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Monthly Archives: December 2008

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I always find it fascinating, how life looks so different each and every year.
I look back at this year as if it were a dream,
as if Camus’s stranger or Dostoevsky’s double has been meddling with my affairs.
I wouldn’t be surprised. After this year, I no longer believe in surprise.
But I remember back, way back, to those times on Santa’s lap.
“What do you want for Christmas, little boy?”
And I would reply with whatever the boy before me had said.
“I want a Tonka Truck and a GI-Joe.”
And I remember thinking to myself,
that I would for sure get that Tonka Truck and GI-Joe,
just because I had asked Santa Claus.
What amazing faith I had as a child.
If you were to ask me what I wanted for Christmas this year,
I wouldn’t have an answer for you. Maybe if I thought about it long enough,
I would come up with something. But, without a doubt,
it’d be something that no person could ever give me.

There’s nothing more that I want. I have everything that I need.
My life is bountiful, plentiful. I know who I am, and those closest to me,
who love me, know exactly who I am too. And they love me because of that.
And it’s got nothing to do with you. Who I am doesn’t depend on you,
or what day it is, or where I am. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted,
more than Tonka Trucks or GI Joe’s… just to know who I am, and be okay with it.
This year has been tough for all of us. And with our noses pressed so close
to the glass of each day, it becomes even tougher. But I do know one thing. Everything’s going to be okay. Tough, but okay.
I may not get the things that I want, or even the things that I need.
And some of you might walk out of my life with the blink of an eye.
And I’ll be left there, my nose to the glass, watching your handprints disappear.
But everything will still be okay.

And next year, when I’m sitting here, again, in my parents’ house,
listening to Nat King Cole sing Christmas carols, I’ll think about the year,
and the ones before it, how I didn’t get my Tonka Truck again.
But I’ll still have me. I’ll still know me.
And that’s something that nobody else can give me.
And there could be no better gift than that.

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Kant vs. Mill: An Exploration of Intentions and Consequences in Ethics

What gives an action moral worth? Is it the intention or the consequence of the action? The philosopher Immannuel Kant would argue that the intention, or the will of the action, is the only thing that could have moral worth. Kant’s ethics of the will has its roots in the idea of duty; that our duty is to act in such a way that our actions can be universalized to all situations. This is what Kant calls the categorical imperative. If the will of our action can be universally appreciated, then we would be acting with moral worth. Conversely, John Stuart Mill would argue that an action has moral worth only if the consequences of that action yield the maximum amount of happiness and pleasure for all sentient beings, disregarding the intention and the will. For Mill, what we intend to occur has no moral worth whatsoever. We could, for example, will that our actions yield nothing but negative consequences, in hopes to ruin or destroy another individual. If, by chance, this action ends up being beneficial to that individual, Mill would consider that action to have moral worth. How can these two drastically different views of morality be reconciled? Well, one way is to consider the faults of each of these different systems of ethics, and determine which system seems to be less problematic. When doing so, one might conclude that one system seems to work better than the other. I will argue that Mill’s view is less problematic than Kant’s ethics of the will, and that Mill’s system offers more realistic alternatives to the problems in Kant’s ethics; those problems being that our intentions are difficult to identify, that the idea of morality is not universalizable, and that consequences must be considered when designing a system of ethics.

Kant’s ethics of the will suggest that the only thing that is certain in our lives is what is inside of us, our will, our desire to do the right thing. The only thing that matters is our subjective inner moral consciousness. Kant built an entire system of ethics around this assumption that all humans inherently have the ability to reason and to discern right from wrong, and based the idea of morality on our will and our intention. But how can our true intention ever really be identified? Can we ever be entirely sure of our intentions? There are endless variables and factors that go into the decisions we make, such as our experience up to that point and the influence that other people have had on us. When faced with a situation that requires a quick decision, it seems absurd to assume that one could take all of these factors into account and be completely aware of all of the things that are shaping the decision in that moment. It seems, then, that our intention may be too difficult to identify before making a decision. Yet, for Kant, it is the touchstone by which all moral worth is granted. Wouldn’t one want something more concrete, something more identifiable when considering if an action has moral worth? This is where Mill’s Utilitarianism offers a more useful alternative. Mill acknowledges that intention is a weak foundation for building a system of ethics, and turns toward something more useful; the consequences of that intention. For Mill, we must gauge moral worth by the result of the action taken. For example, a chemist who works for a pharmaceutical company could tell himself that his intention behind making a certain new drug was to improve the well-being of society (though, of course, the intention could be to gain wealth, fame, acknowledgement, etc). In designing this new drug, this person took all necessary precautions. Yet, upon the release of the new drug, it was discovered to have a fatal reaction with many of those who took it. Kant would, of course, say that this individual had the right intention and a good will, and therefore the action had moral worth. It seems to violate common sense that the fatalities of many innocent people could have moral worth. Mill would disagree, saying that the action did not have moral worth because the consequence of the action was that many people died. This view is much more realistic and does not violate our common sense.

Another large aspect of Kant’s system of ethics is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asks us to act upon only those principles that we would choose to become universal laws for all rational beings, unconditionally. An example of a principle of the categorical imperative would be telling the truth. For Kant, telling the truth is a principle that has moral worth, that should be universalized to all situations. One could easily see the problems that arise from this generalization of the usefulness of a principle. One could agree rather easily, that telling the truth does have moral worth, that we would want people to tell us the truth, and that it is, in a sense, good to tell the truth. But, the universalization seems to be where Kant runs into trouble. For example, let’s consider an instance in which telling the truth becomes a different situation entirely. A mentally ill man is in prison because he has gone on a shooting rampage in the middle of the city and killed many people. He has just escaped from the prison and is running from house to house, asking people if they own a gun. He approaches a house of a licensed gun-owner and asks the man if he owns a gun. Now, surely, if the man tells the truth, as Kant would have him do, the mentally ill man would take the gun by force and go on another shooting rampage and kill many people. If the man lies, and tells the mentally ill man that he does not own a gun, he will likely save the lives of many innocent people. Here we see the weakness of the categorical imperative. For Kant, this man’s actions would have moral worth had he told the escaped prisoner that he owned a gun, which would, in turn, kill many innocent people. Once again, we see a situation in which a morally worthwhile action results in terrible consequences. This seems hard to reconcile. But again, we turn to Mill for an alternative. Utilitarianism, with the focus on the consequence, and on the maximization of happiness and pleasure, would surely say that the saving of many innocent people would be the action that would contain the moral worth. This seems to make much more logical sense. In Mill’s ethics, we can focus on what yields the best consequences in each unique situation.

The two examples that we have examined thus far clearly show the importance of consequences when discerning if an action has moral worth. Yet, as stated earlier, Kant’s ethics of the will ignore the consequences of the action, as long as it is done from a sense of duty, so that it may be universally applied. We have also seen how a good will or good intention can lead to an action and a consequence that is bad; or in the examples above, fatal. A system that, theoretically, could do nothing but harm others, is not one that should be given much weight. Mill’s ethics of Utilitarianism, conversely, is grounded in the concepts of maximizing pleasure, happiness, and utility. We can gauge those three ideas by looking at the consequences of our actions.

Critics of Utilitarianism may argue that happiness and pleasure are immeasurable. And this may be true; there is no way to measure how much happiness or pleasure is achieved through a certain action. But this idea does not take away from the substance of the system, only from how we measure how effective the system is; or how much pleasure and happiness is being yielded from an action. Nonetheless, happiness and pleasure are still the consequences of the action in order for there to be moral worth, regardless of the ambiguity of the measured amount. And this seems to be a rather small criticism compared to the several areas of Kant’s ethics I have discussed above.

Another objection some may have to Utilitarianism is the ambiguity of determining if an action will yield good consequences in the immediate or in the long term, and which should be given more weight. For example, should an individual trade what will yield pleasure and happiness in the immediate for what will yield pleasure and happiness in the long run? Critics of Utilitarianism say that this question presents a problem for Mill. Is one type of happiness better than the other? How do we choose between them? And which has more moral worth? Again, this objection pertains to a measurement rather than the actual substance of the system.

Kant and Mill both formulate complex systems of ethics in hopes of understanding human morality. When discussing moral systems, it is difficult, if not impossible, to champion one view as a whole.  No system is flawless.  Morality seems too big of a concept to be understood, even within a complex framework.  So we’re left to consider these systems, and determine for ourselves what resonates.  Often, what we find is that certain systems are less problematic than others.  Kant’s ethics are very problematic because intentions can be difficult or impossible to evaluate and morality is often not universal. Mill offers a less problematic alternative, an ethics based on consequences, which can be more objectively evaluated or realized. The benefit of a system of morality and ethics is that it presents a groundwork in which we as humans can understand ourselves and the world around us. Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good example of a system that points us in the right direction, towards the effect that our actions have on the world around us, rather than a system that pays no attention to the effect we produce on others.

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I’m in an airplane. I look past two strangers, out the window of my southwest flight. Dense tribes of light–red, yellow, orange, green–flicker like billions of fireflies. Welcome to L.A. Welcome home.

I’m in my father’s car. The familiar smell of leather. It creaks as we shift positions. The same car, the 1985 Mercedes, the one I grew up in, the one I went to AYSO soccer in, to pee-wee basketball, to piano recital, to drum lessons, to the hospital. Nothing has changed.

I’m in my old room. This is the window I used to blow cool smoke out of. This is the closet, where my mother cleaned up empty liquor bottles, stuffed them into trash bags. These are the steps, the steps where she would carry the bottles loudly down to the kitchen. These are the sounds of my house. Those are my shelves. You could still see all the papers, stacks upon stacks of poems, drawings, my screaming youth. And these, these are the floors, the hardwood floors, spilt wax, burned incense, my shedding skin. This is where my heart broke. These are the walls, the walls I grew up with. They whisper to me at night when I’m sleeping. This is your home. This is your home. This is the bathroom, the cold white tiled floor, the shower rack where I hung the IV bags, where I used to stand myself up gingerly, quietly, carefully.

I’m outside now, staring at the sky through the trees, on the cold pavement where I used to lay down, look up, and breathe. And this is my family, a dancer, a piano-player, a runner. That’s where we sat during Christmas. That’s where I poured out my stockings. That’s where I rollerbladed, back and forth, back and forth. Here, here’s where I sat at dinner. Yep, right there, staring down at my plate, watching it become empty. And there, right there is where I shot baskets, hour after hour, til there were blisters on my hands and on my feet. Oh, and that’s where I swam, where I dumped pennies in the deep end and tried to collect all of them in one… giant…. breath…. And there, that alley right there, that’s where I lit fires, smoked cigarette butts that I would find on the street, drank my parents’ liquor. And that’s where my Grandma lived, that’s where I would bring a tray of dinner, to a woman sitting alone at a table, knitting, singing, waiting for me. And here, at the top of the steps, here’s where we sat, when I would call her over, when mom and dad were out late, and she would read me my dinosaur book, the same one, over and over again, until mom and dad came home. There’s where we used to play gin rummy, and when I cursed she would wash my mouth out with soap. That’s where we would watch Magnum P.I., and I would ask her during every scene, “What’s that mean Gram?” And she would tell me, every time. And that’s where she sat, in her wheelchair, one of the last times I saw her, listening to my father play the piano.  A calm and peaceful smile on her face.  Here’s where I stood, watching.  And here’s where I walked over to her, bent over, kissed her on her forehead, and inhaled deeply through my nose so I wouldn’t ever forget her smell.. This is my father’s office. The fluorescent light, the picture of my mother when she was young, Harry Chapin, Mark Twain, two guitars, a kazoo, Radiology journals, a magnifying glass, measuring tape, two cardboard boxes of pens and pencils, a record player, Nat King Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman. Here’s the downstairs bathroom, where I used to douse toilet paper rolls with lighter fluid and cast them ablaze. Here’s the hallway closet where I got into the Amaretto and Drambouie. Here’s the TV room, where I watched Van Damme movies, and kicked the shit out of the couch pillows, and played basketball with a small rubber ball. I was Van Damme.  I was Magic Johnson. And here’s where the piano was, where I would sit and listen to my father play, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, with my bright blue pajamas and little padded socks, so I wouldn’t slip on the hardwood floors when I walked. And my parents’ room, where my sister and I made a spaceship out of a rocking chair. The closet where I would steal pills, Ambien, Vicodin. And my parents’ bathroom, where I sat with a good friend, and begged my father not to shave his mustache. This is my house. This is Los Angeles. This is what I call home, this now liminal space, in-between where I was and where I am going.

Now I’m back in Berkeley, where I’m greeted with a colony of fucking ants in my kitchen, and a forty-eight degree living room. I get a call from a close friend. “How was your flight? Are you home?”

“Yeah, I’m home, well, I should say, I’m back in Berkeley.” Remembering the liminal space.

Now I’m in a new place, this place that I also call home sometimes. Text books, text books, text books, notebooks, highlighters, pencils, pens. This is where I sit. This is where I read. This is where I write. This is where I dream. Home is now a phone call. Home is a computer screen, a network, a dynamic and fluid space. The rug has been pulled out from underneath me. I’m falling again. I’m grasping again. I’m empty again. This is my new home. This is the home that she built for us, with beige area rugs and beautiful cherry blossoms; only, without her, and not really home.

Time is a burnt wick.

Somebody turned over the hourglass,

without asking me if it was alright.

But I like it here.

I like who I am.

I’ve got new rolls of toilet paper to set on fire.

I’ve got new skin to shed.

I’ve got a new heart,

that breaks just as easily

as the old one.