Daily Archives: August 31, 2014

The insufficiency of mere virtue

But the injunctions “Be virtuous,” “Be courageous,” “Be great-souled,” “Be liberal” do not tell us what to do in the sense of what to aim at; they rather tell us how we should behave in the pursuit of our aim, whatever it is. But what should that aim be?

— Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics

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I’ve got a good idea for a game. Like all games, it needs rules, so I’ve got several. First, you’ve got to keep the ball within bounds; there’s a line painted around the edge of the playing field, and if the ball goes over the line it’s out of bounds. You can kick the ball, but you can’t touch it with your hands. Also, you’re not allowed to hit, kick, push, or spit on the other players. No steroids are allowed. Oh, and you have to wear a regulation uniform. Jumping is permitted, as long as you don’t jump too much. Excessive jumping is frowned on. That’s about it.

I know you’re thinking I must have forgotten to mention something — like what the goal is, how to win the game. Well, your goal is to score points, and you score points — (here’s the beauty of the game design) — by following the rules. The ref watches you while you play, and for every minute spent following the rules you get a point. Points are deducted for infractions — how many depends on how serious the offense — and in the end if you have a positive number of points, you win! (This is not an inherently competitive game. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to win.) Winning — ending with a positive number of points — is the main point of the game, but of course the more points you can get, the better.

That was the original version of the game, but I found that it had a few problems — the biggest one being that it was possible to win by just standing on the field doing nothing. So I added some more “positive” scoring criteria, to encourage players to actively play well rather than taking the negative path of merely avoiding violations. In the new version of the game, you also get points for helping other players. So, for example, if one of the other players has decided to try to keep the ball in the air for a full five minutes, you can get points by helping him do that. Or if he’s decided to stand perfectly still for the whole game, you can help prop him up — but of course don’t push him! Team spirit counts, too. Enthusiastically helping other players will get you even more points. You also get points for accuracy — for making the ball go precisely wherever it is that you want it to go — and for general grace of movement. In this new, richer version of the game, obeying the rules is the bare minimum expected; most of your effort will be devoted to being accurate and graceful and helping others.

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A deeply unsatisfying game, obviously. A pointless one. But notice how much more intelligible it becomes with the addition of an objective goal, however arbitrary. Tell a player that his goal is to see to it that the ball enters net A more times than it enters net B, and suddenly all his grace and accuracy and teamwork become meaningful.

As with sports, so with war. Send an army onto the field with no orders but to be brave, loyal, and self-sacrificing, and nothing will come of it. But tell them that their goal is to capture Jerusalem — or to protect it from being captured, or whatever (just about any goal will do, really) — and you create a situation in which real bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice can appear.

The goal itself doesn’t really matter. The real point is not the achievement of the ostensible goal, but rather the virtue and excellence which are manifested in its pursuit. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, “a good war hallows every cause.” The cause itself may be completely pointless — as, for example, in soccer or World War I — but it must not be thought of as pointless. Unless the participants really care about the ostensible goal, no “good war” will result.

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Moving from sports and war to life in general, I find that most moral philosophy is as unsatisfactory as the imaginary game described at the beginning of this post:

Be virtuous.

In the service of what goal?

Happiness.

And how is happiness obtained?

By being virtuous.

So what exactly am I supposed to do?

Implied answer: Whatever strikes your fancy, so long as you do it in a virtuous way.

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This can be done. A more-or-less arbitrary goal can be chosen and pursued, and the result can be a life of virtue and happiness. (It can be instructive to Google the phrases “the purpose of life is” and “he devoted his life to” — the sentences tend to end in totally different ways.) But it only works if you don’t think about it too much. The soldiers must never stumble upon the disillusioning thought, “This? Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

Phil Collins’s “welcome to the jungle” song anticipated by They Might Be Giants

I recently discovered the relatively obscure They Might Be Giants song (not included on any of their studio albums) “Welcome To The Jungle.”

While it’s obviously a nod to the much more famous Guns N’ Roses song of the same name, it doesn’t have much in common with it musically.  I guess Their “ju-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ungle” recalls Axl’s “kn-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-nees,” but that’s about it. The much more obvious musical allusion, I thought, was to Phil Collins’s soundtrack music for the Disney Tarzan film — particularly “Two Worlds,” which opens the film and serves as a “welcome to the jungle” for the infant Tarzan, his parents, and the viewer.

At around the 0:35 mark, “Welcome To The Jungle” suddenly changes styles and sounds an awful lot like the Phil Collins song — and at the same time the lyrics suddenly become decidedly more Phil-Collinsy (“Now you will be with me / put your hand in my hand …” — it could almost be a reference to one of his other songs for Tarzan). I figured this just had to be deliberate — and of course, a playful nod to Tarzan in a song called “Welcome To The Jungle” is just the sort of thing I would expect from Them.

However, “Welcome To The Jungle” was released in 1992, seven years before Tarzan came out. And while it would be completely natural for the Johns to allude to a popular Disney movie, the idea that a not-at-all-jokey Phil Collins song would secretly be an homage to an obscure TMBG track is a lot harder to swallow.

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I did a search for Phil Collins and TMBG to see if there was any indication that Phil might (inexplicably) be a fan of Theirs. All I found was this comment by TMBG’s John Linnell on “You’ll Be In My Heart” — also from Tarzan:

Defending the music of Mr. Collins can be a fruitless, time-wasting effort. In the simplest terms, throughout his career I’ve been silently praying that the earth would open up and swallow him and all his works. So the pleasure I took in this ballad from the Tarzan soundtrack took me completely off guard. Something about the third and fourth chords against the melody in the chorus seems to transcend the cheap sentimentality in his music that I have found so offensive in the past. Either he made some radical breakthrough in his songwriting or I’ve gone soft in the head. Or both.

So I take it they’re not exactly good friends.

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Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Music