Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More bullshit (ethics and the blues)

Just got through reading an annoying article in this morning’s Inside Higher Ed (Do as I Say, Not as I Do) about “ethicists” not being particularly moral people.

I don’t hang out with academic philosophers much these days, but I know the field, and my guess is that most philosophy professors would simply shrug if they found out that ethicists are less moral or only as moral as the average person. That’s because Ethics is a field within philosophy—along with Metaphysics and Epistemology and whatnot—and philosophers tend to approach philosophy as an attempt to arrive at understanding, not goodness.

Sure, goodness is important, but philosophy is essentially an intellectual enterprise; its works do not belong in the self-improvement aisle.

The fictional Hannibal Lecter had understanding; he understood people very well. But he was nuts and seriously wicked.

Still, with his intellect, he’d likely be an ace ethicist.

I dunno. It seems obvious to me. Understanding is one thing; being good is another. Aristotle cast much light upon morality. I'm particularly impressed with what he had to say about moral development and how one acquires virtues and vices. But what if we learned that he was in fact a cowardly fellow who often succumbed to temptation and did bad things? It would be disappointing, but would it mean he was wrong about, say, the nature of moral development?

It would not.

Some philosophers of religion are atheists, you know. And some ethicists come to lose their initial sense of the importance or absoluteness of morality. They become a little unhinged about morality. Does this make them bad philosophers? Nope. Whether they’re good or bad philosophers depends on the strength of their arguments and insights.

But the philosopher that is the focus of the IHE article doesn’t make that point. He doesn’t say, “Look, philosophy is mostly about understanding, not about ‘being good.’” Instead, he seems to go along with the misconception.

I can think of two reasons why he might do that.

First, though there is no reason to suppose that ethicists must be moral, there is, I think, a reason to suppose that most ethicists regard morality as an important part of leading a life. Historically, this has been the moral philosopher’s starting point: “we care so much about behaving well, but what’s that all about, anyway?” (But I don't see that having that starting point is essential to "doing ethics.")

So, I suppose, it would be puzzling were it a fact that moral philosophers are not particularly moral. If morality is important to them, why don’t they show that in their lives? But still, I say, the quality of their philosophy depends on the soundness of their arguments. That they are moral midgets (an idea, by the way, I’m inclined to dispute) is philosophically irrelevant.

Second, as Harry Frankfurt has noted, we live in a world of bullshit. I won’t rehearse Frankfurt’s reasoning.

Yes, existence is highly bullshity. There’s no use denying it. You’ve got to deal with it. So when communicating with the public, the specialist is, I think, faced with a Bullshit Mountain; confronted with so great a heap, he or she will be tempted to play with, not to refute, the inevitable preposterous caricature of his or her field. “Philosophers are wise,” says the common man. That, of course, is bullshit (I know few philosophers who concern themselves with wisdom). “Philosophers are deep,” thinks John or Jane Doe. Well, maybe, but that’s not what philosophers think they are. (They might acknowledge pursuing fundamental issues that are hard to think about. Is that deepness? Why would anyone call it that?)

People tend to go with the flow, bullshitwise, it seems to me. That's because it's always a tsunami.

"The blues ain't nothin' but a low down heart disease"
—A traditional blues lyric

THIS REMINDS ME of how people talk about the blues. Yes, the blues—the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, to name a few of its great practitioners.

Blues, of course, is mostly a kind of sexy, good time dance music.

But then there’s the vast and deep bullshit about blues that we simply cannot escape or remove. Even dictionaries fling it. My computer’s dictionary defines blues as “melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence.” Merriam-Webster informs us that a blues is “a song often of lamentation characterized by usually 12-bar phrases [etc.].”

Melancholy? Lamentation? Don’t think so.

Well, as they say, a video is worth a billion words: watch this 1964 performance by the great bluesman Robert Nighthawk:

That's the blues.

The blues first developed within rural black communities, where rowdy and impious young men and women would enjoy debauched entertainments at seedy juke joints. Musicians were expected to keep things sexy and thumpin’.

That’s right: they were playing dance music.

When this music moved to the cities, it filled bars and then clubs. Perhaps the pinnacle of this phenomenon was the Chicago blues scene of the 50s and 60s. Those clubs were funky, raucous, and wild.

No lamentations were allowed.

NEVERTHELESS, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard old (and young) blues performers dish out that malarkey about blues being an expression of pain and sorrow for a downtrodden and oppressed people. “You’ve got to suffer to play the blues,” they say, staring sadly at the ground. “You’ve got to know what it’s like to be hungry and without a dime.” They look weary, old.

Yeah right. Check out this video of a 1966 performance by the great Howlin’ Wolf. First, the Wolf provides a few thick slices of that ol’ baloney. —Then he blows some classic blues, blasting that stinky sausage clean out of the room!

As you watch his typically sexy, funny performance, ask yourself: “Gosh, just how melancholy is this fellow? What manner of lamentation is this?”

The next video presents the equally great Muddy Waters, trying to explain the blues to a clueless Norwegian in 1976. (Really.)

It’s about "hard times,” he says. It’s about being poor; it's about not being free.

The Norwegian wants more. Muddy is not inclined to go further down the baloney highway. He becomes uncomfortable.

Well, says Muddy, I've had lots of trouble with "womens" and "money." There. That's the basis of my blues.

The Norwegian wants more.

Muddy hasn't got any more. So he finally says: well, it’s “a good time thing."


I’m not saying that the regrettable facts about African-Americans in our history have nothing to do with the blues, its preoccupations, and its themes—sure—but the music itself, when it is performed for real audiences, is not about those things.

It’s entertainment—often sexy, always passionate, sometimes dark 'n' dangerous.

By the way: I found this redolent chunk of mega-balogna on a website for a band:
"This is going to hurt some, but it'll be worth it, I promise you. You're going to experience not just our pain; you're going to feel your own pain deeper than ever before. But feeling it, really feeling it, and then letting it go will give you a sense of renewal like no other. And that, my friend, is the purpose behind the Blues. It's what makes the Blues different than everything else. And when you hear this band play, you're going to hear Blues the way it was meant to be felt!"
Man, that’s some fine bullshit.

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