The Prince and the Purple Banana – Lets Go Crazy!

“Let’s look for the purple banana till they put us in the truck”, Prince sang in his 1984 song Let’s go Crazy. These nonsensical words have generated many discussions about what they mean.

One possible interpretation is that we should break away from our dull, mundane reality. But our deviant behaviour makes other people think we are crazy. Prince wants us to ignore what other people think and to keep doing so until they haul us away to the loony bin.

Contemporary society dictates that madness needs to be separated from the every-day world. Michel Foucault describes the history of madness and the development of the first asylums. In the Renaissance, the mad were portrayed as possessing a kind of wisdom—a knowledge of the limits of our world, the horizon of reason. As the ‘age of reason’ started to develop, anyone that did not meet the strict requirements of rational thought and behaviour was labelled as mad and locked up in institutions.

The song is ultimately about our personal responsibility for creating a meaningful life in an absurd and unfair world. This message is in line with the thinking of Existentialist philosophers. Prince voices this thought clearly in his song:

What’s it all for (What’s it all for)
You better live now
Before the grim reaper come knocking on your door

Prince creates meaning by not following what society deems to be reasonable and rational, advising us to go crazy and nuts. Being different is not a disease. Living on the horizon of reason is necessary to be able to live life in fullness. Prince’s imperative does not necessarily mean that we must party like it is 1999, but that we dare to be different in our thoughts, or to use a well-trodden cliché, think outside the box.

The Real Purple Banana

Banana São Tomé (Purple banana)But perhaps Prince was wrong and purple bananas are not as elusive as he thought. The Banana São Tomé is a species of purple banana.

The fact that purple bananas can exist does, however, not reduce the potency of his lyric and the existentialist message contained in this song.

Let’s go crazy
Let’s get nuts
Look for the purple banana
‘Til they put us in the truck, let’s go!

Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Last week I went to the movies and watched Inception, a movie about the boundaries of reality explored in the lucid dreams of the main characters.

The main question posed in this flick is how we can know whether we are dreaming. This is an age old question in philosophy and was most famously explored by French soldier-philosopher René Descartes. In his magnificent philosophical book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes doubts all sources of knowledge and asks himself:

How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of such familiar events — that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed. … As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.

Descartes doubt in his first meditation is total. Descartes is, however, not actually convinced that we can not know anything. He merely engages in a thought experiment to find the one true source of knowledge. Eventually he concludes famously that the only thing he can know is that he is a thinking being — I think therefore I am.

The storyline in Inception refers back to Descartes’ argument. In the movie the main characters experience a collective dream and even dream within a dream, within a dream, within a dream. The main characters know that it can be confusing to distinguish our waking reality from our dreaming one and they use a little trick to determine where they are.

Although Descartes thinks he can not know whether he is dreaming or not, there are clear differences between our waking and dreaming reality.

Most importantly, the waking reality is bounded by causality. If you hit somebody in the face in reality, there will be consequences. If you do the same in a dream, there are no consequences. The other difference is that waking reality is a shared experience. You can hit your best friend in the face in a dream, but she will not show up with a bruise in waking reality. Even if there was no mark, your friend will not have experienced being hit by you in her dream. Dreaming reality is a private experience.

The question remains, however, which reality we should give primacy, the waking world or the dreaming one. The empiricist philosopher might argue that since our experiences in waking reality are shared and can be confirmed by others. This seems an attractive line of reasoning, but the question of reality can not be resolved by democratic means. Just because we all agree on something does not mean that it is the truth.

How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

The Praise of Folly: Philosophical View of Limburg Carnival

Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.

The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1

The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.

Limburger Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.

The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.

This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.

During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.

During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.

Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.

Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.

Drawings by René Feijten.

[flickr_set id=”72157623097131347″]


  1. This is an abridged translation of a Dutch essay written for the eZine Cultuurwetenschappen

Zombie Strippers Philosophically Disected

 

“Great tits huh?”, “Yes, but what does it mean?”

Last year I watched Zombie Strippers with a few friends and was amused by its extravagant combination of nudity, gore and philosophy. Some might consider this a pretentious B-movie, but that assumes that the philosophical content of this flick are mere sound bites and not a coherent philosophical statement. In this post I will argue that Zombie Strippers is a celebration of life by demonstrating that our fear of death is irrational.

The mood of the movie is set when a scientist, watching a group of rampaging zombies in a laboratory, says: “Behold, a pale horse”. This quote is taken from The Book of Revelation (6:8): “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death …” (emphasis added). In the great tradition of zombie movies, this is a story about the survival of the human race. Four Canadian students have recently described the mathematics of zombie attacks and conclude that: “it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.” At last, the central theme of all great zombie movies has been scientifically proven.

The scientists’ motivation for developing a virus that “reanimates dead tissue and jump starts the brain’s motor function”, turning people into zombies, is that “after one experiences death, fear is more or less gone” and soldiers can become super soldiers.

Fear of death is a leading motivation in human life and controls our behaviour more than anything else. Being able to foresee the future and realise that we will all one day die is a basic aspect of the human condition. Many see death as the greatest evil, preventing anything in life from being meaningful. After death nothing matters any more and there is thus no point to life as everything we achieve will disappear and become meaningless.

Roman philosopher Lucretius argued 2000 years ago that fear of death is irrational. He assumes that past and future are symmetrical and that as such, not being born and being dead are equivalent. Not being born can not be feared so, if not being born and being dead are equivalent that there is nothing to fear in death.

The argument brought forward in Zombie Strippers is similar to that of Lucretius. Those whose become zombies are effectively dead and alive at the same time. They have thus no more fear of death and can live life to the fullest.

Kat, played by former pornstar Jenna Jameson, is reading The complete works of Nietzsche and quotes to her fellow exotic dancers from Fröhliche Wissenschaft (Gay Science):

“All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”

A typical Nietzsche quote that some people might see as an implicit endorsement for tyranny. Kathleen Higgins tries to explain Niezsche’s statement as an attempt to humour – but she needs to work very hard at explaining the joke. In the context of Zombie Strippers, I think this quote relates to our fear of death. The idea of dying is “terrifying and monstrous”, but those who have died and subsequently become zombies and are able to tell us about their feelings, fear death no longer.

After Kat has become a zombie, she sits in the dressing room and reads Nietzsche again. Laughing out loud she says: “It makes so much more sense now … I never felt more alive”. She then goes back on stage and performs for the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy.

Second stripper to become a zombie is Lilith. When she is asked what death feels like, she says:

“… I remember once lying in the snow under a clear blanket of stars, there were so many stars. Couldn’t comprehend what it was like; a vast and noble void. But now, I understand it. I feel I am a part of it, that infinite nothingness. … Death is good!”

Lilith has in her mind solved an existential problem because she is dead. As living people we often fear the nothingness that is the universe. Some try to fill the void with religion, but that is another discussion. The movie shows that by removing the fear of death, the fear of nothingness is removed.

To counterpoint Lilith’s assertions, when another stripper, who is not a zombie stripper goes on stage the audience does not like her. Only after she has been turned into a zombie and has shed her fears, she is popular with the punters again.

One after another, the strippers of the Rhino club decide to succumb to the zombies and become un-dead in order to approve their appeal to the men. As in any zombie flick, the situation gets out of control and zombies appear everywhere.

Our ability to add meaning to life is closely related to our attitude to death. Eugene Burger writes that death is what gives live urgency because none of us have forever to achieve our ambitions. If there was no death, life would be meaningless. To use a well known Nietzsche quote in slightly changed form: What does kill us makes us stronger.

As I am writing this I am enjoying a break in Port Douglas, Australia. Walking around town I found some graffiti, perfect to close this post: “Zombies are also people”.

Five questions to help you escape the Rat Race

Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.After several months of essay writing, finally have some time to reflect. I do enjoy studying for the MBA, but sometimes it does makes me wonder why. When studying philosophy I decided to place my career on hold. Now that I am finishing this MBA, I feel a need to forge ahead in the corporate world. Why do I want to do this? I have plenty of money and a job that I can do with one hand tied behind my back.

Last year I bought an edition of a Dutch philosophy magazine which featured an article by Daan Rovers about the nature of ambition. Rovers provided a philosophical check list for for life choices, which is great for anyone asking themselves existential questions on whether you should pursue something or not.1

1. How long will this activity provide satisfaction?

They way I interpret Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought experiment of the Eternal Recurrence is that we should lead our lives as if everything we do will happen over and over again—until eternity—just like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill. Is your ambition something you could do until the end of days? With a lot of ambitions the answer is “No”. Having a lot of money, for example, becomes pointless after a certain amount. Basically, this requirement cancels out most quests for material gain and forces us to focus on internal goals. Nietzsche places an enormous burden on how we should live our lives, eternity is a bloody long time! But, this is a good way of thinking about it.

2. Is it about the destination or the journey?

This question can be related to Aristotle’s idea of Poiesis—the “bringing forth” (Speaking with Heidegger) and Praxis, the doing—as an aim in itself. The common sense philosophical consensus is that the journey is more important than the destination (praxis has priority over poiesis). With respect to doing an MBA, if you do it to be able to staple another university degree to your wall, then it is probably not the right thing for you. The idea behind giving priority to praxis, the journey, over poiesis, the destination is that this will enable personal growth. Focusing on achieving goals will only lead to needing to seek out more goals, leading to an endless spiral of seek without ever getting anywhere. If you focus on the journey you will collect experiences which will accumulate into internal growth.

3. Are my various ambitions compatible?

This is an interesting question, especially for somebody like myself who has far too many interests to fit into one brain. Charles Taylor, the pragmatic philosopher, thinks ambitions are almost always incompatible. As longs as they are internally directed and meet the above two criteria, any ambition is compatible with the next.

4. Is this the right moment for a change in direction?

This is question strikes me as the odd one out. In my own thinking “now” is the only moment right for a change in direction. Pondering on when the time for change is right will lead to never changing at all.

5. Is success actually important?

For an answer to this question, a simple gem of wisdom I read on a toilet wall in London many years ago:

Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat


  1. Daan Rovers (2008), ‘5 Persoonlijke Vragen over je Ambities’, Filosofie Magazine 7. 

The Truth About Pi

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

My idea of having a great time: smoking sheesha in Egypt, wearing my favourite T-shirt (ThinkGeek.com). The print on the shirt consists of the first 4,493 digits of the number Pi in the shape of the symbol itself. In my view, the number Pi, not the number 42 as some have proposed, symbolises the ultimate truth of the universe. Let me explain why.

On the way back from Egypt I watched The Oxford Murders. In this movie, the question whether mathematics is the underlying truth of the world is discussed between the two main characters. Martin, a student played by Elijah Wood, said:

“Things are organised following a model, a scheme, a logical series. Even the tiny snowflake includes a numerical basis in its structure. Therefore, if we discover the secret meaning of numbers, we will know the secret meaning of reality.”

But is Martin correct? Can all philosophical questions and truths be expressed in mathematics? Will we eventually calculate our way out of ethical dilemma’s? Can we improve our understanding of Shakespeare by expressing his prose in formal language?

To be or not to be

I tend to agree with Professor Martin Seldon, played by John Hurt in the same movie:

“Since man is incapable of reconciling mind and matter he turns to confer some kind of entity on ideas because he can not bear the notion that the purely abstract only exists in our brain.”

With this in mind, why does the number Pi reflects the ultimate truth about the universe?

Pi is an irrational and transcendental number and the digits of which it is composed comprise an infinite array of random numbers. Even after calculating billions of digits, there does not seem to be any pattern in the arrangement of the digits. It is this lack of any pattern, the absence of logic, that illustrates the structure of the universe itself.

Pi is an artificial structure of our mind, not something existing in reality. Nature doesn’t care about perimeters and diameters, although it might seem that the ubiquitous nature of Pi seems to suggest differently.

Pi is an important number in physics and is included in many formulas. This implies to me that there is something inherently random in the structure of reality.

However, we perceive our environment in discrete terms. Common sense mathematics does not include irrational numbers such as Pi. We think in whole numbers and fractions. This is reflected in the fact that in ancient cultures, Pi was perceived to be a fracture, such as 22/7. This is the value that I use in my own calculations as it is accurate enough for almost all computations.

But the number Pi is ubiquitous in mathematics and physics. We rely on an irrational numbers such as Pi and e in much of our modeling of reality. What does this say about the structure of reality? I do not have an answer on this, but for me, the existence of irrational numbers shows the great divide between common sense and our scientific description of the world.

The illusiveness of fairness

Fairness is a concept which is used often to justify a point of view when discussing the distribution of goods or benefits – “it should be done fairly”. But what does this mean, what is fair and what is not fair? Most people seem to have a very strong sense whether something is fair or not, but what is this based on? As a philosopher, I do not take common sense for granted and decided to research this claim.

I was initially surprised to find that none of the philosophical dictionaries and encyclopaedias I have access to contain a lemma on fairness (besides references to John Rawls’ concept of Justice as Fairness). Searching the scholar section of Google provided some starting points. Unfortunately academic publishers charge exorbitant amounts to read journal articles and I refuse to pay for research which is essentially funded through taxes. So I started from scratch.

The common sense point of view of fairness is a sense of equality. Our sense of fairness is cultivated at a very early age: I remember having fights with my sister over who should get the largest piece of cake and even using a measuring tape to support our point of view.

Fairness as an absolute equality, such as in the cake problem, is a strange concept. If we apply this childish view of the world to adult problems, everybody would be paid exactly the same salary; would live in the same kind of house, wear the same clothes …

In most cases references to fairness lead to equal suffering between all parties – i.e. the preferred solution is usually the one that takes away from one party.

An absolutist concept of fairness can also lead to some extreme consequences. The Old Testament concept of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-27) is a very well known example of absolute fairness. This is one of the arguments that Christian apologetics use to justify the death penalty. This bizarre ritual is, for many reasons outside the scope of this article, a very irrational punishment. The eye for an eye concept leads to situations such as we currently see in the middle east and is a slippery slope that should be avoided.

Absolute fairness is an artificial concept, which does not take the realities of life into consideration, e.g. we don’t all need or deserve the same piece of cake. It is a dangerous concept which can lead to unwanted consequences.

This leads to the next concept: relative fairness. For the cake problem this means that one child should get a larger piece because he or she is more hungry than the other or has behaved better. This relative concept comes much closer to the common sense concept of fairness which is used in every day life.

We accept that doctors are paid more than taxi drivers. Doctors save our lives, while taxi divers perform a much less critical function in society. Western society is, when it comes to distribution of wealth, basically a meritocracy in which everybody is rewarded on their merit.

Although merit is not the primary driver, it is a guiding principle in determinations of fairness. But is consideration of merit by itself sufficient to have a fair determination? Who determines who has how much merit? Is merit our individual contribution to society or to a business or is merit based on our personal needs? How much merit warrants one person getting a piece of cake twice as big as the other?

Another determinant in distribution problems can be need. The most hungry people need to most or best food. Need, beyond primal necessity, is not a very practical concept to use. Need is a concept which can be used only in situations where survival or health of people is at stake. Health care is an example where need has preference over merit.

If we want to use fairness as a determinant in solving a wealth distribution problem, we effectively shift the question. The discussion shifts from fairness to merit (being good) or need (being more hungry) and possibly other considerations I have not yet explored.

It seems that fairness is an utterly useless concept when trying to determine the distribution of goods. We can not use it to determine who gets which size of cake because it either leads to a blanket absolute equality or a series of further questions. The answer of these further questions (what is merit? what is need?) depends on our philosophical (or political) orientation.

My conclusion is that fairness should not be used as a determinant in wealth distribution problems and the word should be reserved for its original meaning, e.g. “free of spots and stains“.

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?In the second episode of Torchwood, ‘Day One‘, Gwen feels that Jack and the others have lost touch with humanity. Jack then asks Gwen in return what it means to be human.

In this episode, Carys is possessed by an alien entity which uses her to have sex with people and consume their orgasmic energy. Gwen’s practical reply is to care for the victim as an individual; a person with intrinsic value. The rest of the Torchwood crew think of Carys as a problem to solve, they see her as a person with extrinsic value.

The deeper question thus is whether people have intrinsic value? The gut-feel reply will be ‘of course!’, but what is the argument for this?

If people only have extrinsic value then they are means to an end for each other. If we believe that people do have intrinsic value then we see them for what they are, which essentially leads to altruism, e.g. doing something without external motives.

Our ethical system is based on the idea that people have intrinsic value. If this was not the case then it would be perfectly acceptable to breed people to provide organs for others. Denying people intrinsic value can thus motivate cruel behaviours. The German Nazis saw people as a means to their end of obtaining absolute power and in Stalinist regimes people are considered as part of a collective, rather than an intrinsically valuable individual. We seem to be forced to introduce an intrinsic human value in order to provide a limitation for unacceptable behaviour.

But do people really have intrinsic value? Some argue that our motives are never truly altruistic and that we always use other people as a mean to an end – albeit not in ways as dramatic as the above examples. If this somewhat pessimistic view of humanity is true, how do we draw the line between acceptable use of people and unacceptable use?

I think that the intrinsic value of people is a social construction which enables us to live together without harvesting each others organs and not something that exists without our reflection upon it. The as such constructed intrinsic value has no objective existence in the world, but that does not matter because it serves its purpose of creating stable human societies very well. The boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use is drawn by justice and fairness, which in themselves are also very fluid concepts.

Some might argue against this and proclaim that there are many examples of successful civilisations where the intrinsic value of humans was not as engrained as in our culture. Intrinsic value is thus not a prerequisite for a successful civilisation.

When looking at some of these cultures in detail, we see, however, that they differentiated between ‘them’ and ‘us’. There are many examples of human sacrifice and in most cases only slaves and people from other tribes where used. In other words, they changed the definition of being human; something the German Nazis also used to justify their actions. Those people that were considered to be human were given intrinsic value, evidenced by the fact that all cultures have some sort of legal system.

The fact that many cultures undertaking human sacrifice were highly successful only underwrites the point that that intrinsic human value is a social construction!