Tuesday, 30 November 2010

“Good” vs “Bad”

Last judgement
The adjectives “good” or “bad” used frequently in our Café often sound rather puerile to start with. We remember how our parents used to lecture us on how to be “good”: “Be a good girl/boy. Do what your teacher says. Stay with the group. Don’t talk to strangers...” What does it mean to “be good”? When our parents taught us to be good, it often implies that we ought to follow the rules, to be obedient to authority.  If the object of “being good” is to maintain social order, then perhaps a communist society, or a police state would be a good place to live because there no rebellious behaviour or criticism of the government would be tolerated. A totalitarian society is built upon conformism where individualism and original ideas are not encouraged.

Perhaps religion (no matter which faith or belief) is a more effective disciplinary tool than state policing, as religion under the guise of spiritual teaching, often uses the promises and punishment in the afterlife to regulate the behaviour of its followers. Can we say that religious doctrine is our yardstick of “goodness”?

How do you judge who is good who is bad? To be “good” do we have to be a saint? A person who sacrifices all earthly desires and devotes his life to helping others is generally praised as a “good person”. How do you describe a person who steals a loaf of bread in order to save some starving children? Or a person that kills an aggressor to help a victim? How do you qualify a "good thing" or a "bad thing"? If we define that an action that benefits majority of people but only harms a minority of people is a “good thing”; can we also classify an act of gang rape which satisfies a group of rapists but damages only one woman as a “good thing”?

If we say that all killing, rape, theft are “bad things” because they are morally wrong, why then there are such distinctions as “just war”, or “unjust war” where in both instances great numbers of innocent people were killed, raped, plundered? Why some historical instances were described as “crime against humanity”, “genocide”, but some others were described as “war on terror”, “war against tyranny”? The flip side of “bad” thing is considered a “good” thing depending on which side you are on.  If what Nazi did in the WWII was an act of genocide, why then the bombing of Dresden and dropping Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not also acts of genocide? Does it mean that punitive action, no matter how barbaric, can be justified as “good thing”? This proves the point that history is only written by the winners. 

Monday, 29 November 2010

Course at Mary Ward Centre

An interdisciplinary course, On Poverty, at the Mary Ward Centre, drawing on philosophy and economics will start in the new year.

The course will be looking at diverse perceptions of poverty: a curse in the Torah; a liberating condition in Stoicism, Christianity and Buddhism; a condition to be eradicated in modern economics... Themes opened for discussions will range from women and poverty, Michel Foucaults Great Confinement, Marx and the pauperisation of the proletariat, the deserving poor; and will go on to the reversal operated by the Welfare State, when poverty was deemed to grant rights, rather than wealth to create duties. We will be calling, of course, on the recent works by Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and the authors around the CARE movement.

The course is open to all; it will run every Wednesday, 4 to 6pm, starting on 12 January, for 11 meetings. No prior knowledge of economics or philosophy is required. A friendly, illuminating and topical course is guaranteed.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

An 18th-century Paris Café-philo

We have approached the topic of Atheism numerous times in our previous discussions, coinciding with the rise of the celebrity writers and scientists the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, to Steven Hawking...

Just discovered a delightful new publication, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris by Philipp Blom (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), tracing the story behind a scandalous Paris salon – our earliest model of Café-philo, where philosophers met to eat and drink and deny the existence of God and the soul – run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach. Its members included Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and their contemporaries.

See review from The Economist, 28 October 2010