On Intention (part 2)

(read part 1)

Tim: It’s just… Let me ask you this—did Beethoven write the ninth symphony “rationally and thoughtfully”?

Zak: I imagine he did.

Tim: And Einstein, was he mad and absent-minded when he discovered Relativity?

Zak: I see no reason to believe so.

Tim: And what about that calculated feat of engineering, was Mr. Andrews at all perfunctory when designing the Titanic?

Zak: No, I suppose he was not.

Tim: Then explain to me this. Why on earth, when to all appearances these men acted perfectly reasonably and in good conscience, why or for what shortcoming did their respective works become the foundation of the atomic bomb, the boat grave of more than 1,500 people, and a favorite music to unify that certain nationalist party during the former half of last century? What moral fault did these failures reflect?

Zak: Well I don’t know.

Tim: So Good intentions, at least in this case, don’t equate to Good ends?

Zak: In this case they do not.

Tim: Zak, have you ever been to a frat party?

Zak: My school was too Christian.

Tim: Have you seen the way some people hug each other when they’ve been apart for a few minutes?

Zak: You’ll have to be more specific.

Tim: That absurdly over-the-top gesture. You know, some people think it makes them look high class. They seem like they’ve had too much coffee or something.

Zak: hmm.

Tim: In Milan people kiss each other. Right cheek then left. But sometimes they just kiss the air, sometimes it’s a very empty formality… like a woman finally telling a man for the first time after ten years that she loves him, thereupon only to leave him.

Zak: That’s very specific.

Tim: The point is, what’s the moral weight of those words: “I love you”? Are Good gestures always equivalent to Good will?

Zak: I suppose they are not.

Tim: So Good outcome does not entail Good intention nor Good intention Good outcome.

Zak: It risks appearing so.

Tim: “It risks appearing so?” Now you just sound silly; if only there were an effective way to translate those Platonic Greek phrases.

Zak: εὖγε!

Tim: Further to that point, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this dialogue, to personally apologize for its aesthetic failures. I assure you that they are not the outcome of bad intention, only of bad planning. Usually I like to make my characters vague and mysterious enough that the reader can’t tell if they’re boring. In this case, I didn’t have the time or energy, so the secrete’s out: my characters are two dimensional at root.

Zak: Are you calling me shallow?

Tim: Not you, just your persona.

Zak: Got it. Well I’m sure the readers can overlook that. The philosophic pedantry is entertaining enough in itself.

Tim: That’s very generous of you. I guess sometimes bad writing is better than good writing. Anyway, as I was saying, we appear to have very little control over the outcome of our actions.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

We’re all caught up in this massive structuralist mechanism. I wouldn’t call it a machine, but I understand why some people might have a predilection for that image. As each of us slowly parishes from this life, we are overwhelmed by external forces over which we exhibit no agency. All this runs contrary to intuitions about our moral capacity for action.

Zak: Moral action is impossible?

Tim: Well the issue is essentially this: I may have control over my own use of language, but insofar as significance is predicated on context, I cannot control that, because I can’t control the language of those around me. In that case, what’s the point of being able to control one’s own words in the first place?

Zak: I’m not sure I follow.

Tim: Perhaps Beethoven wrote a symphony which, to him, expressed the beauty of the human experience and the brotherhood of man. For all that intention, he could do nothing to stop posterity from contextualizing it as an expression radical nationalism… nor, for that matter, from repurposing it yet again, this time as the official anthem of the United Nations. At the present moment the piece may happen to enjoy good fortune, but the whole case just speaks to the fact that language is whore. She submits freely to anyone and everyone.

Zak: Indeed, context matters. But usually I’m the one to point out the futility of the arts. Where are you going with this?

Tim: I have no control over where I’m going.

Zak: Hmm. Then let me ask you this—why do you compose music? Is it just to dwell on the powerlessness of human existence?

Tim: It’s a good question. A very strategic one.

Zak: So what? Is composition just another thing you can’t control? You would stop if you could?

Tim: I have no way of knowing what I would do if I could. But the whole crises forces us to reconsider what it means to be an author and what moral duty is involved, if any. Like Aeneas, the author is tossed and thrown at the whims of the high sea. He has essentially no control over where he will end up, but he may have an intention.

Zak: So authorial intent is important?

Tim: I don’t know how important it is from the perspective of the reader, but the creative processes certainly presupposes some form of intention. One may defer causation to a plethora of external sources, but at some point, supposing that even in a small way the author is a liberal agent, he must exercise a certain degree of will in every action, including that of poetry.

Zak: Then he has an intention, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Tim: But it does.

Zak: How so?

Tim: It simply does—as simply and surly as Beethoven is not accountable for World War II. Why outcome should matter is what needs explaining. Intention, as our intuitions tell us, is the central subject of moral discourse; if an intention is good, it is Good without reference to anything outside itself.

Zak: Go on.

Tim: If we are honest, it’s easy to recognize that the best kind of goodwill is the kind that’s indifferent of the object to which it is referred. The Just man donates to charity not because he thinks his money will be useful, but only because he wishes to express that he cares. That willful act of expression stands for itself. It relies on no audience (rhetorical or otherwise) and even no actual beneficiary. The potential situation, which exists inside the mind of the man donating, suffices as context to give the action meaning.

Zak: But the actual outcome is irrelevant?

Tim: The Just man’s intentions, not his fortunes, are what we have in mind when we call him a “good” person.

Zak: Then reading consists in uncovering that first intention, that potential situation, which has been corrupted by external circumstances, such as social context and error in textual transmission.

Tim: Now you’re thinking like a philologist. And I thought I was the one living in Italy for too long.

Zak: So you accept this word, “corruption.”

Tim: I’m a fatalist, aren’t I?

Zak: Today you are. Tomorrow you’ll be something different. I meanwhile will keep on strategizing over my same chess game.

(continue reading)

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Spacing Out

Day 71: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s beautiful outside this afternoon in Milan.  The sky is pure blue.  It’s really stunning.

img_1184

See this mess?  This means I’m in the middle of a very good piece.  Whenever that happens, other things become harder.  Like cleaning.

You asked me some kind of philosophical question the other day.  Something about moral responsibility, I think.  Normally I’d be all up in it, but philosophizing is a bit like cleaning and today I have a truant disposition.  I’d rather just sit and stare at the miraculously blue sky.

Seriously, how is it so freaking blue?  It’s ridiculous.  There’s just nothing there.  It’s like one of those contemporary monochromatic paintings.

blue

I’ve been listening to a lot of Morton Feldman recently.  His music has that kind of sensibility—monochromatic, I mean.  It’s just exquisitely singular.

Usually when I look at the sky I’m used to seeing it with all kinds of nasty clouds blotted all over it.  But the thing that’s so appealing about this particular sky is the way it contrasts with all that.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the clouds when they’re there, but at the moment they would be a nuisance.  It would be a shame to splotch up something that’s just so perfectly blue.

There goes an airplane.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not like it’s Wednesday Afternoon’s fault that I find her so appealing.  It’s just ’cause I’ve seen a lot of other days—perfectly fine ones mind you—and Wednesday Afternoon stands out.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I’d never seen the likes of Saturday at Eleven.

If Morton Feldman composed a perfectly blue sky, would he be at fault for how heinously gorgeous it is?

But I said I wasn’t going to philosophize today.  I should really clean this room up, but I’m probably not going to.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Your father, the accountant

Day 70: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I appreciate the clarification — indeed there are many advantages to not utilizing technology at all. In your last post:

For one thing, not having direct access to information means that I have to rely on personal human contact to find out about stuff.

This is interesting in that it creates relationship. Both parties benefit; you benefit from getting something and having human contact in the process while the one you are in relationship with needs to be needed and also gets the human contact. There is an exchange, a known give and take that helps relationships work.

I know we’ve talked about responsibility in a number of ways, but in particular moral responsibility as a spectrum. A certain shirt pattern may darken someone’s day, spinning them into a tizzy and furthering a breakdown. Obviously there is very diffuse responsibility here, very unknown to the shirt wearer. There are also actions much closer to full moral responsibility — yet it seems all have been shaped in some way by the world and circumstances we live in.

I was curious your guidance on the value of blame.

Blame: Feel or declare that (someone or something) is responsible for a fault or wrong.

In many ways, I see the best version of blame as responsibility accounting. It is attempting to understand which parts of the responsibility pie get divvied up and to whom.

At work there is a philosophy of “taking your 100% responsibility”, the idea being that blame doesn’t add anything to the picture. Understanding your component is likely the best you can do (and even that is likely suspect) — and we should rather shift our attention toward curiosity. Now this curiosity, I admit, is a bit elusive. It’s often described as a curiosity about the situation, asking questions such as “Within my role, what am I to do differently?” “What are the triggers or warning signs — the patterns — that I can recognize that might allow me to change course next time I fall into this tendency?” or even “Why am I so quick to dole out responsibility to others, even if I rightfully don’t have a very large ‘100%’ of the pie?”

I’m torn. In many ways, there can be benefits from understanding where responsibility falls; for instance, understanding when blame lies outside when we’ve followed an appropriate course of action may not bog us down (and conversely, when responsibility does fall on us, understanding the weight and necessity of change to correct). Yet, there does seem to be something compelling about simply shifting toward curiosity. I suppose we may also be getting at the same thing — do not merely blame, but also ask questions to understand the underlying patterns and course that lead up to such an event.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s. I also love exploring  diffuse responsibility with respect to its implications on free will. Good stuff.

Five Humans

Day 41: Monday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, there’s something I wrote in one of these posts one time that I think was particularly insightful:

“My fishes have rights.”

I do in fact believe this.  If my dentist stopped by one day and asked for one of my fishes to help feed his family, I think I would turn him down.  That’s because my fishes have rights.  I’m quite fond of my fishes.  They are entitled to live a peaceful life in my aquarium; I shouldn’t have to mourn their loss just because my dentist didn’t have dinner planed for his family one night.

That being said, white wine does go nicely with salmon.  It’s my understanding that wine experts in the US award gold metals to wines almost at random.  Most people who aren’t trained in wine tasting tend to prefer cheep wine to expensive wine.  There is only a very small subset of the population that enjoys more expensive wine.

But why am I telling you this?

There’s also only a small group of people in the world who enjoy modernist concert music.  They like composers like Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, Xenakis… I’m willing to bet those dudes are all complete strangers to most of our readers.  There’s also a pretty good chance that most of our readers wouldn’t care for modernist music if they did hear it.

It would make a lot of people happier if we reallocated the resources we’re spending on “fine wine” and modernist “art music” toward making popular wine and music cheeper and more abundant.  If people acted rationally, we would outlaw fancy wine and pretentious music in order to please the masses.  Taylor Swift could perform an extra concert with free wine for everyone.

Business runs on efficiency, but people don’t.  We could increase total overall human happiness by sacrificing just one of my pet fishes to feed my dentist’s family of five.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Fake news, Earl Grey Tea, Automation and Changing Greatness

Day 10: Friday

Morning Evening, Tim!

End of week 2. What a delight!

I wanted to give a quick update on my bit of fake news from Wednesday. In short, I just wanted to point out that there are quite a few takes on the issue and its resolution; that said, it’s important to remember the issue isn’t quite as cut and dry, and when you get into the implications of some of the suggestions of resolving it you soon realize there are many nuances to the argument, balancing incentives among them.

I also wanted to let you know I am at our family’s house writing this, sitting by the fireplace. Some cool, blistery air outside makes it nice to be here; moreover, I checked the cabinet to see your leftover stash. You better get back here soon, lest you have no more of this! Importantly, though, we’ll have to refresh with some new, fresh loose leaf.IMG_0847.JPG

You had mentioned perhaps, but likely not admitting to it, maybe, if perchance had it’s way, maybe, perhaps feeling under the weather:

My eyes will be all glossy, and my voice will sound like a frog who spends most of his income of Camels.

Perhaps you should drink more tea to make if feel better. Moreover, along the lines of voices, if you’d prefer not to be followed by J Biebs perhaps try a different radio station. On my ride through the beautiful mountains, this came on; perhaps a bit froggy, but wow is that impressive (Spoiler alert, he gets down.)

Calabria looks beautiful. It would be fun to visit, but I’m not convinced it would be somewhere I’d have much space to think. I’d much prefer your Earl Grey, posted up in a library in Oxford (I know I can’t drink tea in that library, my dear Tim. This is simply a dream), reading a bit of philosophy (or a hometown library wouldn’t be bad either!)

You may be wondering when I’m going to leverage that segue I touched on back on Wednesday. With respect to tech and automation, I’ve been thinking about responsibility within the tech industry to ensure wealth is distributed a bit more than it has been. Being predicated on scale, companies work themselves into virtuous cycles – they get users, and because they have more users suppliers line up, bringing a better experience…and then more users, etc. The created wealth then gets unevenly distributed, and those that bear the brunt of the financial ramifications are often left feeling powerless (and many times are powerless). The incentives are set up this way – companies are able to do this, and in order to succeed should operate in a way that benefits their user base and employees of the company.

Ben Thompson (linked earlier) has recently called into question actions which are

legally acceptable, though morally dubious

I like the wording – I feel it brings out a rich discussion on right and wrong, as often people focus on the law to determine what they can/should do.  It’s what they can get away with. And without touching too much on the election, no one who feels powerless, ignored, or abandoned likes the feeling. That said, in a new era predicated on the internet, globalization, and a very different kind of scale, bringing back the “greatness” of eras past will not occur by reverting to the way things were – incentives don’t point in that direction, and so new rules need to be put in place predicated on the new era; on microchips, on global connectedness, on 0 distribution costs, on AI and automation…on a new set of technology.

Until Monday,

Zak