Love, Altruism and the Self

We are all one. It sounds almost cliche at this point. When the corona-virus hit, my parents were audibly shocked (our conversation was done over the phone) at my refusal to keep a stack of masks around. “Why do you insist on being so selfless,” they complained. My dad went on to give a speech about how airlines tell you to put the mask on yourself before putting it on someone else (I couldn’t help but think, “why does it matter what airlines tell you to do? Airlines tell you to take unnecessary flights, and we all know every trip you go on takes a couple precious days away from Earth’s very finite lifetime). My mom decides to send me a couple hundred masks anyways.

What I couldn’t explain then, and what I will try to explain here, is that my refusal to buy more masks than I need isn’t an act of selflessness, at least not in the sense I think they were implying. It isn’t that I decided I was not as important as everyone else. But neither is it some romantic, “we are all one” sort of radical equivalence. A dog is a dog. A cat is a cat. They do not melt away into each other, into some abstract value through which we can calculate an optimal spread of utility.

I am me. I am not anything else. But who and what I am is inextricably entangled with everything else. It is my being in the world, in relation to other things, that make up the person here typing. I am not everything, but I am everywhere. I act, the world responds, and in so doing, I am affected no matter where my action points. I print out a ticket to New York; in a year, a hurricane hits the south of California; all the way in Alberta tar sands, workers are losing their jobs as the economy shifts into renewable energy sources. In all this economic craze, I decide to take the bus more. There is no such a thing as a selfless act, not if we see that the self was never only here to begin with. This is what “we are all one” really means.

Human Atomic Shadow (With a Ladder), Hiroshima, Japan

We often like to pretend there is a magical place called Away. We flush the toilet, the poop goes Away. We launch Netflix, our assignments go Away. We do an action, and in an instant, the action goes Away. We are wrong. There is no Away. When the toilet flushes, someone, somewhere, must take on the coprophagous duties for us. The same goes for our actions. They are not events, a flash of activity and then nothing. They are objects. They persist, in space and in time. They linger on obstinately, for better or worse, and often in ways that are invisible or “distant.” We don’t draw the connection between the plane ticket and the hurricane and the workers and me, not until it’s too late anyways.

It is our persistence, our obstinance, and our refusal to accept it, that is horrifying to me. At the end of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, our protagonist Elizabeth (a vegetarian, I should mention), offers a pithy summary:

“Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them [the meat-eaters] are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me…Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down…This is life.

J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals

My parents tells me it is out of love that they send me those masks at the expense of those who need it. It is out of love that those flights which take them from business meeting to business meeting were made. It is out of love, all is out of love. And how can I argue against love? There is nothing wrong with love, not even the ostensibly “selfish” kind.

But the world is responding, and it demands us to take another look. The atomic bomb imprints the human against the wood in Hiroshima, and so too, I am imprinted repeatedly, infinitely, into all that there is. There is no selfless act, so there is no selfless love. At the end of the day, we can all love, but we must learn how to. As much as the love is real, so is the hurricane. Like Elizabeth, all I see is kindness, all I see is love. But all I feel is horror and sadness.

Everyone else comes to terms with it, you can’t you? Why can’t you?”

I wish I knew.

The Ethics of the Shrug

I have quite a fond memory of one particular high school maths class (an odd juxtaposition for most, I’ll admit). We were all handing in our latest assignment at the beginning of the class. My friend went last. His dog had just died, and he was understandably too upset over the weekend to finish it off. The teacher, not in much of a negotiating mood, told my friend he was going to fail the assignment, to which my friend, without really much of an expression at all, shrugged and left the class (I must remind you that this was at the beginning of class).

Anthropologist Kath Weston identifies the shrug as a gesture of resignation, and it is, for sure. But resignation of what? A shrug is as much an act of negation as it is a positive decision. After all, a shrug is to say, “hey, it’s not really worth the fuss.” Barring the nihilists among us, a shrug is not actually a retreat from the world (as the word “resignation” might suggest) but a focusing in on it. In that moment, what mattered to my friend, he decided, was not the assignment. Whatever he went off to do that day (I never asked), he was better off doing that. A shrug is an acknowledgement of our finiteness, the finiteness of everything. Our shrugs places us in the hyper-specificity of the moment; action extends neither forwards into consequence and explanation nor backwards into reason and motivation, it stays obstinately where it is, in the moment when it happens. It revels in its smallness. We are all finite, and to force us to be in-finite is an act of violence.

But is this not what normative ethics forces us to do (those that try to change the world at least)? To account for all our inconsistencies and contradictions, and to show that this somehow makes our actions “ethically nullifying?” This, for Naisargi Dave, is the “tyranny of consistency.” We are pulled outwards by our limbs, expanding from our finite bodies into the infinite ideal, and somewhere along the way there just isn’t enough of us to fill up infinity. Expansion is futile. We give out and we give up.

Yet we shouldn’t mistake the shrug as merely the act of giving up in the face of futility. Often it is a call to do something else, something different. It is what Roy Scranton calls learning how to die. In a sense, consistency is a sort of death. In a fully consistent world, much of what we take to be life has no more meaning: no more thought, no more love, no more choice. And in the face of this death (which for some have already arrived; it is almost 30 years ago that Fukuyama declared the death of history), hope is found in that ostensibly negative gesture of a shrug, of not caring. Ironically, ethics appears where we least expected.


Naisargi Dave, “Something, Everything, Nothing; or, Cows, Dogs, and Maggots,” Social Text 130, vol. 35, no. 1 (March 2017): 37-56.

Kath Weston, “Political Ecologies of the Precarious,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 429-455.

Big-Data, Behavior, and Power

Here are some preliminary thoughts I had on Big-Data as it pertains to human behavior.

The utility of Big-Data lies in its ability to predict the behavior of humans. But human behavior is affected by what we know: when my basketball coach tells me I am not bending my knees on my free throw, I change my behavior given this new knowledge. I bend my knees the next time around.

So what happens when we are given access to Big-Data, access to our own behaviors? Well, we see this play out in money-tracking apps. Because my overall spending for a month easily escapes my grasp, which is restricted to more day-to-day memories, seeing my total expenditure for the month is almost always surprising. I spend a lot. I then decide, on this basis, to spend less.

But, as I’ve said, the utility of Big-Data is its ability to predict behavior, and it seems at first that the money-tracking app is a good example of this. Yet, if I gave my app data to someone else while allowing myself to access it too, the other person cannot reliably predict my behavior, at least without knowing me personally. They must know how I would react to the data, and how I would react to the data about my reaction to the data, and how I would… The recursive interplay between my behavior and my knowledge of my own behavior generates an infinite pattern that is un-graspable, unpredictable. For that other person to successful predict my behavior using this app, I must not have access to it, and therefore not be able to change my behavior according to the data I see about myself. The same is true of Big-Data.

What I’m trying to say here is that Big-Data’s usefulness relies on the separation between the ones doing the predicting and the ones being predicted. This is why YouTube, Google, and all these companies cannot ever release details about the data they collect and the algorithms they use to make sense of it, because as soon as they do so, its (i.e. Big-Data’s) value is lost. It can no longer predict. In other words, Big-Data is predicated on power and domination. It is always asymmetric. It is not about how to implement it correctly.

If we are truly living in the age of Big-Data, as many have claimed, then really, what’s all the fuss about? After all, power and domination are nothing new.

Why Blogs?

My first plan for this website was to write essays, not blog posts, and the rationale behind it was partly that the latter would inevitably push me towards the flow of shorter and less substantial form of thought characteristic of the internet these days. I mean, the whole point of Twitter originally was to see how much people could say with 140 characters but what ended up happening more often was that:

  1. The character limit was bypassed by continuous threads, or…
  2. Rather than saying the same amount of info with less words, people started just saying less info with less words.

And this is no knock on people, because there are still ingenious tweets going around, it’s just that to expect all tweets to be ingenious or at least attempting to be so is a bit idealistic.

While I still wholly believe this will happen to me eventually with blog posts (i.e. that I will start saying less), I realized the other reason I was caught up in wanting to write essays is that longer forms of work are generally associated with, if not always quality, then at least legitimacy. There are about 20 awards for feature-length films in the Oscars, and only one for short films. Most of us do not go out of our way to read short fiction. And yet for a field like philosophy, which prides itself in asking the big questions, the larger than life, the infinite and eternal, what is another 5000 words to the infinity of knowledge? Against the vastness of philosophy’s own subject matter, aren’t all works by comparison short? The way analytic philosophy addresses this concern is by tackling smaller, discrete questions, but doing so comes at the cost of conforming to what I purport are largely ad hoc specializations anyways. Why not embrace our smallness?

The other thing about (analytic) essays, and we see this point most clearly in film and literature, is that they have a clearer beginning and end, or rather, they have the space to better pretend to have a beginning and end. We start with a question and we end with an attempt at an answer, an answer that most would acknowledge leads to further questions for sure, but in any case, the point is that an answer is the goal. The claim to an answer, however, is a claim to an end, and since we are all heroes of our own stories (if someone found the answer to philosophy, we’d all be out of a job), our job becomes to challenge that ending with the goal of showing that our own stories are better, rather than seeing where these different stories take us. What if different objects can overlap spatially with one another? What if there is no such thing as representation? What will happen if we embrace pan-psychism? No, no, we say, what is important is how these views all lead to contradictions, never mind that these contradictions lie in our intuitions (which we, at other times, admit are flawed) and in the very rules and definitions we have ourselves made up. Rather than asking “what next,” a hallmark of a child who loves their bedtime story, we accuse the story, as a modern adult who has lost that love, of its inherent impossibility. PIGS CAN’T FLY, we cry.

Clearly (to me), essays are not so much more substantial, they just have better PR. So why put myself in a corner? And if blog posts, in their obvious smallness, illuminates the eternally in-media-res-ness of philosophical thinking, if such an illumination is itself a form of substance (and I believe it is), there is hope for blog posts yet.