A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Notes on Slovenia

In his podcast Conversations with Tyler, Tyler Cowen always takes the opportunity to ask his interviewee for quick-fire opinions upon a range of topics. He does not ask them whether a thing is good or bad, however, but rather whether it is "underrated or overrated". In some sense there is an obvious reason for this: by declaring something either overrated or underrated, you commit yourself to disagreement with general opinion. This is an easy recipe for an interesting conversation.

In another sense, though, it is very puzzling. Why should you have to express a negative opinion of something that may genuinely be very good, merely because other people also like it? Indeed, many goods and media - Facebook being the most obvious example - a large portion of the value derived by an individual comes from the fact that others also enjoy the product. We form communal experiences around much of our culture - (most) people go to concerts and films together, and they discuss these evenings afterwards.

There is, however, at least one realm where the underrated/overrated question remains very important and that is tourism. A place that is overrated will be expensive and often disappointing; a place that is underrated will generally be cheaper and pleasantly surprising. There are advantages to famous places, of course - they tend, for example, to have rather better infrastructure for tourism (information centres, easy travel options) - but they are also more crowded.

All this is a long-winded way of expressing my opinions on Ljubljana and Lake Bled, which I was able to visit at the end of October. Both were pleasant, worth seeing, but would probably not (in my view) have merited a trip from the UK - but whereas Ljubljana is pleasant and underrated, Bled is pleasant and overrated.

That's all the summary; the rest of the post is (parts of) the trip told primarily through pictures.

We went down on a Friday, catching the train from Budapest and arriving mid-afternoon.
Some forested hills in the Slovenian countryside.
A castle, nestled into that same set of hills.
After taking our bearings and withdrawing some Euros, we headed for the Old Town. The centre of Ljubljana is Preseren Square, named after the national poet France Preseren and featuring several landmarks of the town.
A picture of Preseren Square (not by me), featuring the Triple Bridge (bottom), Statue of France Preseren (centre centre-right), and the Franciscan Church of the Anunciation (upper centre-right).
When we got there, I was amused to see some evangelical Christians. We have these in Britain of course, but in Britain they preach within an assumed Protestant context. Not so for these Christians:
"Excuse me, sir, have you heard the bad news about Mary the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ?"
After securing beds in a hostel for the night - we had a place booked via AirBnb, but this was not due to start until the next day - we went for a meal and a wonder around the Old Town.
A wind band who happened to be playing in front of the council house.

This used to be a very valuable fountain carved out of the finest marble, to the point where it became worthwhile for the city to have a permanent guard on the fountain to protect it. Nowadays the original fountain sits in a museum, while this replica has taken its place.

I'm still not certain what this building is, although I think it has something to do with the University.
The next day, we spent most of the morning wondering around the city as part of a guided tour.
One of the dragons on Dragon Bridge. This was built in 1888, partly as a celebration of 40 years that Emperor Franz-Joseph I had spent upon the throne and partly as a test of a new and experimental building material: concrete. At the time there was great uncertainty about how well it would work, hence this bridge being constructed in a relative backwater rather than in Vienna. The bridge was originally named after Franz-Joseph, but upon Slovenian independence after WWI it was renamed and the dragon statues were added.

A view of the Ljubljanica river, looking south from the Cobblers' bridge.

The very ornate cathedral.
After seeing these, we spent the early afternoon visiting the National Museum.
Apparently this brooch is supposed to be a pregnant woman.

The Divje Babe Flute. We're not entirely sure what its purpose was, but one theory is that it is a flute and therefore the world's oldest musical instrument.

Some very old jewellery.
In the evening, two of us (one of my travelling companions was running in the marathon the following day, and so wanted to avoid pushing herself) walked up to Ljubljana Castle. The castle is situated on a hill up the walk upwards is demanding, but rewarding with marvellous views of the city and the sound of music wafting up from the various clubs and bars.
Unfortunately the pictures I took up there haven't come out very well; this is the best of a bad bunch, looking out over Zvezda Park.
On the Sunday, the two of us who were not running the marathon briefly stood around to watch it start, went around the Natural History museum, and then headed off walking in the hills of Tivoli Park. My companion was astonished at the size of the park; I was less impressed at the time, but upon examining maps in retrospect it turns out to be more than twice the twice of Budapest's City Park, and perhaps eight to ten times the size of Platt Fields in Manchester, and probably a solid 30% larger than Hyde Park in London. It was the height of autumn, and the ground was crisp with golden fallen leaves.
Front runners of the marathon - unsurprisingly Kenyans #HBD

A road near the town centre, notable for the contrast between the lovely Viennese secession buildings on the left and the wor-down post-Soviet buildings on the right.

The lovely Opera House.

A hillside meadow, overlooked by a pleasant restaurant with mostly outdoor seating where we had lunch.

My lunch - the traditional Slovenian Struklji: dough rolls filled in this case with cottage cheese, spinach, walnut, and tarragon, and some blueberry brandy to wash it down. To be honest I didn't especially like these - the texture, especially, with the breadcrumb sauce on top, was unpleasantly slimy, and there was not all that much taste. Still, value of information!
Ljubljana is not a large town, and by this point we had exhausted most of the tourist destinations. Moreover, many of them would be shut for the next two days - Mondays because they always shut on that day, and Tuesday because it was the 1st November. (This extended to supermarkets, which closed unexpectedly early on Monday and did not open on Tuesday, leaving us without food for the train journey back). Therefore on Monday we caught a coach to the famous Lake Bled. The coach was overcrowded, to the point that we spent the first half of the journey sitting on the floor until some people got off.

Eventually we arrived and were greeted with some adorable views of the lake and castle.

First we walked along the lakeside. After reaching the other end and seeing that there was not much there beyond a couple of restaurants and a canoe rental, we found a path winding upwards towards the castle.

A panorama, taken from the spot where we had lunch.

At the entrance to the castle there was a Hallowe'en-themes medieval fair going on, aimed mostly at children. After a brief look round this, I went into the castle while the others, baulking at the entrance fee, decided to make their way back down.
This is some significant manuscript, or a facsimile thereof. I forget which, and also why it is significant.
 After the first half of the day being overcast, the sun came out while I was in the castle. This improved the views to be had, but made photography harder due to Bled Island lying in-between myself and the sun.

Some mountains, looking away from the lake.

 After meeting at the lakeside, we were rowed across to the island. A violinist and pianist were playing tunes, mostly Viennese, and admiring the scenery as waves lapped at the boat and the music drifted over the water was surely one of the most belle epoque experiences one can enjoy.

The first view on the island. There was relatively little there, to be honest - a chapel, a couple of shops, and a clock tower. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant enough way to spend forty minutes.

One of the buildings on the island had a display of various national costumes. Slovenia, despite its small size, has three different traditions in clothing.

After returning to the mainland and narrowly missing the 3:30pm coach back, we sat at a café where I was able to enjoy some excellent Slovenian red wine.

That was the last touristic experience of the trip - in the evening we struggled to find places to eat, I took a few photos, and the next morning we had to catch the 8:45 train, arriving in Budapest early evening.

Review: Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them

(Warning: minor spoilers ahead)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
 originally referred to one of Harry Potter's school textbooks. For a World Book Day this was brought into reality as a slim, red little volume consisting of a fictional history of how magical creatures were hidden, followed by a bestiary of various magical creatures. Now, it is the latest installment in the financial behemoth that is the film series of Harry Potter.

Well, in a sense. Much of the background is taken from Harry Potter, and Fantastic Beasts isn't so very different in spirit from some of the later, darker Potter films. Many of the same people are involved - J. K. Rowling having written the script, David Yates returning as director, and David Heyman and Steve Kloves both serving as directors. But the characters are all new; the aesthetic has moved from a remote Scottish castle to 1920s New York; and in general, the film is very different for being an original story rather than merely the adaptation of a book.

I'll start with the good. The special effects are copious and impressive - apart from the numerous spells and explosions, Newt Scamander boasts a remarkable menagerie of magical creatures, our introduction to which is perhaps my favourite scene of the movie. The first half of the film strikes the balance between plot and light entertainment very well.

What of the problems? Ultimately, I think the film tries to do far too much. The second half of the film switches between dark drama and explosions with no rest in-between, which both makes the film less enjoyable and makes the romantic subplots less convincing. I don't object to characters falling in love, but such romances should involve actual conversations between the characters in which they get to know each other. Perhaps Newt and Tina aren't so bad on this front, but the relationship between muggle wannabe-baker Jacob Kowalski and legilimens Queenie is appalling - they begin eyeing each other up as soon as they meet, pay each other a few compliments from time to time, and then by the end of the film Queenie is declaring that she will "never meet another man like you". Perhaps being a mind-reader allows you to get to know people well in short spaces of time, but then the film could have done more to show this.

The 1920s aesthetic works well for set design. The music, however, ruins this impression. James Newton Howard's score is uninspiring, which would be OK, but also for 80% of the film utterly undistinguishable from any other film score. When the characters enter a speakeasy, and in a couple of other places, the music turns into some classic jazz, and these are the finest moments in the soundtrack; they ought to have been the rule, rather than the exception.

The final twist, a reveal in the spirit of Scooby-Doo villains, seemed unnecessary and raised more questions than it answered. Why did Grindelwald, an immensely powerful wizard capable of defeating a score of trained aurors at once, based in eastern Europe, and dedicated to taking over the world, decide to infiltrate the American magical government? How long must he have spent doing this, given that he had achieved a very senior role in this government? And why, once he was captured, was he not immediately killed? It's not like they couldn't have done so, given that several people had already been summarily executed for far lesser crimes. Instead Grindelwald proclaims that "You'll never be able to hold me!" and the American magical president, who had only two minutes earlier ordered one of these executions, mumbles back that "Well we'll do our best."

One also wonders about the differences in social morés between the magical communities of 1920s Britain and the US. The US magicians have apparently overcome both racial and sexual prejudice, to the extent that their president is a black woman. However, they retain a strict legal prohibition upon wizard-muggle relationships. (Curiously this is not matched with any sense of disgust at such relationships). Britain is sufficiently ahead on this count that Newt is able to rather bitingly refer to the American's "backwards view of relationships between magical people and muggles"; has there really not been sufficient interaction between the societies for Britain's liberalism on this subject to rub off on the other side of the Atlantic? (And indeed, where do Canadian witches and wizards stand on this? The main North American school of magic, Ilvermorny, is known to be on the upper east coast, but it is unclear on which side of the US-Canada border it lies; in either case, it seems to be the case that Ilvermorny is the most popular school of magic for both Americans and Canadians. This implies substantial interaction between the two, at a time when Canada was still merely a dominion of the British Empire).

Overall I enjoyed the film, and it was worth seeing (at least at Hungarian cinema prices, which are less than half of UK prices). But I cannot give it more than three stars out of five, and must state my opinion that while this does not plumb the depths of The Cursed Child (which I have declared to be non-canon, but rather an unusually prominent fanfic) one could miss this film, and one would not be any less of a Harry Potter fanatic for it.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Naive Moralism and Manichaeism

London, 1750

WILLIAM: Slavery is an abomination, which must be ended this instant!

CHARLES: Oh, you're on about slavery again? Why don't you just knock it off.

WILLIAM: How can I be silent about monstrous injustice? The negros are our fellow men and brothers, and their subordination goes against every law of God and man!

CHARLES: Nonsense. Slaves exist, and slaveholders are not punished, so slavery is quite clearly permitted by the law. Besides which, would you have all slaves freed? Think of the chaos that would be loosed upon England if they were all released tomorrow!

WILLIAM: If the law does not forbid slavery, then the law is unjust. And justice must be done, even though the heavens fall.

CHARLES: Justice is simply the rules that we, as a society, agree to live by. Perhaps in the future those rules will outlaw slavery. But for now, they do not and slaves are legitimate property in every sense.

The dialogue above is intended to illustrate two competing ways of thinking about morality. The first, represented by William, is what I like to call Naive Moralism. Naive Moralism consists of three apparently uncontroversial propositions:

  1. There exist moral truths independently of human-made laws.
  2. These moral truths are knowable.
  3. We ought to behave as these truths demand.
The opposing picture is much vaguer, and is united only by a single rather vague thought: "It's more complicated than that." Charles is a classic examplar of this picture, which for lack of a better term I will call anti-Manichaeism. Charles recognises that in some sense William is right, that future generations will side with William rather than Charles, but he sees no need to contribute to that change. Perhaps he personally benefits from slavery, perhaps he genuinely fears the consequences of freeing slaves en masse.

Being a naive moralist or an anti-manachaeist on one issue does not, by the way, mean that you will hold this perspective on all issues. I know a great many people who are naive moralists when it comes to making the rich pay their fair share of taxes and achieving equality within the polity, but when faced with the much bigger issue of global inequality and the suggestion that they personally might have to give up a lot of their wealth, suddenly become convinced that justice surely can't be all that demanding (see pages 3-4). Far be it from me to suggest that anti-Manichaeism is frequently motivated by self-interest, of course. With that said, people genuinely differ in their tendency to views issues in a particular light - most obviously, there is a strong negative correlation between age and naive realism. One key thesis of this essay, which I will eventually get around to explaining, is that certain ideologies naturally lend themselves towards one or the other type of moral reasoning and this can explain a lot about the far left and about feminism.

At this point, hopefully anti-Manichaeism is sounding rather unappealing. (If you don't think ending slavery was a moral imperative, then I really don't know what to say to you other than "Stop being evil!") But naive moralism causes its share of problems too, even in the cases where the cause at stake is one as worthy and just as abolitionism.

Against Doing the Right Thing

1. The problem of moral dissent

People who hold views about morality which are heavily out of step with the society in which they live tend to be viewed somewhere on a spectrum between annoyances and traitors. To take a relatively mild example, consider the conscientious objectors of the Great War. Nowadays we debate whether or not Britain was justified in intervening in the war, but we would agree that whatever reason supported going to war were hardly strong enough to justify conscription. At the time, however, conscientious objectors were viewed as cowards; 6000 of them, most famously Bertrand Russell, were imprisoned for their refusal to fight; and the public at large would shun not only the objectors but also their families, sometimes leaving wives and children destitute and unable to access charity when their husbands and fathers were imprisoned.

A more modern example is that of vegetarianism. Many people regard vegetarianism as a kind of self-indulgence: not morally wrong, but a personal preference that can be awfully inconvenient to other people. Amanda Askell wrote a recent piece incisively attacking this perspective:
I have had many conversations with people who complain about vegetarians and vegans coming to parties or restaurants, and expecting their weird tastes to be accommodated. But ethical vegetarians and vegans are not merely acting on a whim: they think that it’s morally wrong to eat meat. If you were to be told that ritual cannibalism was practiced by your friends, you would presumably say “either don’t serve me human flesh for dinner, or I’m not coming to your house” (you might even say a little more than this: e.g. “please stop eating people” or “I’m calling the police”). If it’s reasonable to want your anti-cannibalism moral beliefs to be accommodated, then why is it not reasonable for the vegetarian to want their anti-meat eating beliefs to be accommodated?
People have even thought that it’s acceptable or funny to trick vegetarians into eating meat. It’s cruel enough to trick someone into eating something they don’t like the taste of. It seems even more cruel to trick someone into doing something that they believe is wrong simply because we don’t agree that it’s wrong. After all, we’d be rightly horrified and upset if we went to our friend’s house and were tricked into eating human flesh disguised as beef or pork.
Similarly, near the all-time top of reddit.com/r/rage is people taking umbrage at the following cartoon:
To a vegetarian, meat-eating is wrong for the same reason that lynching, genocide, and domestic violence are wrong: there are innocent moral patients being harmed by these acts. The cartoon is pointing out, in a not very gentle way, that a sometimes-given defence of meat-eating sounds absolutely abominable when used to defend these other acts.

Pacifism and vegetarianism are rather progressive practices, so it is perhaps worth pointing out that naive moralists from more traditional viewpoints can cause just as much annoyance for those who do not share their principles. Abortion is one example: there are many people who oppose abortion, for the entirely respectable reason that they view foetuses as moral patients with many of the same rights as humans (e.g. the right not to be killed). In some places, there are enough people who believe foetuses have moral status that they are able to enforce this as law, causing severe inconvenience to women in those areas who want to have abortions.

Another example is Christian evangelism. Perhaps you wish that street preachers would mind their own business and stop harassing you in public; from the evangelists' perspective, however, this would be horrendously immoral of them. They earnestly believe that if you do not come to accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, you will burn in hell for eternity. For all of the annoyance they cause, if a single soul is saved as a result then their preaching will be a net benefit to humanity.

In all of these cases, it's important to note that the inconvenience exists whether or not the moral dissenters are correct. The inconvenience of having to cook separate meals for vegetarians is caused not by vegetarians being wrong (if they indeed are), but simply by their being different from society at large. It may well be that foetuses are moral patients who deserve our protection; that doesn't negate the very real suffering to women burdened with pregnancies they don't want to go through and cannot end.

2. Utopianism

In order to abolish slavery within the British Empire, it was necessary for the government to compensate every slaveholder in the Empire. With the benefit of hindsight, this was an outrage: the slaveholders were carrying out a great injustice, and yet rather than punish them for this we not only let them off scot-free, but even paid them to stop doing it! Frankly, what they deserved was to have their slaves freed whether or not the slaveholders agreed, with their lands and property confiscated and divided up among the former slaves, and the slaveholders should have been imprisoned in the same conditions to which they subjected their slaves.

From the naive moralist perspective, this is all true. But it was also impossible to implement given the powers that were. The best that could be hoped for was the marginal improvement of freeing the slaves while compensating their former owners. Similarly, there are to this day a great many dictators around the world who deserve to go the way of Saddam Hussein, but unless the West is committed to recreating the Iraq War a hundred times over, in countries far more powerful than Iraq, the hope of removing all illegitimate governments is forlorn. (And if we're honest, the governments of even the most civilised countries are rather less legitimate than we typically like to think).

3. Ends-justify-the-means reasoning

Let's go back to the 18th-century gentlemen who were debating the morality of slavery. As it so happens, Charles owns several slaves who he treats poorly - beating them, providing them with only the basics for survival, chaining them up whenever they are not working, and raping the women among them. However, he has no living family, which means that were he to die these slaves would go free. Charles is currently in good health, but William comes to you with a plan. Next month Charles will be travelling by coach to Birmingham, along a road notorious for being infested with highwaymen. You could hide along the route and murder Charles, making it look like a robbery gone awry. William, who has always been true to his word in the past, promises that he has no plans to keep any of the proceeds for himself; moreover, it's not like Charles doesn't thoroughly deserve this!

Perhaps you're still uncomfortable and would refuse to assist William, even if this makes the plan impossible to carry out. But hopefully you can see that there is a strong moral justification for it, such that a morally upstanding person could reasonably decide that they are not only morally entitled, but positively obliged to take part in this murder. Of course, such behaviour is entirely at odds with living in a peaceful and civilised society.

Similar reasoning would have been used by Stalin during his early years as a bank-robber: the money held the bank was itself stolen from the working class, and so by taking that money for the Communist Party he was not only putting the money to the best use but also preventing criminals from benefiting from their crimes. Similarly, however justified the American Revolution may have been there can be no doubt that it caused a great many deaths and injuries which could have been averted if the colonies had been willing to remain colonies rather than states.

I should be clear that this kind of reasoning does not have to be an ex post justification of thuggery. There are well-respected ethicists willing to defend future applications of this kind of behaviour; for example, Peter Unger (a professor at NYU) has argued that our obligations to the globally poor are so strong that we should not only give all that we have, but moreover that we should steal from others in order to donate. To take a less objectionable behaviour, members of the Effective Altruism movement have frequently argued that individuals should enter well-paid but morally dubious occupations such as quantitative finance in order to donate more to the third world.

4. Unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints

I mentioned at the beginning my inability to comprehend people who would oppose abolition. So far as I am concerned, if you are not in favour of abolitionism then you are either a hypocrite who does wrong by your own lights, too cowardly to think through the morality of your actions in a rigorous way, or else simply you simply have evil values. Perhaps that sounds reasonable, in which case it's time to lay some more of my cards on the table.

As it happens, I am a vegetarian. I don't believe that animals have all of the same rights as humans, but I believe that they are significant enough and cruelty in the meat industry so ubiquitous that eating meat is pretty much always immoral. As such, I believe that if you eat meat, then* you are a hypocrite, a moral coward, or evil. This probably sounds profoundly unreasonable to many people, and there are good reasons why vegetarians don't tend to say such things. In general we don't like to think of our friends and family this way, but ultimately if you want to avoid this conclusion then you're going to have to engage in an awful lot of "it's more complicated than that".

If you're a generally enlightened but non-vegetarian westerner, you're probably feeling rather insulted at the moment. If that is the case, please relax while I insult much of the developing world. Another belief I hold strongly is that women ought to have the same rights as men, including but not limited to sexual autonomy. If you genuinely believe that a woman has no right to deny sex to her husband, for example, then I - along with most people in the developed world - consider you to be a barbarian.

Hopefully by this point you see that naive moralism, even when it is correct, makes social life very difficult. To a large extent the Enlightenment came about by our agreeing to drop naive moralism regarding certain topics - to agree that while it may well be in people's interest to be compelled to believe in the One True God, we would nevertheless let them continue in their sin and damnation.

Another key thing to take note of is that these problems with naive moralism exist, even when the moralism is for a genuinely righteous cause! There is a failure mode which comes about when people become Manichean in defence of evil causes, and there is a failure mode where two groups of people opposed to each other both adopt Manichaeism, but this kind of moral certainty is perfectly capable of causing problems without any need for poor moral judgement.

Why Have Naive Moralism At All?

Considerations like those above have led some people, including well-respected moral philosophers, to completely reject naive moralism and instead proclaim that morality is nothing more than the set of rules which allow us to get along with each other. This involves biting one hell of a bullet, however: it means rejecting the very notion of moral progress, and indeed any minimally satisfying form of moral realism.

In the 18th century, society was able to function despite the blight of slavery. We needed some naive moralists to recognise that slavery was inconsistent with the professed morals of the land, and to build up the social consensus necessary to abolishing slavery.

*with some very few exceptions that would be too weird to explain here.

NM and AM not personality types, but rather ways of seeing moral claims. One might be NM about domestic redistribution but AM about global redistribution, for example. (Far be it from me to suggest, of course, that AM often motivated by status quo bias and self-interest!)

Problems with NM:

inconvenience of their moralising: pacifism, vegetarianism
demands that others see things from their perspective
ends justify means
can be wrong!


they are ultimately our source of moral progress


moral progress not necessarily in a "progressive" direction - consider abortion

Which groups tend to inspire particular kinds of moral reasoning:

anti-manichaeism inherently conservative; left (particularly the far-left) and feminists tend to be correspondingly naively moralist, hence tendency towards trashing etc
religion naive realist
israel anti-manichaeist - in some ways relies on the same racialism it is supposed to protect against