Saturday, March 31, 2012

Road trip to Alice

Some of you may be wondering what became of me during my two month absence from this blog. The most remarkable thing I did during that time was go on an impromptu road trip from Melbourne to Alice Springs. Here’s how it happened.

1. It all started with a massage. I felt I needed a bit of nurturing so I booked in for an hour’s massage with Kaylan Rha. She’s based in Leura, in the Blue Mountains. On the phone, she let me know that it might take a bit longer than an hour, because since I was a new client, she’d like to take some time to talk to me and explain her approach to healing. I was with her for three hours. No exaggeration. She only charged me for an hour, and gave me a discount because it was my first treatment with her. Not only this, but it was the most powerful massage experience I’ve ever had. Before she got me on the table, Kaylan asked me to set an intention. She suggested that I take three breaths and let something come up, rather than impose an idea. The thought that emerged was “opening.”

2. Before I had the massage, I had already decided to flee the rain and mist of Katoomba, and take a little trip to Melbourne. I texted my new Melbourne friend, Antonia (previously introduced to you as the yoga goddess/fashionista), to ask about the dates of a retreat she was going on around this time. I wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be in meditative silence the whole time I was in the city. She texted back saying that there was one space left on the retreat and she’d booked it for me. It turned out that the retreat was a yoga retreat, and she was leading it. Post-massage, I was open to that.

3. I was hoping to catch up with Antonia before the retreat started, but she was busy. I remembered that last time I’d been in Melbourne, a similar situation had resulted in my going out to dinner with her flat-mate, a German doctor called Arne. I got in touch with him. This time he took me to a fancy tapas bar. It was very Melbourne - stylish and delicious. Particularly the oysters. I found out that Arne was about to move to Alice Springs, and would be driving there in about a week’s time.

4. After the yoga retreat, Arne sent me a text which included a memorable reference to ‘desert flowers.’

5. I had dinner at Lentil As Anything with some good friends of mine in Melbourne who happened to have been to Alice Springs last year. They strongly encouraged me to pursue an idea that had hatched, or budded, shall we say, in the by now very open field of my mind.

6. I met Arne for lunch, and asked him if he would let me come on the road trip with him. He looked astonished. He said he’d sleep on it.

7. He called the next day to ask when I was coming over. We left for Alice Springs that afternoon.

The trip was wonderful. We drove in an enormous land cruiser that Arne had purchased for his time in Alice. Before we left Melbourne, we stopped at a shop that sold stuff for enormous land cruisers and similar vehicles. It was an exclusively and seriously masculine environment. By the time we drove away with an extremely heavy car jack, I had come to see my role as a kind of fluffy accessory that came with the car. Arne had acquired about as alpha male a vehicle as a civilian man could, so it seemed no surprise that a girl (me) had turned up to hang out in it with him. I couldn’t stop laughing about this for several kilometers.

Pretty soon we were out of Melbourne, and the landscape distracted me from my role as land cruiser Barbie (well all right, not entirely, but there’s no need to go into that). Watching the country gradually change from rural land to desert as we made our way across Victoria to close to Adelaide, and then straight up the middle of Australia, was a wonderful experience. The colours were mesmerising – often subtle – and very varied and beautiful.

Once we got into the desert, there was a rhythm to the landscape, too, rising very gently and falling again, like long, slow waves. Often I had the impression that we were about to come over a rise and find the sea glittering in front of us. But of course, we were moving further and further from the ocean. Somewhere near Coober Pedy, I felt slightly panicked at the thought of this, and wondered if it would feel oppressive to stay in a place like Alice Springs, so far from the sea. But when we finally drove into Alice, we discovered a whole new landscape.

The town is ringed by beautiful ranges of ochre-coloured rock, and divided by a wide, pale yellow river bed full of magnificent gum trees. After a bit of rain, grass springs up in soft, unlikely abundance everywhere. The light is warm – and although the sea is far away, there are ridges like cresting waves in the rock formations. You could imagine that you’re bathing in an ocean of light in this place. (Honey-coloured light and oceanic feelings are not all there is to Alice Springs – there’s also an intensity of suffering, and a rawness here that can be very confronting. But that’s another blogpost.)

The fact that we’d driven here, to the centre of Australia, in just over three days, made this country seem much more intimate and accessible to me. I’d always thought of Australia as incredibly vast, a whole continent, practically impossible to traverse. Yet all it had taken to get me to the centre of this great land was an open heart and mind, a friend with a land cruiser (and a generous spirit of adventure to go with it), and a few wonderfully free days.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Esoteric utilitarianism

Peter Singer and an unidentified goat
Last week I went to a talk by Australian philosopher Peter Singer at the University of Melbourne that got me thinking (the lack of activity on this blog for the last couple of months might suggest that I needed the stimulus…). He spoke about an “esoteric” form of utilitarianism.

Utilitarians aim to bring about the greatest possible cumulative happiness or well-being. Some have argued that that in order to pursue this goal most effectively, it is necessary for committed utilitarians to keep quiet about their true beliefs about what morality requires. Rather than provoking resistance with ideas that would be likely to seem too demanding to non-utilitarians, they should publically proclaim a less demanding standard, suggesting that a person could fulfill their moral duties by donating 10% of their income to reputable international aid organisations, for instance, when they privately believe the figure should be closer to 50%, say.

The genuine utilitarian beliefs then become “esoteric,” that is, shared only among the initiated, while any public statements are carefully modulated to produce the best achievable outcome, taking into account the psychological traits and points of resistance in the people they aim to influence. Esoteric utilitarians will praise outsiders for actions that fall short of what utilitarian morality requires, and refrain from blaming them for their failure to meet utilitarian standards if this is shown to be counter-productive. Only a level of blame that actually causes the desired changes in behavior will be employed.

One member of the audience pointed out that this approach conflicts with the Kantian moral standard which holds that to tell the truth is a primary and universal duty, which should never be compromised in order to achieve desired ends, however laudable. Singer responded by saying that he is comfortable with this conflict. He doesn’t accept Kant’s view that one should never lie, even if a murderer is asking you about the whereabouts of his next victim. Sometimes you have good reasons, moral reasons, to lie. For a utilitarian, these reasons are tied to the consequences of the lie: the morality of any action is to be judged by examining its consequences, not by comparing it to any list of absolute (or deontological) duties.

Henry Sidgwick, 19th century
English philosopher,
defender of esoteric utilitarianism
I had a worry about Singer’s approach that was similar, but not tied to Kantian morality. My concern was that the tactics of esoteric utilitarianism seem manipulative, particularly in using praise and blame to attempt to influence people’s behavior. I asked Singer if there wasn’t a conflict here with the spirit of utilitarianism, which asks us to think through the consequences of our actions, and act accordingly, even if this means going against commonly held ideas about what is moral or in other ways socially endorsed (which typically requires resisting social pressure exerted in the form of praise and blame). When it emerged in the Nineteenth century, utilitarianism was designed precisely to challenge the power of esoteric elites like the aristocracy and the Church, and promote policies based on the idea that in the utilitarian moral calculus, everyone counts, and everyone counts equally. 

I also suggested that taking up praise and blame as tools to influence others seems a risky strategy for the utilitarian. If people are encouraged to allow such influences to determine their actions, this may reinforce their vulnerability to other "esoteric" sources of praise and blame which are likely to be much more powerful than anything utilitarians have at their disposal – for instance the forces of advertising in the service of consumerism, which urge you to give up to 50% of your income to your mobile phone company, say.

Again, Singer couldn’t see any problem. He repeated the basic argument that for the utilitarian the end justifies the means. He didn’t seem concerned that in this case the consequences of the strategy might include weakening people’s moral characters, or at least reinforcing a tendency to allow social approval and disapproval to override any more rational or independently thought-through motives for action. Singer is happy to adopt the strategies used in advertising – this is a powerful, effective way to influence behavior in contemporary society.

He gave an example: a television ad to promote work safety practices which (if I remember his description correctly) shows someone coming to a family home to break the news that the father of the family has been killed in an accident at work. The ad is highly emotive, depicting the distress of a young child at this news. Singer said that since it has been screening, work safety incidents have declined appreciably. The technique used to achieve this may be emotionally manipulative, but it works, and the outcome is good.

This reminded me of a similar ad I saw at the cinema in Paddington in Sydney, last year. It was about the consequences of speeding, posing questions like: what would you choose, to be late for a meeting, or to end up as a paraplegic? The audience laughed – the combination of the choose-your-own-adventure style with such obvious scare tactics was too much for us. This reaction suggests another problem with using emotionally manipulative means to pursue utilitarian ends – if people are not naively drawn in by the technique, they will see through it, and tend to resist or dismiss the message even if they might otherwise endorse the end it seeks to promote. No one likes to be patronized. Even if the end justifies the means, the use of manipulative means may end up discrediting the end, or the theory behind it.