After Virtue

We are in a moral crisis. The unending arguments over abortion, health care, and gun control are symptoms of the flaws of modernity according to the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. Modernity is a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; it demands an individualist worldview, despite the fact that our culture and vocabulary reflect a communitarian heritage. What this means is that our endless arguments stem from the fact that we lack a shared conception of the good; in other words, our moral systems are incommensurable. For instance, the central conflict between Kantianism and Utilitarianism is not that either is logically inconsistent; rather, it stems from the fact that each theory has a different conception of the good.

Both theories, in their best versions, follow logically from their stated premises; the problem is that these premises are merely stated. After realizing the heterogeneity of pleasures, the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick concluded that moral beliefs couldn’t be argued and must be merely accepted —just trust your intuitions! Immanuel Kant argued that a rational agent is logically committed to the rules of morality in virtue of their rationality; in order to practice reason, one must possess the freedom and well being necessary for rational agency. This led Kant to the conclusion that one is entitled to such freedom and well being. Although it is logically necessary to possess such freedom and well being to practice reason, it does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one is entitled to them. This is merely asserted by Kant. According to MacIntyre, Utilitarianism and Kantianism’s fundamental premises are merely stated in this way. This is why the arguments between the two are endless: they are fundamentally incommensurable.

After Virtue is primarily a diagnosis of this moral crisis. It analyzes various aspects of our culture, language, and society to demonstrate that modernity is indeed a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; furthermore, it argues that the inventions of modernity such as emotivism and individualism are the root causes of our moral predicament. One of the most striking features of the book is its analysis of modern social roles. The defining character of modernity is that of a bureaucratic manager. A manager pretends to be effective and morally neutral; a manager adjusts the means to ends in the most economically efficient manner. Plus, managerial expertise requires a set of law-like generalizations to justify the manager. Unsurprisingly, one can easily spot the manager: Liberalism pretends to be effective and morally neutral, Liberalism privileges economic methodologies and conceptions, and the Enlightenment fetishizes law-like generalizations. The most interesting aspect of the manager, in my opinion, is McIntyre’s discussion on the fetishization of law-like generalizations.

This fetish is particularly apparent in the social sciences; they present themselves as providing law-like generalizations, despite the lack of evidence and predictability that is characteristic of those fields. Unlike most scientists who follow the Enlightenment, McIntyre contends that the worth of a scientific discipline is not determined by its predictive power. He believes that this is the wrong criterion by which to judge the success of the social sciences, because their subject is vastly more complicated and unpredictable: language, groups of persons, entire nations, and the global market. They cannot make predictions and generalizations that are nearly as strong as those made by Physics or Biology; even the strongest arguments have counter-examples.

For example, two of the most famous studies in sociology do not follow the Popperian model of falsification. First, James C. Davies’s famous thesis in 1962 generalizes Tocqueville’s observation that the French Revolution occurred when a period of rising and, to some degree, gratified expectations was followed by a period of set-back when expectations continued to rise and were sharply disappointed.  Second, Rosalind and Ivo Feierabend (1966) generalized that the most and least modernized societies are the most stable and least violent, whereas those at midpoint in the approach to modernity are most liable to instability and political violence. There exist many counter-examples to both: Russian and Chinese Revolutions to Davies, and Political Violence in Latin America to Feierabend’s. Nonetheless, such counter-examples do not refute their status as salient generalizations in Sociology. There exist no counter-factuals that ultimately refute a generalization.

This is not a fact that cheapens these disciplines. It merely reflects just how complicated human beings are. We are intentional beings that can choose one act over another. Choice creates unpredictability. All of this is then further complicated by the fact that we are social and linguistic beings. We have to figure out how complex beings interact with each other unpredictably in complex structures like the market, the state, and language. It would be impudent of Social Scientists to expect the law-like generalizations one encounters in Science. This is why McIntyre argues that it is wrong to expect law-like generalizations regarding sociology, politics, and so on.

Why is it then that we fetishize such law-like generalizations? As I briefly mentioned above, it is tied to the philosophical framework assumed by modernity; that is, modernity’s attachment to the ideal of the bureaucratic manager. Under the bureaucracy of modernity, moral beliefs are treated as inconvenient features of persons that function far better when they are managed by an “efficient” and “economically practical” bureaucracy. The manager justifies their position by insisting that they have law-like generalizations regarding human nature and social institutions; furthermore, they boast that they can provide an efficient governing of a pluralist society without privileging one good over another. However, modernity does, in fact, assume a set of goods that are disguised as morally neutral; the philosopher Michael Sandel lays out a number of such goods in his great book, What Money Can’t Buy.

Modernity cannot make law-like generalizations, yet we obey its tenets without much argument; we argue within the confines of modernity that were designed to be endless. McIntyre suggests that we look to the past for answers to our problems. Across several chapters, McIntyre sketches the moral framework of past societies ranging from the Greeks to Medieval Christians. What they all had in common was a shared conception of the good. Such goods like prudence, justice, and courage were achieved through the virtues that are human qualities acquired through practice. Furthermore, they recognized that a person is embedded in a social context: I am a son, a citizen, and a musician. Personal identity is a narrative that unifies one’s life from past to present, and my narrative is embedded in other narrative such as family, school, and friendship.

The problem of modernity is not only that it brings about endless arguments, but also that it is incompatible with our ordinary intuitions. We come from a past, in which our obligations and personal identity are constituted by the social context to which we belong. My community consumes most of my actions and thoughts; I act and think as a student and a family member, rather than a rational agent with his or her individual interests. When we judge a person’s character, we judge them by, more or less, a table of virtues, rather than whether they follow the categorical imperative or whether they pass the utilitarian calculus. The project of modernity is doomed to fail, because it cannot dissipate our communitarian past with its endless arguments and managerial fetish.

After Virtue turned out to be far more damning in its criticism than I anticipated. For the numerous Kantians and Utilitarians out there, this will be a group of pointed criticisms; one will not only find attacks on Kant and Sidgwick, but also criticisms of Rawls and Nozick. Indeed, this book is highly political; it analyzes Marx and Weber within the framework of the book’s communitarian argument. For my Marxist friends, this is not an easy read. Despite McIntyre’s admiration of Marx, he believes that Marx and his followers ultimately fall under the same moral framework that he takes down in this book. This is very much true in my own experience. Marxists have great criticisms of the managerial and bureaucratic aspects of Capitalism and Liberalism; yet, their solutions to Capitalism always end up Kantian or Utilitarian. It is either to follow an abstract principle of universality, or “to achieve communism by any means necessary.” What this suggests is that the faults of Capitalism and Liberalism are not merely economic and political: the error is modernity itself. By rejecting the Aristotelian system of virtues, any project is destined to fail no matter what social or economic structure they adopt. Undoubtedly, this is McIntyre’s deadliest gesture, because it indicates a deep pessimism about the project of modernity as a whole. As he discusses Trotsky’s later writings and his pessimism towards a communist future, McIntyre asks us to not fall into pessimism —it does not logically follow that we have no way out! But, the reader comes away with a dreadful feeling that we might never resolve the moral crisis; Aristotle has been dead for thousands of years.




In this episode, Teague and I discuss the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. We cover a ton of issues: from morality and epistemology to language, consciousness, and shyness. Hopefully, we clarified many common misrepresentations and helped discover the depth and greatness of his philosophy.


In this episode of the Veil of Ignorance, Teague and I discuss Marxism with Cale Holmes and Kevin Salvatore. I believe this topic honestly requires more episodes, since it’s impossible to cover everything in one episode. Nonetheless, we tried and it was most definitely a lot of fun.

John Cage and the philosophy of music

The aesthetician Susan Sontag claims that Cage’s attempt to erase authorial intent, in one sense, allowed him to erase meaning altogether. This is also reflected in Cage’s writings:

“New music: new listening. Not an attemp to understand something that is being said, for if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. ust attention to the activity of sounds.” 

— Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine, p. 10

But, I don’t believe this to be case. The cultural and historical context of Cage’s works show that they are trying to dissolve the distinction between art and sound. Such contexts allow sounds to refer to themselves, thereby giving them meaning and intentionality.

Plus, one could consider Heidegger’s argument that we do not hear pure sounds:

“What we first hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to hear a pure noise…Likewise, when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximally understand what is said, or — to put it more exactly — we’re already with him, in advance alongside the entity which the discourse is about… Even in cases where the speech is indistinct or in a foreign language, what we proximally hear is unintelligible words, and not a multiplicity of tone-date.”

— Being and Time, 163

This means that even the sounds we encounter in ordinary life are never meaningless, pure sounds.

All in all, I admire Cage’s attempt to bring ordinary sounds to the forefront of Western music. I think he exemplifies Heidegger’s claim that art makes the conflict between World and Earth conspicuous. For Heidegger, World is the human environment in which we lead our lives. It includes our tools, houses, values, and so on; in other words, it is the habitat of Dasein. On the other hand, Earth is the natural setting of World; the ground on which it stands and the sources of raw materials for our artefacts. Through his illustration of ordinary sounds, Cage makes apparent the rift between World and Earth: musical sounds vs. pure noise. Interestingly, Cage’s take on this conflict uncovers a naked truth, i.e., the attempt to erase intentionality paves the way for a deeper unconcealment of intentionality and Dasein. 

Being and Time, Martin Heidegger

The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger

Cage and Philosophy, Noël Carroll

Donald Trump is not a liar

Donald Trump is not a liar; he’s a bullshitter. There is a fine difference. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt believed the difference between lies and bullshit is that lies are necessarily false; on the other hand, bullshit may happen to be true or false. In essence, a lie is a conscious act of deception, whereas a bullshit entails an indifference to how things really are. In order to lie, one has to implicitly acknowledge the existence of the truth — and then deceive another of not believing in such truth. However, a bullshitter does not care whether there exists a truth or a falsity. For example, I can bullshit a test by writing a bullshit answer. It doesn’t matter to me whether the answer is true or false. I just need to write some bullshit. If it happens to be true, I get a good grade. If it happens to be false, it doesn’t matter because I never bothered studying for the test to begin with.

Nietzsche believed that foregoing objective truth would be life-affirming. JL Mackie argued that disbelief in objective truth regarding morality would not be catastrophic. Some, however, worried that it could be very dangerous. If there is no objective morality, then why be moral? If there is no objective truth, then how do I make sense of things? In general, I think it is not so dangerous for people to not believe in objective truth regarding morality or the external world. We are hard-wired to care about certain values and facts; and I doubt that we would stop caring about them even if it turned out to be the case that they were not objective. I think this is especially true regarding morality. For instance, Foucault or Nietzsche still argued for certain virtues despite their skepticism of objectivity. The problem isn’t anti-realism. The problem is bullshit — antipathy towards objectivity. Trump is, in this sense, a bullshitter. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. He spouts a ton of lies, but they are not calculated. They are not conscious acts of deception. It doesn’t matter to him whether his statements are true or false. A liar would try to show how his lie is the truth; Trump doesn’t provide any evidence. As we have seen, such bullshit has been extremely pernicious. Lies require effort and responsibility; one has to support them. Bullshit does not, and it can easily destroy a society when wielded by the powerful. Bullshit is worse than the nightmares of a postmodern world reigned by Nietzsche and Foucault, once feared by many. Anti-realism is not the problem; bullshit is.

Cultural Appropriation: Motoko Kusanagi is White?

In a recent article from the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth makes the case that it is fine to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white female, as Motoko Kusanagi, a robot detective in future Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation, as described by the cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz, can exist for both the majority and the minority. It does not necessarily yield negative results as we often assume. Rather, it is a concept that reminds us to be cautious when the majority appropriates the minority’s culture, because it can often happen in a way that enforces negative stereotypes against minorities — e.g., that they are violent or servile or that they do not have a voice to represent their own culture — and entrenches existing power relations.

However, I think our usage of the term has evolved to mean only such negative instances — partly, because theorists have primarily focused on such usages. If you talk to someone about cultural appropriation, they are not going to mention Japanese animation, which often appropriates American culture; they will most likely mention black face or casting a white actor to play Mulan. So this is why I define cultural appropriation as an instance in which a dominant culture appropriates a minority culture; and this is why I use cultural cross-pollination to describe instances in which a culture benefits from using elements from another culture. In other words, cultural appropriation describes power relations; cultural cross-pollination describes fruitful interactions between cultures. I think such a demarcation will clear up our conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions.

One may object that the distinction between cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation is often blurry — samba and bossa nova are played by those who trace their ancestral roots back to European colonialists, Native Americans, and African slaves. So if such a person is a few percentages more European and plays samba, they are cultural appropriators? There is no clear way to tell whether this is an instance of cultural apporpriation. But we can tell that this is an instance of cultural cross-pollination. The purpose of the demarcation isn’t to sufficiently describe every exchange between cultures; rather, it is to clear up the conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions. The demarcation allows us to make sense of a cultural product that is both cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation — for example, the Rolling Stones. We celebrate their music, yet recognize the fact that they appropriated black artists like Muddy Waters. This is quite an intuitive answer, but the debate we often see on cultural appropriation prevents us from validating such intuitions. It, instead, insists that it is either cultural appropriation or cultural cross-pollination. Why not both? Clarifying such intuitions and preventing such unnecessary conflicts is the purpose of such a demarcation — and I believe that it is successful.

Meruem: a Hegelian Odyssey

Meruem is one of my favorite characters from Hunter x Hunter. He was powerful, cunning, brutal, sympathetic, and all so human as Nietzsche once exclaimed. I would love to write at length about how great of a character he is, but this is not what I will be doing in this essay. Instead, I will be writing an analysis of the Hegelian aspects of Meruem. Why Hegel one might ask? I chose to do a Hegelian analysis of Meruem, because I found an unmistakable parallel between the character development of Meruem and Hegel’s thoughts on self-consciousness.

Let’s begin with Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. For Hegel, the most primitive form of consciousness is certainty at the level of sense experience. It is the experience of “this” or “here” rather than classifications like red or round. Such sense-certainty’s utterance, Hegel argues, is incoherent. For example, suppose I uttered the sentence “here is nighttime,” wrote it down, woke up the next day, and read it aloud. How is here nighttime? This is indeed very peculiar. Why does the truth of sense-certainty disappear when written down? Hegel explains that sense-certainty cannot be expressed because it is knowledge of the particular, and language expresses knowledge of the general or universal. (71) Here, there, and now cannot express sense-certainty, because there is more than one here or now – it is a universal. Wait! How do we then make sense of proper names one might ask? Aren’t they particular? Hegel’s answer to this question was that proper names are meaningless because they only refer to the name itself. One could push further on this issue; but I won’t pursue it anymore since this essay’s aim is to draw a parallel between Hegel’s theory and Meruem’s character rather than to criticize Hegel’s philosophy.

At the next level of perception, consciousness classifies objects according to their universal properties; this proves inadequate and so at the level of understanding, consciousness imposes its own laws on reality. Such laws include Newton’s laws. They classify raw sense data under concepts like gravity and force. They “are not things we see existing in reality, but constructs made by our understanding to help us grasp reality.” (74) Beyond this level of perception is the level of understanding in which consciousness begins to reflect upon itself. However, Hegel noted that, “self-consciousness…cannot exist in isolation. If a consciousness is to form a proper picture of itself, it needs some contrast.” (75) This means that we must be aware of something other than ourselves. Hegel explains that we have a desire to possess that other entity of which we are aware. We want to “transform it into something that is [ours], and thus strip it of its [sovereignty].” (76)

This all sounds similar to those who have witnessed Meruem’s character arc, as he first began as a being that merely satisfied his basic desires – sense-certainty and the particular rather than the universal. This is evident in the way he forcibly ripped himself out of his mother’s womb and immediately embarked on a search for food. According to Hegel, Meruem would be in the first stage of self-consciousness at this point. It is interesting to take note of the fact that Meruem did not speak very much during the first few days after his birth. He was simply performing whatever action seemed to satisfy his desires rather than reflect upon his actions or himself through language, which Hegel believes is juxtaposed with desires – desires are subjective and language is universal.

Sure enough, when we begin to see more of Meruem’s inner dialogue and conversations with other people he isn’t merely focused on his primal desires anymore. He has arrived at the next stage of self-consciousness. This is when we see him classifying human beings and chimera ants according to their properties. He is now interested in the differences between those who possess Nen and those who do not. Such contemplation eventually leads him to impose universal laws unto the world as we can witness from his rather extreme form of social darwinism – power is the only thing that matters. He tries to organize his underlings and the food he eats according to this philosophy. However, it is quite obvious that this mode of thinking is immature. It resembles a caricature of Nietzsche’s übermensch that people often tout as profound and enlightening. Such immaturity begins to be expressed through the desire to possess and destroy another entity. This can be seen in Meruem’s battles against chess masters and Komugi. But even such relationships are unstable as we see Meruem destroy the chess masters and grow agitated by the fact that he cannot best Komugi.

Hegel argued that, at this stage of self-consciousness, one needs to observe another self-conscious entity to grow. He believes that this allows one to see what self-consciousness is like. He believed that social interaction was crucial, for an isolated child would never develop mentally beyond the level of mere consciousness without social interaction. (77) We can observe such growth from Meruem as he interacts with Komugi. He begins to notice the majesty and complexity of other self-conscious beings. He wishes to be recognized as a worthy adversary and he becomes angered when he mistakenly believes that she does not consider him as one. Hegel explained it could destroy one’s identity if others fail to recognize his or her self-consciousness. Like nations that need to be acknowledged by other nations to be a full-fledged state, self-consciousness needs to be recognized for what it is, which peculiarly makes it what it is. A nation was already there, but recognition makes it more complete. (78)

Nonetheless, even such interactions can be toxic. Hegel believed that self-consciousness tries to be pure – detached from material objects – yet it is very attached to its body and others’ bodies. In order to show that they are not attached to such bodies, they try to kill each other. (79) One can observe this from Meruem’s bid to wager his arm and Komugi’s life over a game of gungi. Surely, such violence is pointless. If the loser dies, then the victor kills the person by whom they need to be recognized. Such insight led Hegel to write his famous master-slave dialectic. The victor keeps the loser alive so that he can have someone by whom he can be recognized – the master is dependent on the slave. This concept is quite revolutionary as it turns the usual thoughts regarding this relationship upside down – the master is the one who needs the slave, but the slave does not need the master. The slave shapes her ideas into objects and labor. Through this process, she becomes more aware of her own consciousness that is poured into her labor and the objects of her labor. Through such labor, she learns that she has a mind of her own. (80) On the other hand, the master sees the slave as a thing; therefore, he doesn’t get the recognition he needs.

Analogous to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Komugi the slave is confident in her own identity through her labor: gungi. We see her crying over the product of her own labor – her original gungi move– for it represents her essence. Meruem is destabilized by such confidence, since he had seen her as a mere thing rather than a self-conscious being. And once he begins to treat her as a self-conscious being he begins to contemplate his own identity – What is his name? What does it mean to be a King? In other words, he becomes more self-conscious.

Unlike Hegel’s odyssey, Meruem’s journey doesn’t end with the recognition that Mind or Geist is the essence of all reality and that our individual minds are parts of a whole that shapes and constitutes reality. His journey ends with the recognition that he can choose to be human, that he wishes to spend the rest of his life with Komugi. This decision isn’t so surprising if one realizes that Komugi herself is an existentialist figure. She embodies Heidegger’s argument that a worker who is absorbed in their work is more in touch with their Being. Komugi, as we have surveyed, is very in touch with her Being. She looks ahead to her death and believes her life to be finite, which Heidegger insisted was the essential nature of our relationship with Time. She sees her life as a series of choices that she makes for herself rather than what they tell her; hence, she sets up her own principles for her own life as we see from her vow to take her life if she loses a gungi match. It is all the more meaningful to take this into account and witness Meruem’s choice to be with Komugi rather than fulfill his genetic and socio-cultural destiny as a Chimera Ant King who must procreate with another female to continue the prosperity of his race. Instead, he chooses the person who is dearest and this very choice itself is a lesson she taught him – that life is a choice rather than what they tell you to do.

Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction