Friday, May 25, 2007
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Sunday, May 13, 2007
That was Idi's way, you see. Punish or reward. You couldn't say no. Or I didn't think, back then, that you could. Or I really didn't think about it at all.
This is to say nothing about Foden's somewhat cheap use of various quasi-Orientalist tropes of the vainglorious and idiotic African, probably inevitable in a book about Amin. A glorified airport novel really, I'd say, although reasonably competently done. Although I can't quite rid myself of the feeling that it's just because it has a much nicer typeface, I've been enjoying Night Watch rather more (spoiler alert). Waters, to my mind anyway, writes so much better than Foden, is so much more alive to the compromises and vulnerabilities that life involves, and so much more able to accurately capture them. In contrast to Foden's often leaden literalism, Waters manages to inhabit the confusions and complications of close personal relationships, the evasions and understatements of the text mirroring the misunderstandings and unspoken agreements of the protagonists. In one scene, two lovers are preparing to go out for the day for one of them's birthday. One is increasingly bored by the other's preciousness, their insistence that everything be a perfect little piece of drama, that their love have the gallantry and passion of a play, and increasingly excited by and attracted to someone else. She suggests they go on their outing with friends; someone other than the person she is thinking of is suggested. Most of the scene has been concerned with the perspective of the other lover.
She sat and drew on her shoes, bending her head, so that her hair fell before her face. 'You don't,' she added lightly, as Kay was turning from the room, 'want to ask other people?'
'Other people?' asked Kay, surprised, turning back. 'You mean, like Mickey?'
'Yes', Helen said, after a second. Then, 'No, it was just a thought.'
'Would you like to call in on Mickey, on the way?'
'No. it's all right, really.' She straightened up, laughing at herself, her face quite pink from the effort of leaning forward and reaching to tie her laces.
Of course, Helen is not red from the effort of tying her laces; the scene before has her in a state of virtual ecstasy at the brushing of her arm against that of another woman: it is only because that is what Kay sees that that is what we are told. The book is full of moments like this; indeed, you might say it's about moments like this. I really like this sensitivity to what remains hidden, partly I think because of being perhaps a little hyper-aware of the costs of things being revealed. I'm never quite sure of exactly how to divide up the responsibility for this awareness amongst my own personal circumstances and inclinations, where I lie within the class structure of this particular society, and simply being a member of that society at all, although I'm fairly sure all three bear some of the blame. Being part of the kind of graduate community at Oxford, which, as you'd expect of an internationally renowned university, is quite cosmopolitan, brings the way in which simply being British - or maybe English - gives you a kind of reticence, an unwillingness to disturb people home, since so many other people find it odd. Of course, quite apart from the effects of a class structure on whether or not an attitude like that makes sense, being from southern England and middle class probably makes it worse - I understand people from the provinces speak to each other on public transport - but I think it is more general than that.
Having that kind of attitudes' particularity exposed as it is by encountering someone who doesn't share it understandably leads one to enquire into what might be said in favour of it; a logic which had seemed natural is made contingent, and you wonder why it ever seemed natural in the first place. Having relatively recently invoked Arendt, it would be tedious to do it again, although this is what I think of as an Arendtian point. Fortunately, Waters will do instead. What Waters knows, what that passage exemplifies, is the way in which public actions are not yours alone; they are interpreted, read, by others, and so slip away from you, become things you never meant. Although there's a thrill to that, an anticipation at the openness of the future, there's a danger too, a worry that things will run totally beyond your control. To be in public in the way that British reserve prevents you from being in places like the Tube restricts the scope of that worry in a way that is not without benefits. Of course, no moral worlds are without loss, and this is partly the product of a class system which creates so much more scope for misunderstanding, but no moral worlds are without loss, and the loss of this feature would, in this sense at least, be a loss.
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Imagine a particularly ambitious person, who wants to be the best in the field they work in; indeed, this seems to be the most important, if not the only, reason they acknowledge for working in that field – for them, the challenge of succeeding in becoming the best in their field is about all that motivates them to succeed in that field. Having the goal of being the best in a particular field for the sake of being the best in the field you happen to have ended up in is rather strange and perhaps inherently unstable, though. This is because if it is not met, then there is no recompense in having engaged in an activity understood to be worthwhile, and if it is met, all that has been achieved is success, rather than success at something: the reasons for being successful in that field have not been responded to, but reasons for success in the abstract.
Even if they are interested in the challenge that achieving the success provides, it is not clear that they are doing anything particularly worthwhile: having the project of building a 100 metre high tower of matchsticks or counting all the blades of grass on a lawn would be a challenge in the sense that it would be difficult, but not really something we would regard as something that someone should spend as much time on as they typically would on their career. That something is challenging, then, does not by itself provide us with much reason to do it, and certainly not, on its own, enough reason to occupy as much of our time and energy as a career typically does. Consider as a contrast having the goal of succeeding in a particular profession by becoming the best in it, where that goal takes it to be independently important to do well in the profession concerned, with becoming the best a means to that end. We could understand a scientist who tried to solve whatever problem their field defined as the most important problem in it as having this goal, as long as we also understood that their interest in this problem was driven by a response to the problem itself, rather than only the success that would attach itself to whoever solved it. In the case under consideration here, the relationship is reversed: apparent responses to the reasons, if any, that the profession gives to do particular things are in fact responses to the reasons, if any, to be successful in the abstract.
I want to claim that something about taking that kind of ambition to provide one with reasons to aim at success in particular field misunderstands what reasons are because it misunderstands how reasons relate to agency. In particular, it seems to deny both one’s own agency and that of others, and since agency is normatively significant, that is to misunderstand what reasons one has: one’s capacity to respond to reasons itself provides reasons. To deal with the denial of their own agency first, presumably, we take doctors, for example, to have reasons at least related to peoples’ illnesses to attempt to cure them, even if that relationship is not always particularly direct, and so the peculiarly ambitious person is not responding to those sorts of reasons, reasons related to one’s profession. This is because all that motivates them in their career is the bare thought of success: if they could be the best surgeon whilst being an absolutely bad surgeon, for example, then that would satisfy them. Not responding to the reasons one has for doing something is to deny one’s agency, which simply is the capacity to respond to reasons and guide one’s actions by reference to them. If I persistently refuse to respond to reasons I have in some sphere of my life, then I refuse to be an agent in that sphere of my life: I effectively deny that my capacity to respond to reasons has any normative weight for me there. Since one’s career is usually an important area of one’s life, refusing to see the reasons – which might, as a matter of fact, be rather obliquely related to the career itself: someone could have reasons to do a highly repetitious and unstimulating job related to the opportunities it provided them in other areas of their life – for having it, if refusing to see reasons is to deny agency, is to deny agency in an important area of one’s life.
 This last claim is in this context perhaps strictly question-begging, since it assumes that there are no reasons for success in the abstract, which is roughly what the argument is supposed to show. Those who do not regard it as question-begging should take the rest of the discussion of this case as an explanation of its truth, whereas those who do find it objectionable should take the rest of the discussion as an argument for its truth.
 I do not mean agency in the sense of instrumental rationality here, but rather agency in the sense of being ‘reason-assessing, self-governing creatures’. The problem with the ambitious person is that they do not respond to reasons; since instrumental rationality has nothing to say about what goals some adopts, but only the means they take to them, a lack of responsiveness to reasons – which give ones goals, rather than means to goals – could hardly be a difficulty for instrumental rationality.
 There are pursuits and even careers in which one’s success is significantly dependent on the success of others without that being self-effacing – any directly competitive activity, for example, and most obviously professional sports. The reason that these activities are not necessarily self-effacing is that there are plenty of reasons for engaging in them in the first place: one’s own enjoyment, as well as that of others, and the striving for a kind of perfection, to mention perhaps the most obvious. Trying to respond to those reasons is something that one can succeed in without having success in the activity that one is trying to respond to them by doing. The importance of these kinds of considerations can be seen if we consider whether many athletes would want to win an Olympic gold in a final in which every other competitor pulled up injured, or, more starkly, in which they had lamed every other competitor. This is not to say that some of those involved in directly competitive activities do not have the kind of ambition discussed here, merely that it is not necessary to have such an attitude in order to see the point in participating in such activities, and aiming to do well, relative to others, in them.
 Obviously, there can be varying degrees of this denial: someone who actively prevents others from responding to their reasons denies their agency to a greater degree than someone who is simply indifferent to their responsiveness. Consider a parallel case. If I steal your property, I do not respect your right to it. If I fail in my duty to provide for the protection of your right to that property, by paying my taxes, for example I do not respect your right to it either, although the degree to which I do not respect it differs between the two cases.