I laughed out loud at the first point: No plan survives contact with the enemy.

I’ve had one very brief experience as a landlord. It wasn’t much fun, even though the tenant was great. Seeing how other landlords operate is a bit dispiriting though. The first thing we did when we moved into our unit was replace the kitchen cabinets, which were more than 40 years old, cockroach-infested, and essentially unusable due to consistent neglect. Not good enough for me to live with, but for a tenant…?

Yet Dtcwee is right – he’s providing a service for those who need it, and knowing him, the kitchen is likely in much better condition!

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

Racism and homophobia

In my previous article at MercatorNet I was labelled more insidious than a Southern Baptist preacher. I don’t know much about Southern Baptist preachers, so in all honesty I’m not sure if that makes me very insidious, or just a little. But given the tone of the debate, it seemed about time to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of our intellectual disagreements:

many people believe that a hidden or clandestine animosity or prejudice is the underlying motive of people who oppose or dissent from various aspects of the LGB agenda.

In my case it means that although I state I am sceptical of how the concepts of sexual orientation and sexual identity are constructed, and I am therefore sceptical of derivative phenomena like same-sex marriage, some people will nonetheless argue that I am secretly motivated by animosity and prejudice toward homosexuality – that I am in fact homophobic…

Dispassionate thinkers should be able to see both sides and understand the nature of the disagreement. But most of us are not dispassionate thinkers, and the public debate is littered with activists on both sides. Non-activists, like pacifists in the middle of a war-zone, are liable to take fire regardless of their motives and intentions.

Disavowals of homophobia will not satisfy activists who lack the capacity or the will to understand the real points of contention. But if those of us who disagree with the LGBT movement are to remain dispassionate thinkers, then we can’t blame them for this failing either.


How do we know what is good?

Continuing the discussion with Matthew:

I think there’s much to be said about this “unknowable” good because when I’ve thought about how the natural law theorist might address the is/ought problem one manoeuvre might be to emphasize that “the good” is a metaphysical notion, and that whether we can fully understand or know “the good” and thus provide a rational justification for it, is an epistemological issue. In other words it may be a metaphysical fact that “the good” contains the moral/normative imperative within it (i.e. “is” implies “ought”) but the fact that we cannot “see” this, which is to say provide a rational justification for it (to satisfy the moral rationalists and the rest of the “orthodoxy”), is merely due to our own limitations. Perhaps you might have some thoughts about this idea or about the “appetite for unknowable good” as you put it.

I’m out of practice thinking about ethics, but I still want to see if I can clarify what appears to me to be a category error somewhere in our discussion.

The question “how do we know what is good?” can be viewed as an epistemological question, in the sense that “X is good” is a belief that asserts something about the way the world is.

The is-ought problem is an epistemological stance that says notions of “good” or “right” or “ought” etc., are not in fact about the way the world is. “X is good” is – from this point of view – a statement of value, not a statement of fact (hence the alternative term for the is-ought problem: the fact/value distinction).

Matthew has suggested that Natural Law might be treating “the good” as a metaphysical entity, that is, something that exists in its own right. Essentially, this would mean there is a particular kind of thing in the world called “good” and this good uniquely compels obligation. In other words, good is a fact that somehow carries value in it.

But I don’t think this is how Natural Law operates. I don’t think it depends on a metaphysical notion of good.

Instead, I would suggest that when Natural Law makes the claim that “X is good”, it is in fact making an anthropological claim. In fact when Natural Law asks “how do we know that X is good?”, it is still regarding this as an anthropological question, rather than an epistemological question.

If you look through Aquinas’ work (not a straightforward task) you’ll see that he does indeed regard these questions as the kinds of questions that can be answered in the context of human nature, by examining how human beings actually function.

I’m using the term anthropology a bit loosely, but that’s in part because “Ethics” has changed in meaning as well. I could call it Psychology (the logic of the soul) but that has many contemporary connotations as well.

Perhaps we could say that at the heart of the is-ought problem is whether we are looking at ethics as an anthropological phenomenon or ethics as an epistemological problem. The is-ought problem is itself an epistemological problem, and the relevance of it to ethics as an anthropological phenomenon is limited.In philosophy it is considered a cheap shot to point out that most moral skeptics live as though they were moral realists. That’s a fair objection in epistemological terms. Moral skeptics might happily admit they’re doomed to behave irrationally, perhaps out of cultural forces or mere pragmatism. But approaching ethics from an anthropological perspective resolves some of the tension: epistemology is not how people ‘do’ ethics after all. Here we can bring in Dtcwee’s observation:

thinkers from Aquinas to Hume studied how DOES reason decide what’s good rather than how SHOULD reason decide what’s good, and it’s only until later that ethics shifted towards the prescriptive and coercive.

I’m not sure of the exact time-frame, but that distinction between “how does” and “how should” is indeed what I’m trying to describe as the anthropology of ethics versus the epistemology of ethics. Though I think human beings have a real talent for prescription and coercion regardless of the ethical or philosophical paradigm!

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.













When is a war crime not a war crime?

My very first article for MercatorNet was a piece on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was convinced, and still believe, that the widespread public endorsement of the intentional killing of civilian non-combatants and subsequent justification of “doing evil that good may come” was in turn responsible for what we might call the ‘cultural revolution’ of the West: the rejection of traditional moral, social, and political order as corrupt, inhumane, and ultimately self-destructive.

I’ve since learned that criticising the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from an ethical perspective brings out some very convoluted and inconsistent arguments and conclusions from people who otherwise claim to believe in the sanctity of human life and oppose utilitarian ethical calculations.

Yesterday’s anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo is another reminder of the incoherence in our collective moral history:

The subtext of the war crimes with which we are most familiar is that they are gratuitous, unnecessary, and especially vicious; actions that make little sense from a strictly military perspective, or which do not belong in the standard array of weapons and tactics…

But these types of cases are by no means the sum total of war crimes or of just war theorising, it just seems that way because our attention is fixed on the examples of war crime that are easiest to identify and which we are most comfortable repudiating.  We can pick the obvious acts of opportunism and gratuitous violence, but we lose our certainty in the harder cases, as the line between legitimate act of war and war crime becomes blurred. Yet it is our ignorance – sometimes our wilful ignorance – of the rules of war and just war theory that leaves these lines more blurred than they ought to be.

The lost vision of our ethical heritage

I never had much time for ‘ethics’ until I came upon the natural law tradition.  I’ve since learned that ‘virtue’ is of course inseparable from the path of spiritual development, and so it is frustrating to find time and time again that many people relegate ethics to questions of political control and permission.  Ethics is much more than that; however much we fall short of the ideal, it is surely better than rejecting the ideal entirely?

My latest piece on MercatorNet attempts to clarify some of the context and purpose of natural law theory, for those who are interested:

While it may be feasible to reach a conclusion on the basis of non-heredity and rarity, the fact is that natural law does not approach attraction or desire from quite the same perspective as something like the loss of a limb. Rather, the whole point of natural law theory as an ethical system is to guide and inform those who are not content to accept their own desires at face-value, but who wish to shape their desires according to a more complete understanding of what it is to be human, with the goal of what Aristotle enigmatically terms eudaimonia – a term not entirely captured in the translation “happiness”, but which is often rendered “flourishing”, and in a literal sense implies the protection of a benevolent spirit.

Yoga ethics or empty posturing

I’ve just put up another short piece on MercatorNet, this time looking at the conflict between Yoga as Western fitness fad and Yoga as ancient spiritual discipline:

what most Westerners know as “Yoga” is more accurately described simply as “asanas” or postures. Traditional Yoga (from Sanskrit yoga, think “yoke”) is a spiritual discipline aimed at union with the divine.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled around 400 AD, include eight aspects or “limbs” of this spiritual discipline

Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.

What it means to be free


In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.