Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.

Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.

3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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Philosophy, Spotlight

No One, Even Sylvia Longmire, “Deserves It”

Sylvia Longmire supports torture.

That’s Sylvia Longmire, a drug war analyst whose work I no longer follow because of her questionable views on crime and punishment.

She’s referring to the death of Clayton Darrell Lockett, a convicted murderer/rapist who was executed in Oklahoma last week. Unfortunately, Oklahoma attempted the execution using an untested blend of drugs, in an unusually low dosage; additionally, the Governor of Oklahoma refused to release details of where or how the drugs were procured. There are allegations they were purchased illegally, and the quality of the drugs themselves is thus in question.

The result was that Lockett’s execution became the chemical equivalent of a drunk axeman. A needle was inserted into a vein near his groin, which failed, and he writhed and moaned in agony for 43 minutes, regaining consciousness and even speaking. Eventually he had a heart attack and died.

Ms. Longmire not only cheerleads this horrific (and preventable) accident as a good thing, she says it wasn’t “enough,” implying we should have intentionally made his pain even worse.

But Didn’t He Deserve It?

I want to be clear: in the Nuremberg Trials, when the people who were essentially Hitler’s seconds-in-command were convicted of a genocide that killed 6 million people, and a war that killed 40 million, those Nazis were sentenced to death by hanging. Hanging has been used for many centuries because it was considered (questionably) to be fast and humane.

In other words, we wanted a humane death even for the people who committed the Holocaust.

That’s because our justice system and our sense of morals prohibit us from using torture on any prisoner for any reason. We do not ever inflict 43 minutes of pain and flailing, followed by a fatal heart attack, on any prisoner—because that would be a crime.

So when someone suggests that a prisoner “deserves” 43 minutes of pain and flailing followed by a fatal heart attack, you know automatically that that person is not in their right mind. They are suggesting something evil. They are not a good person, and they are not making good decisions.

In this particular case, Longmire came right out and admitted she was irrational (in a somewhat bizarre exchange with my friend Ari Kohen, which you can see here). But that didn’t cause her to second guess herself, or apologize for a moment of flared emotions spurred by a terrible criminal. Instead she doubled down on supporting torture. For reasons that she can’t explain and doesn’t seem inclined to examine, she just feels good that this man suffered, and wishes he had suffered more. And if it makes her feel good to see criminals suffer, then how dare anybody question that?

For Longmire, this isn’t just a poorly chosen personal opinion, it also presents a professional conflict. Her job is to objectively research and present information on international crime and violence, which sometimes influences US policy. But she has made it clear that:

  1. She openly supports illegal activity, and
  2. She supports acts of revenge and retribution, even though acts of revenge and retribution are a large part of what has made the drug war so terrible for Mexican (and US) civilians.

That’s why I no longer feel comfortable taking her reporting at face value, and am looking elsewhere for English-language analysis of the drug war. Her judgement and objectivity are both compromised by her public support of unconstitutional torture.

But I’m really spotlighting this for a bigger reason: because people who support torturing human beings will often tell us they have a very good reason. They want us to believe that we need not be frightened or disturbed by their bloodthirst, because torture is only for those who “deserved” it.

The reality is that it’s impossible to make a criminal feel exactly what they made their victims feel. And even if we could, there’s not any clear benefit to doing so. All we definitively accomplish by trying to inflict harm and suffering on criminals is degrading our own humanity. We make ourselves more willing, like the criminal himself, to ignore the pain that we cause others.

Worse, there is no objective measure of who “deserves” torture and who doesn’t. Once torture is on the menu of legal punishments, historically it gets extended to more and more types of unpopular people—including political prisoners and minorities. You might support torturing rapists, but what about torturing tax evaders? Or people who can’t pay their debts?

When a person suggests torture, they inevitably want us to believe it’s safe. That we aren’t at risk of being tortured, only the bad guys are. But to me it looks a lot like a child who abuses gerbils: they may not be dangerous yet, but they aren’t headed in a good direction.

If we need to remove a criminal from society, we can do it as cleanly and humanely as possible—indeed, our founding document requires us to. When that’s not enough for someone, I don’t just view it as a difference of opinion. I consider their moral instincts untrustworthy and I prefer not to associate with them at all.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Philosophy, Social Skills, Spotlight

I thought it was rude but Noam Chomsky said it’s okay

Photo by Antoine Walter

A man and a woman are at a bus stop. I’m the man, and a woman is the woman.

A minute passes. I decide to say something.

“Are you familiar with Noam Chomsky?”

The woman looks at me, but doesn’t immediately understand. It’s normal to strike up a conversation when you’re stuck waiting with someone. But she expected something like “Hot out, isn’t it?”

It sinks in, though.

“Um, sort of,” she says. “I know the name.”

“Noam Chomsky is a linguist,” I say anyway. “He studies language.”

“Oh.”

“Noam Chomsky says that when two people are near each other, it’s almost impossible for them not to start talking to each other. He says that even if it’s strangers at a bus stop, we have this powerful urge to just start talking, just because we’re stuck together.”

The woman nods and says something very polite.

“But I disagree with Mr. Chomsky. I think some people have this trait and others don’t. I personally hate talking to strangers. Sometimes I even hate talking to my friends. I like them, I just don’t want to talk all the time. I’d rather pretend to be alone, and just think. Or read a book on my phone.”

She’s actually listening now, and she’s tilted her head and opened her mouth, but doesn’t seem quite sure what to say. I go on.

“So what I’m asking you,” I asked, “Is are you the kind of person who wants to talk to strangers? Or are you the kind of person who would rather I just shut the hell up?”

Transmission Lost

This theory really is one of Chomsky’s, although I’m sure that in the literature he has already accounted for the variation between introverts and extroverts. (Let’s not rehash that topic, internet.) The reason I bring it up is that it’s made me feel slightly better about one of my worst qualities.

One of my worst qualities is that I don’t listen to people, and I don’t like to talk to them either. Don’t get me wrong; if you’re a friend and we’re having a good conversation, and I’m making eye contact with you, my head is 90% in the game. I hear you. But if you can see my eyes twitching toward my computer screen, or a book, or the ingredients I’m chopping, or any other task I decided voluntarily to be involved in before you started talking to me against my will, it’s a sure bet that André is safe in his private inner life and the only person hearing you is my auto-responder.

If you are a stranger, the chance of getting the auto-responder is very, very high.

During these exchanges my number one goal is finding a way to exit the conversation: either an excuse to leave, or a body language cue that will get you to shut up. Really anything just so I can go back to spending my mental energy on what I wanted to spend it on, instead of using it to either filter out your attack or (worse) actually engage what you’re saying.

I consider this a worst quality of mine not just because it’s disgustingly rude, but also because it seems like a failing of my mind itself. Maybe a better meditater would be more present in all conversations, and a more spiritual, compassionate heart would truly listen to strangers.

Being “present” is, I suppose, a sign of a sharp mind. Caring is a sign of a good person.

So I’ve always secretly loathed this run-from-contact side of myself. But Noam Chomsky has given me a reason to reconsider.

Noam says (and seriously, you should read this interview) that language is not primarily designed to communicate. Language mostly helps us shape our thoughts, and talking to other people is really just kind of a side-job.

Which means that a lot of our out-loud talking is also not designed to communicate.

The example he gives is the bus stop. The two people just feel compelled to talk to (at) each other, just to fill up the time. Or, as Chomsky says, to solidify social relations. The small talk lets them establish that they are friendly, not creepy, and maybe it also establishes their relative importance to each other. (I made that up, by the way; I don’t know if that’s what Chomsky means by “solidify social relations.”) So they end up talking about the football score, the weather, where each person grew up. They shoot the shit.

“You don’t care, they don’t care, you’re not trying to transmit any information,” Chomsky says.

Moving the Conversation

This is a great source of relief for me. Because, you see, I always thought that you do care when you’re prattling at me. I thought the NFL draft really meant a lot to you, or that you were hoping I would have an interesting response. That you were disappointed that I don’t like football and all your hopes for making a new friend just got dashed.

I thought you really cared.

(Or in the case of truly meaningless talk like the weather, I thought that you hoped I’d say something clever and we’d hit it off.)

I thought all this because I am not wired to talk immediately to anyone I happen to be near, so the reason why other people do it has always been a mystery to me.

But Chomsky says you don’t really care. You don’t care any more than I do what we’re talking about, or how I respond (unless I suddenly get really offensive, I suppose). You’re just saying things out loud because it makes you feel good.

Which means that really, when a stranger is making chit-chat, they are broadcasting garbage at me. My auto-responder is exactly the amount of my mental effort they deserve, because they’re just burping words near me for their own personal comfort. Not only am I not the asshole in this scenario, I’m sort of the victim.

Now I can’t deny that my own strange impulse—looking for any way to get out of the conversation, quickly—may be just as annoying to them as the word burping is to me. But at least now we’re in this together, both of us doing selfishly whatever we can for our own ease of comfort, with little regard for the other. I don’t really feel too bad about that.

With a friend it’s a little different. I can indulge a friend who needs to off-gas some words for their peace of mind. Maybe they had a bad day at work or an argument with their parents. But when I find myself daydreaming, I’m not really cheating them out of the great gift of my considered opinion. I’m giving them exactly what they want, which is someone who will listen while they put their thoughts “on paper” (paper being my ear) and organize what they think and feel about the situation. Chances are, any seeming clarity they get comes from that process of venting it all out—not from any advice I give.

Looking back over my life, my habit of not listening seems to always happen when the other person is broadcasting junk, when they aren’t really trying to transmit meaningful two-way communication. That tells me two things:

  1. Instead of feeling guilty about not paying much attention, I suppose I can feel comfortable with it. I’m giving them what they need (someone who will let them talk) without pretending they need anything more.
  2. If I can move a conversation toward meaningful two-way dialogue, as I did with the woman at the bus stop in the beginning of this essay, I will actually enjoy the conversation.

This is where I’d like your opinion (in a meaningful, two-way sense). The auto-responder may be just what someone needs, but what is the limit? When does it become just as rude as I always feared it was?

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Philosophy, Spotlight

Rebecca Roache On Futuristic Torture

Art by Angela Su

One month ago I wrote a particularly sarcastic, critical review of philosopher Rebecca Roache’s ideas on futuristic torture and how it might affect our treatment of prisoners. Like a true philosopher Dr. Roache replied with a level head and agreed to do a followup interview.

From her previous work I was convinced Dr. Roache believes criminals must suffer, and I asked her seven of the toughest questions I could think of to call that into question. Her answers (and my response) are below.

André: You’ve clarified that you don’t condone these futuristic punishments. But almost all responses read you as supporting strong, unpleasant punishments—at least in general, if not these specific punishments. Do you think your interview and blog post come across as pro-punishment? Why do you think people read it that way?

Rebecca Roache: I suspect that part of it is because the distinction between philosophically analysing an idea and endorsing it gets lost when provocative philosophical research is reported in the media.

Something similar happened in relation to another paper I worked on (about engineering humans to mitigate climate change—there’s an interview about it here), although the lead author on that paper, Matthew Liao, bore the brunt of that attention. Another point is that, as I wrote in the blog post clarifying my views on this, I think the most interesting philosophical issues about punishment and technology relate to retribution, so we’re focusing on those issues. By ‘focusing on those issues’ I mean that in most (but not all) cases, we’re trying to see the issues from a retributivist’s point of view, and considering what the attitude of such a person should be towards certain interesting interactions between punishment and technology. If anyone takes that point of view to be my own, then that’s going to make me look like a strong retributivist.

A: When discussing a hypothetical unethical scenario, should a philosopher need to disclaim that they’re not in favor of it? Does disclaiming that add anything of value?

RR: For the author, disclaiming that they don’t endorse ethically objectionable views is valuable assuming that they don’t enjoy being taken personally to endorse those views, and assuming that they don’t want to encourage others to adopt those objectionable views by appearing to support them. Perhaps doing so is also valuable in that it might help prevent people viewing philosophy as a dangerous or amoral pursuit. As to whether philosophers should prudentially disclaim that they’re not in favour of these things, I think it would be useful to draw a distinction between clearly setting out the motivation for considering an idea, and adding some sort of explicit disclaimer to their work. Doing the latter would be overkill, I think: anyone who is misinterpreted having done the former has cause to complain if they’re misinterpreted by those who don’t read their work properly.

A: While some commentators read you as specifically endorsing futuristic torture, the main objection I raised was more basic: in considering each future technology, you seem to take it as a given that criminals should suffer. You repeatedly consider the limits on how much they should suffer, or the appropriate way to make them suffer—but for all the detail devoted to those questions, you spend very little time asking whether they must suffer at all. Do you believe justice requires suffering?

RR: Part of this question, I take it, is answered by my previous point about being interested in retributive issues. Retributivists believe that criminals should suffer some sort of deprivation, and that this deprivation should be proportional to the crime committed. Whether and when that deprivation must involve suffering is an interesting and difficult question, and is not one that we ignore. The answer, in part, depends on your definition of ‘suffering’. Is a vandal made to suffer when she is punished by being made to clean up her mess? Do people suffer when they are made to pay fines as punishment for parking violations? Or when they are placed under curfew, or simply asked to apologise? If they do, then we’re using a very broad understanding of ‘suffering’; one that roughly equates to ‘being made to do something that you’d rather not do’, or perhaps, ‘having one’s freedom or choice restricted’. Pure consequentialists about punishment will have no problem answering this sort of question: inflicting suffering is justifiable only to the extent that it is effective in bringing about the desired consequences of punishment. The question is more difficult (and hence more interesting) for retributivists. How can retributivists be humane while also issuing proportional punishments, especially in the case of criminals who have caused enormous physical and/or mental suffering to their victims? I’m still thinking about this.

A: On a related note, you said many rebuttals distorted your views by framing you as pro-futuristic-torture (which you aren’t). But as I review the responses to your work, many don’t seem to make that mistake at all. Rather, they seem shocked by how casually you (seem to) assume we must make criminals suffer. To many of these commentators, it doesn’t matter whether you prefer futuristic methods or current ones, more severe suffering or lesser suffering—they believe that our current justice systems are already too punitive, and that the ethical move is to focus on rehabilitation. 

Since your work does not focus heavily on rehabilitation, are they really then distorting your view? Do you feel that this is a valid objection to your approach to these technologies?

RR: As I’ve said, a lot of this work involves considering a retributive view. That involves starting from the premise that the aim of punishment is to impose a deprivation. I am less interested philosophically in rehabilitation than in retribution. I don’t mean that I think rehabilitation is unimportant, just that it doesn’t raise the most interesting philosophical issues. One rehabilitation-related issue that I do raise in the paper is the question of whether radically extended lifespans might improve rehabilitation rates: it might be possible, over the course of a centuries-long prison sentence, to reform and rehabilitate the sort of criminals who are currently thought to be impossible to reform and rehabilitate (say, 80-year-old psychopathic serial killers). But, even here, it’s the retribution-related questions that are most interesting, such as: Would it be fair to keep a criminal in prison for hundreds of years on the off-chance that we could reform him? Might that result in a disproportionately severe punishment, especially given (at least initial) empirical uncertainty about whether such reformation attempts would be successful?

As for whether I casually assume we should make criminals suffer, this is far from being the case. This is probably the aspect of the paper that I find myself constantly returning to and thinking hardest about, so there is nothing casual about my views here. I’m not a strong retributivist, in that I don’t believe that retributive aims are the only relevant aims of punishment, and I’m not in favour of ‘sinking to the level of the criminals’ by inflicting ‘eye for an eye’ type punishments—but neither am I dismissive of retribution. I have the intuition that a punishment system that focused purely on rehabilitation or other desired consequences would be naïve, unsatisfactory, unjust, and likely to backfire. (More on this in my answer to your final question, below.) What counts as an appropriate level of deprivation for criminals, and why, is something I’m still considering.

A: Long before this interview you wrote a more speculative blog post about these technologies. That blog post got a similar negative reaction. You later said you wrote it as an emotional response after reading about a terrible child murder, and that it wasn’t balanced philosophical work. But now that you’ve done extensive work on the subject, the recent interview seems to be an expansion of the same basic ideas—and received almost identical criticism.

Does your Aeon interview then reflect a balanced philosophic evaluation? Why does it arouse the same basic anti-retribution reactions as the earlier, less developed piece?

I think that the problem with that first blog post is that I didn’t make adequately clear the issue I was interested in exploring. Part of the reason I didn’t make it clear is that it wasn’t clear in my own mind—although it is, I think, revealed in some of my remarks on the blog and in the comments that follow it.

That issue is as follows. An important retributive idea is that punishment should be proportional: it should fit the crime. There are some crimes, such as torturing and then murdering a child, to which it is difficult to respond with a truly proportional punishment, given laws about what punishments can be inflicted on criminals. In our current UK justice system, the most severe punishment available is a very long prison sentence. There is, I think, a very obvious sense in which being subjected to a prison sentence of thirty years is less of a deprivation than being subjected, as a four-year-old, to prolonged torture, denial of basic needs, and eventual murder by the people who owe you protection and tenderness (as was Daniel Pelka in the case I considered in the blog).

This ‘very obvious sense’ has to do with my hunch that, if offered a choice between the two, nobody would choose the latter. The sheer length of the prison sentence inflicted in such cases is perhaps partly due to an attempt to translate a shorter period of intense suffering into a longer period of lesser suffering in order to make the punishment fit the crime—but I think this case, given that nobody would choose Daniel’s fate over that of his murderers, illustrates that it’s not always possible to perform such a translation. If it were, we should expect people to be ambivalent about which options to choose, or perhaps to have a roughly 50:50 split between those who would choose Daniel’s fate and those who would choose his murderers’ punishment.

These reflections suggest that Daniel Pelka’s murderers are not receiving a proportional punishment for their crime: their deprivation is less than his. Once, there existed options of more severe punishment methods, such as the death penalty or the infliction of physical pain, but such methods are outlawed in the UK because they are viewed as inhumane. A long prison sentence is the severest available punishment that is currently deemed humane (and hence permitted) in the UK justice system, and so retributivists must just accept that some very serious crimes are not punished proportionately. But, what if technology could offer means to increase punishment severity without immediately entering the domain of inhumane punishment? Would pure retributivists—and, again, I’m not one—be committed to endorsing such punishments? My initial sense is that they would. And deciding that they would is about as far as I got with that initial blog post.

Since writing that blog post, however, I have realised that things are less simple than they might initially appear. Using technology to tinker with current punishment methods might certainly change them, but it is not obvious how these changes affect the severity of those punishments, or at what point we cross the line (if there is one, and if we have not already crossed it with our current methods) between what is humane and what is not. I suspect that much of what we mean by ‘humane’ is ‘familiar’: consider that one common definition of ‘inhumane’ takes it to involve ‘unusual’ punishment. This makes it appropriate to question the humanity of our existing methods as well as novel ones, since it’s surely possible for a punishment method to be both inhumane and familiar, and for inhumane methods to become familiar over time without thereby growing more humane.

It’s actually quite horrifying that our current system allows people to be locked up when they are very young and never allowed out of prison alive. If it were possible to use technology to achieve the aims of punishment (whatever they are) humanely (whatever that is) and within a short period of time, so that criminals did not spend decades behind bars, then doing that would be better (for the individuals and for society) than locking people up for significant portions of their lives.

Whether it is possible—and what such a punishment would even look like—is a difficult question to answer. But, as a first shot, imagine the possibility of a drug that could induce in criminals an intense experience of empathy for the victim and remorse for the crime, such that these experiences were both morally appropriate responses to the crime committed, and sufficiently unpleasant for the criminal that retributivists would be satisfied that the experience of using such a drug constituted a deprivation comparable to a prison sentence. Perhaps—and I’m not certain of the answer here—giving such a drug to criminals would be more humane than sending them to prison. Perhaps criminals could be given the choice between going to prison for a long period of time or taking such a drug. Perhaps their victims, or the relatives of their victims, could have some say in what punishment method is used.

A: You’ve said that you are not a strong retributivist, but you add, “but I think the idea of desert is important.” Can you explain the basis for the retributive concept of deserved suffering? Clearly desert can be a source of consolation to victims (although some victims even of violent crimes speak against desert). But do criminals truly “deserve” punishment, or is that just the conceit of emotions running high after a crime?

RR: Desert is important not only in the context of punishment, but in the context of our interactions with each other more generally.

Let’s start by considering its relevance to punishment. Suppose that we’re all consequentialists about punishment, and that we’re not concerned about desert at all: our sole intention in inflicting punishment is to bring about certain consequences, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, etc. It might be that the most effective way to bring about those consequences would involve doing things like framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, in order to make a public show of ‘punishing’ them and deterring others. Or sending serial parking violators to prison for many years so that we can be absolutely sure of reforming them.

If such a system were widely implemented, I’m not sure it could properly be called a punishment system at all. In fact, if we don’t care about desert and if all we’re concerned about are consequences—specifically, preventing criminal behaviour—why wait until people actually commit crimes before interfering with them? Why not, instead, take steps to prevent people from committing crimes before they offend, if we have reason to think it likely that they will do so?

Consider that a famous study links maltreatment of children who have a certain genotype to an increased risk of anti-social behaviour in adulthood. If we’re concerned about preventing crime, why not proactively incarcerate maltreated children with the relevant genotype in order to ensure that they don’t go on to commit crimes? Social workers could take maltreated, traumatised children straight out of their abusive homes, give them a genetic test, and immediately imprison them for life if they turned out to have the relevant genotype. This could be an easy, effective way to reduce crime.

Even so, I hope you’d agree that this idea is abhorrent, and the reason it is abhorrent has to do with desert.

Desert is not just about inflicting punishment on those who have done wrong, but also about not interfering with those who have done nothing wrong. Maltreated children do not deserve to be imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong, even if there are good reasons to believe that they will commit crimes in the future.

The point I am making here is that a society of people who cared about preventing crime but who did not care about desert would be terribly dystopic. Those who emphasise the consequentialist aspects of punishment generally also care about desert, at least implicitly: where achieving a desired consequence (deterrence, reform, etc.) must involve inflicting a deprivation (such as a prison sentence or a fine) on someone, consequentialists generally hold that society should restrict itself to inflicting deprivations only on those who have committed crimes. That is, the deprivations necessary to ensure deterrence and so on should be inflicted on those who deserve to suffer such deprivations; those who have not acted wrongly deserve to be left in peace. Desert, then, is important to consequentialists as well as to retributivists.

When I say that I think desert is important, I mean that I think desert must play a central role in any system of punishment. More generally, it plays a central role in our interactions with each other that have nothing to do with punishment. We apologise to those who deserve our apologies. We reward those who deserve reward. We thank those who deserve our thanks. Apology, reward, and gratitude are—like punishment—built around the concept of desert. Life would be very different if we rejected the notion of desert.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache. Photo via Oxford.

Commentary

Has Dr. Roache answered all the objections to her work? I don’t think so, but it is clear that her interest in the topic is far more thoughtful than the original interview made it seem.

There are questions I’d like to see her engage more deeply: for instance, when she credits criticism to her audience not understanding philosophical analysis, she seems to neglect that the audience in question was that of Aeon Magazine, a philosophy-heavy outlet with an intellectual readership. Many of that site’s commenters made very thoughtful, careful points that deserve to be treated seriously. Likewise, I find it dubious whether we can force criminals to experience “deprivation,” as Dr. Roache says, without acknowledging that we are making them suffer. It seems hard to imagine any form of mandatory deprivation that does not entail suffering.

But the main cause of outrage—that Dr. Roache was apparently advocating high-tech torture of prisoners—seems misplaced. She’s clearly interested in these issues from the abstract perspective of what they tell us about our views on justice.

Personally I’m most interested in her take on just desert. “Deserving” punishment means, to me, the somewhat icky idea that bad people must suffer. Roache points out that desert also means innocent people must not. That’s an excellent and oft-forgotten point; but I also think the two ideas can be treated separately. If you believe the innocent deserve to be left to live their lives in peace—as everyone other than dictators does—you are not automatically committed to the idea that criminals must pay a price in pain. We can have fairness without revenge.

The reality is that not all crimes can be made up for in eye-for-eye fashion, so imagining more complex revenges is not fruitful. Adding more years to a prison sentence—even centuries—is not a way to even it out with a particularly horrific crime. In the Middle Ages we tried to even out such crimes with superbly horrific punishments, like being doused alive in boiling water, being burned at the stake or being drawn and quartered. But these gruesome fines, which give a guttural sense of satisfaction, are not permitted under our prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. That alone ought to tell us that “getting even” shouldn’t be permitted in general.

This followup interview has given me a much clearer idea of Dr. Roache’s intentions in her research, but no clear idea of her personal views on her subject matter. It’s obvious she doesn’t advocate torture, but not obvious what she does advocate. She’s very careful to pull back questions of justice, punishment and desert to the level of their philosophic interest, and not to comment on what she personally feels is the right course. That’s understandable for an academic discussing a sensitive topic, but I find myself wanting more from our ethicists. If someone’s discussing torture, I want to know where they stand. I’d hope that any serious depiction of futuristic sci-fi torture is meant purely to condemn our worst impulses, but Dr. Roache refuses to go that far.

I originally labelled Dr. Roache as a “bad philosopher” dealing with a bad question. Do I still think that? Our interactions since my original piece have made it clear that Rebecca Roache is a thoughtful person and a committed academic—everything one could ask of a philosopher. But her answers to all my questions also give me the sense that she essentially believes punishment, in some form, is a necessary part of justice. I understand that she sincerely wrestles with that idea, and she’s carefully avoided committing to it; but that only makes me feel that she’s had her gut instinct challenged, and is now uncertain of her moral compass.

I suspect that I’ll take great interest in Rebecca Roache’s continued work on this subject. But when she does finally reveal her conclusions—if she does reveal them—I also suspect I’ll disagree.

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ExPostModern, Philosophy, Spotlight

A Bad Philosopher Answers a Bad Question Badly

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig.

Philosophers fill an important role in our society, and not only in academic circles. As specialists who use logical deduction to answer tough questions, philosophers have dominated the worlds of business leadership and law; many of us instead choose to work as authors, teachers and public intellectuals. Philosophy by its nature can come up with answers even when there is no hard empirical data to swear by—that’s both why it’s less rigorous than science, and also why it can sometimes answer questions that science can’t, such as ethical questions. Having a mind that’s trained to think calmly through great uncertainty is an asset in figuring out right from wrong in real-world situations.

That’s why it astonishes me that one academic philosopher, Oxford’s Rebecca Roache, chose not only to give an interview on what is essentially a fantasy question (should we use technology that doesn’t exist and isn’t on the horizon to create an artificial hell for criminals?) but managed to give all her answers without one whit of critical thinking. You can read the entire interview here.

Faced with this question, one might expect a philosopher to start by digging at its premise. Before addressing, “Should we use to make life hellish for prisoners,” they could ask: why are we using anything to make life hellish? It may be a natural impulse, but is it right to make criminals suffer?

That kind of questioning is the essence of what philosophers do. Most of society treats its beliefs as sacrosanct, but philosophers are that professional class trained to pick at scabs that most of us would rather keep covered. Philosophy as a discipline is perhaps most famous for asking questions like, “How do we know the world is real?” and “Do we truly know anything?” Taking that same healthy skepticism and applying it to ethics, philosophers have successfully tackled big questions like is it right to kill one person to save many and does morality mean anything if there is no God?

Dr. Roache apparently missed those classes at Leeds. She begins:

I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice [in certain cases] was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

Now, as a thought exercise, this is fine; because of our question-everything attitude, philosophers often touch on repulsive ideas as hypotheticals. But if you’re wondering whether this is merely Roache’s setup for a refreshingly ethical solution, the answer is no. The same reasoning runs throughout everything she says on the topic of life-extending punishments.

Discussing potential future technology, she suggests we may someday live for centuries or millennia (which is plausible, if you really emphasize the “someday”). And it seems to her that we should seize upon this tech to artificially extend a prisoner’s lifespan to, say, 1000 years. That way they could really, really suffer in the slammer.

Does she have any moral qualms about creating all this extra suffering? Only one:

…I soon realised it’s not that simple. [Among death row inmates] death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

So her concern about using sci-fi to create extra suffering is that she doesn’t want to overlook ways to create even WORSE suffering.

Dr. Rebecca Roache, Philosopher.

Dr. Rebecca Roache. Photo from Oxford University.

(To be fair to Dr. Roache, she also raises an existential question about whether the individual in the cell at age 1000 is even the same person who went in at age 30, but she never explores this point—which would incidentally serve as an excellent objection to life sentences in general, even with our current 70-year lifespan.)

Now, like all the best villains, Roache has a great moral justification for the suffering she believes we should create: these are criminals. Criminals, after all, need to suffer to make up for their crimes. Everybody knows that. But few people can answer why: why exactly do criminals have to suffer? How does that help anything? That’s a question that Roache neither asks nor answers. She just assumes that they do need to suffer, and that it’s our job to make that happen.

I want to point out some reasons why we might question that assumption of hers, and these are reasons that are actually raised in the real world by legislators, criminal justice experts, human rights activists, prisoners and even the families of murder victims.

First, creating suffering seems inhumane.

As a society we have decided that some types of persons—typically those who have engaged in violence—need to be separated from the population and kept confined for our safety. As long as they are securely confined, that objective is met without piling on any extra suffering; the main point is just to keep them away from the rest of us.

Second, confinement itself is a form of suffering.

There is almost nothing as debilitating to the human psyche as loss of agency. In prison this confinement is combined with tight day-to-day control and constant observation by guards. So if we have some moral imperative to make prisoners suffer (and it’s unclear that we do), we’re already doing a darn good job of it.

Third, the law in most developed countries forbids creating extra suffering for prisoners.

If needed, we can discipline a particular prisoner for bad behavior; but it’s against laws and regulations to actually torment prisoners. They’re typically allowed beds, toilets, washing facilities, meals, health care, entertainment, religious meetings, educational opportunities, and other amenities because they are human beings and torturing human beings is wrong. If someone were to suggest, “Should we cut off three toes from every prisoner’s right foot?” or “Should we burn the eyes out of prisoner’s heads?” we would not take them seriously—or we might even wish that they themselves were locked in prison. Finding more existential ways to torture prisoners might seem cleaner, but it violates the same basic prohibition on cruel punishment.

Fourth, and most importantly: isn’t justice about something more than revenge?

If an individual commits a violent crime and is confined, wouldn’t we much rather see that individual eventually become peaceful, and thoughtful, and mentally stable, and productive? Wouldn’t that rehabilitation be a better outcome than simply flogging them, one way or another, for a few hundred years?

That last question is a point of contention—maybe the biggest point of contention—in the field of criminal justice today. Roache mentions this debate, framing it as a “long-standing philosophical question” between retributivists (punish the bastard!) and consequentialists (fix them!). She jumps away from actually engaging this important issue by claiming, perhaps wrongly, that even consequentialists want to see punishment, “because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.”

I understand that one can only cover so much ground in an interview for an online magazine, and Roache may have wanted to avoid directly engaging the reform-versus-revenge debate so that she could spend more time imagining make-believe ways that a make-believe society could torture its criminals. But there are ways to do that that would keep her hypotheticals tethered to the context of the most important debate in criminal justice theory. If, for example, she had framed each of her answers as, “If you wanted to maximize punishment…” or “If you believe criminals need to suffer for their crimes…” she would have constantly reminded us that this is not given. (She only does this once, when explaining why Hitler needs a really really long sentence but not a literally infinite one. Infinite prison sentences she reserves for physicists who create black holes near Earth, and other such hoodlums.)

Another way to very eloquently anchor these ideas to real-world issues would have been to directly disclose her own opinion on retribution. Imagine reading a passage something like this:

“I like to pose these futuristic scenarios to people because, generally, it makes them uncomfortable. It pokes at their fear of mankind’s ability to play God with human lives. And it might scare them a little about future technology, but we have to remember that we’ve already built some truly horrific methods of abusing prisoners, and we use them everyday. So why is that okay?”

That would have really given her imaginings a sense of connection to the real world, and it would have indicated that she has a conscience. Roache does try to ask some big questions like this, but she sort of hurriedly tacks them on at the end. Tying the future into our current debates is clearly not her first priority.

Instead, she seems to take these imaginary technologies as very realistic, very practical issues that are right on the horizon. We could be rocking thousand-year lifespans any day now. Certainly by 2015.

“The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic,” Roache tells us, “But if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before.” Her proof: pacemakers. Some prisoners have pacemakers, a device which primarily allows a person with certain heart conditions to live a normal lifespan instead of dying young. We may be pushing out our longevity a year or two here and there, but even just 100-year average lifespans are a long way off.

(Not all of Roache’s torture dreams involve longer lives. She’s also suggested artificially adjusting prisoners’ sense of time so they experience thousands of years of punishment in one normal lifespan—explicitly referencing torture tactics to make it sound plausible—as well as simply giving them brain implants to cure their behavior. This last option, the only one that might actually reform a criminal into a good person, is the one she warns us against: it “makes some people uneasy” and, she points out, the person whose brain is fixed so they feel remorse over their past crimes might not suffer enough from remorse alone so it’s probably a bad idea.)

But perhaps the most disappointing part of the interview is the hypotheticals that Roache doesn’t raise. For example: currently, life in prison is seen as a less severe, more lenient punishment than execution. But if we all had 1,000 year lifespans, and judges could still hand out life sentences, would that change? Instead of death row inmates begging to commute their sentence to life in jail, would we see 200 year old prisoners begging to be executed? Would suicide rates among prisoners rise, and would this affect public opinion about the use of life sentences?

That, of course, is a question Roache never raises, and seems to actively dodge when she’s asked about a world where everyone lives centuries or more. It’s not the kind of question she’s interested in, because, after all, it’s the kind of question that hints at some compassion or concern for prisoners—some need to view them as dignified human beings with feelings and rights. Roache carefully excludes any such mamsy-pamsy sentiments from her vision of the future.

Clearly I’m not voting for Rebecca Roache for Space Emperor, but fortunately we don’t have much to fear. That’s because the other practical consideration that she ignores is cost, and its perennial primacy in any discussion of prisons. Conservatives already grind their teeth at the cost of keeping a prisoner incarcerated per-year, and one of the toughest expenses to get approved is bolstering prisoner health care. That means that if life-extending technologies become available as a commodity, they certainly won’t be purchased for prisoners; and if they become ubiquitous as a basic health care product, prisoners will be among the last to receive them. In the world of future longevity, the most likely fate for prisoners is either to be denied long lives altogether, or to face a higher execution rate because of the cost of keeping them for centuries.

A better solution would be, of course, to simply reduce incarceration rates, improve rehabilitation practices, and teach our children that ideas like Roache’s are wrong and dangerous; but the thirst for revenge, I suspect, is a human failing we will still have to deal with even long after we’ve banged out longevity.

On a final note, I’ve picked a lot on Dr. Roache in this commentary, and for good reason; but I don’t think her interviewer is without blame. Ross Andersen, the Aeon Magazine editor who conducted the interview, began with an eloquent opening in which he decries the barbarism of the past. He sets the stage for a piece on the dangers of misuse of emerging technology, but that’s not what his subject gives him at all. When she focuses over and over on how to create more suffering, I would expect him to ask point-blank: why should we create more suffering at all?

An experienced philosophy journalist, Andersen should be eager to question her assumptions, twice over: not only as anyone discussing philosophy should, but also because an interview is far more interesting when the journalist asks hard questions. Instead, Andersen seems to play along with the basic presumption that prisoners deserve pain, and that they might not be getting enough of it just yet.

(Anderson also “condensed and edited” the interview for the public; while I can’t exclude the possibility that he spun it significantly, as of Sunday Roache hasn’t given any defense or correction in the comments section, which is almost entirely critical. [Edit: see update below.])

Of course, I don’t study ethics, human rights or prisons for a living. So in closing, I’ll leave you with a commentary from someone who does. And while most blog posts end with a question and a call for comments, this one ends with a more personal request: the next time someone does you wrong, think about whether it would really help the world one bit if they went to a place called Hell—whether that place was made by angels or by politicians.

Update: Dr. Roache has now come forward to say that the interview does not accurately capture her views. She replied in the comments below and has also posted a clarification on her own website. These responses partially address the points made in this essay, and she has agreed to answer follow up questions. Her answers will be posted here on Rogue Priest.

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Philosophy

Would you give an addict a drink?

Is this man an addict? Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

This week I wrote about gutter punks and train jumpers, and I mentioned that on Thanksgiving I gave out sandwiches, $20 bills and bottles of booze to the homeless.

I knew this story might anger some people. Whenever confronted with a chance to help a human being, a disturbing number of people refuse to give a dollar because that hurting human being might buy alcohol. I have absolutely no tolerance for this attitude, and had no reservations about confessing my booze-donor past.

But my trusty mentor Ken critiqued my donation from a different, more compassionate angle. He asked:

“What percentage of those kids do you think are addicts?”

This made me think. I had considered my actions as spreading holiday cheer, not enabling addicts—even though I can’t deny that some percentage of homeless people are certainly drunks. Let me explain some of my mental arithmetic.

If you’re not from New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine the level to which alcohol saturates the culture. Bars are open (legally) 24 hours a day, every day of the year. (Except during the Bayou Classic, but that’s a long story.) Alcohol is consumed casually in the morning or afternoon, especially on a festival day (which can be once a week or more) and is woven into both business and hospitality. For NOLA, it’s like the 1970’s never ended.

So there’s no shame about a New Orleans bum asking for a beer. Many will skip the formality of requesting money at all. Cardboard signs may say “I won’t lie, I want a drink.” This feeds on—and into—the dark, cynical humor that New Orleanians love, and the idea of going without a drink on a holiday is as horrific as the idea of going without turkey.

So in the environment where I handed out 375 mL bottles to the homeless, nothing and no one gave me pause on moral grounds. Reactions from friends ranged from applauding my generosity to simply thinking it was funny.

Reactions from the recipients were more unilateral. Someone would ask us for change or a dollar, and we’d slowly open a bag and reach in. As the bottle came out they couldn’t believe we were serious, and gave out shouts of love and gratitude. Bums can get a good meal at any shelter on Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to get the wine.

I came away from the experience feeling good about what I’d done. I viewed it as truly making the day of a couple dozen people on the street… in a pretty unique way.

But Ken introduced the idea that these same people may be hopeless alcoholics, and that my apparent goodwill simply fueled a disease. I can’t deny his point: if I know someone’s an alcoholic, I won’t buy them a drink. How was this different?

I think the answer depends on two things:

  1. How many of the recipients are alcoholics?
  2. Is it ever right to give alcohol to an addict?

Both are hard to answer. When Ken asked how many young train jumpers are addicts, my initial response was “almost all of them.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that they drink heavily and frequently, almost without exception; but they’re mostly in their early twenties. College kids also drink heavily and frequently, and the majority of them are not alcoholics.

For the homeless more broadly, I think it’s almost impossible to know offhand how many are be addicts. I would expect a higher percentage of alcoholics among the homeless (alcoholism ain’t great for the old career), but I don’t really know if we’re talking 10% or 80%.

The second question is likely “no,” but with a footnote. When someone is suffering for numerous reasons—cold, hunger, injuries, lack of love—giving them something that makes them feel immediately better, for a short while, may have some merit. I don’t have the means to solve any of the long-term problems afflicting a homeless person, and denying them booze won’t cure their addiction; but I do have the power to make one day a lot less painful. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

The next time I go out to give alms, I think I’ll follow Ken’s lead. Even though I view alcohol as a welcome and not-unethical gift, I could take that same money and put it into supplying more food, or buying blankets or gloves, and offer those instead. These may get less shouts and cheers, but they may also do a lot more long-term good.

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Atheism, Philosophy, Religion, Spotlight

Mystery of Certainty

Atheist Witch.

This is an excerpt from an essay from Atheist Witch blog.

Some deny the reality of any experience or belief that cannot explained (but not disproved) through existing scientific frameworks, and assume anyone claiming otherwise to be either delusional, ignorant or lying. They would justify this by claiming that many people have been proven to be just that while highlighting the dangers of sacrificing “rationality” for the emotional comfort of religion.

What is ironic about this stance is that it actually shows a lot of emotionality and subjectivity.  With… pending mysteries in areas which are so fundamental, it seems silly to not even be open to the possibility of even very fundamental ideas that we have about the universe being completely turned on their head in the future.  It is also seems risky to attempt to usurp “rationality” or “objectivity.”

I personally am in the science camp. I suspect everything in our universe not presently explained by science can, at least theoretically, be explained by science one day. That’s because anything that happens in our universe, however arcane it may seem, can be observed or has effects that can be observed. With time and study we can understand any phenomena.

I believe there is nothing supernatural, period; even the mysteries of consciousness, divinity, and magic have some natural underpinning. We can understand them.

But that is an unproven philosophic position on my part. It’s a popular position today, but not the only reasonable position you can hold.

I highlighted Atheist Witch’s essay because it nicely showcases the very rational basis for maintaining an openness to the supernatural, even from a scientific worldview. There is no scientific basis for believing in the supernatural, but there is a reasonable basis for it.

This is why I can sit side-by-side with strong supernatural believers in the Hounfo, in the Neimheadh, or in any spiritual setting; I see them as intellectual equals. I consider that their belief has merit.

The full essay is titled “Embracing Mystery to Have Certainty.” I hope you will read it on Atheist Witch’s blog and let him know what you think.

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