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April 7, 2018 / Congau

Feeling Good When Doing Good

If doing good makes you feel good, does that mean you are selfish when doing it? And if so, is it good at all? This question delights the cynic who enjoys revealing ulterior motives. It saddens the pious who searches for purity and it hardens the moralist who believes in stringent rules. But they are all mistaken.

It is hardly possible to do anything without getting a feeling of satisfaction when the act is well done, and from that fact one might be tempted to conclude that anything we ever do is selfish. It would simply be a contradiction in terms to say that an action was not selfish. But then, what claimed to be an observation of human psychology is reduced to a mere tautology; for something to be true it must be conceptually possible that it could be false.

The moment you try to do something you want to succeed and success in itself gives pleasure. But if that cannot be avoided at least it can be minimized, some would say. By choosing to do what is initially detestable to oneself, the level of satisfaction will be kept low even if the action is well performed. Someone who loathes being nice to people but who still forces himself to be nice, would reach the pinnacle of moral worth according to such a view (which, incidentally, is the view of the celebrated philosopher Immanuel Kant).

To strive for moral excellence would then involve nurturing an indifferent or even hateful attitude toward one’s fellow human beings. If you enjoy seeing people suffer, but still want them to be pleased, then you are utterly unselfish and thereby a good person, from this Kantian perspective.

Moral education would then perversely consist in learning to detach oneself from any emotional connection with others. You should get no personal satisfaction from seeing people satisfied, but still want them to be so. You should force yourself to want what you don’t really want.

As an educational strategy this would obviously be a disaster. Any sound pedagogy would try to make the student enjoy the subject of study. The ancient Aristotle, other than the modern Kant, understood that much. Learn to enjoy being good, he said. Get selfish satisfaction from unselfish action.

November 21, 2017 / Congau


Is gratitude a duty? How can it be? Gratitude is a feeling and one can hardly demand that we should feel a certain way. What can be demanded is only the outer sign of gratitude; the return of a favor and the show of good-will toward those who have supported us. Only an action can be a duty, but the essence of gratitude is not in the action.

Still, we should feel gratitude where gratitude is due. It would be good if that emotion always came to us without a reminder, but all too often we are immersed in the affairs of the world, where all is trade and hard bargain and nothing is given for free. If we got something, we think we deserve it and praise our own efforts. But nothing comes entirely from ourselves. A moment of reflection will inform us that all our achievements are at least partly preconditioned by the environment and the people around us. Gratitude is therefore a reasonable feeling to carry around on a permanent basis.

Although feelings cannot be evoked on command, it may be possible to train ourselves to be more receptive of certain feelings. If we constantly remind ourselves of the sorrows of this world, we are likely to feel sad, but likewise if we make the reasons for gratitude the objects of our thoughts, the corresponding feeling may also arise.

We can work to make gratitude become a habit and then it may be easier to fulfill what is actually our duty in the proper sense: To pay back what we owe. Accepting assistance from others, which is something we do most of the time whether we are aware of it or not, does give us an obligation to return the favor if we are in the position to do so.

The duty of gratitude is not an absolute law that can be enforced by the police or some unambiguous principle. We may be absolved from returning the material signs of a favor if our resources are insufficient, but emotions are costless and positive emotions even beneficial. We should return what we can without stingily calculating our exact debt. If that is not a duty, at least it’s a gratification we owe ourselves.

November 5, 2017 / Congau

Catalonian Legality

What is taking place in Catalonia is illegal. Of course it is. It is against Spanish law. But so what? That tells us nothing about the justice or injustice of the matter. There may be all sorts of valid consideration concerning whether or not Catalonian independence would be a good idea, but the question of legality is not one of them.

Of course it is against the law to break away from any state since a state is a system of laws. Obviously it’s illegal to attempt to escape from the law, which is just to say that it’s illegal to break the law. That is a simple tautology and adds no new information.

Still, in the case of Catalonia, that observation is put forward as if it contained a new insight: Catalonian independence is wrong because it is illegal. It’s the same as saying that independence or secession always and in any case is wrong as it would always mean a break with an existing law.

Such a principle would have rather serious implications for many countries which call themselves independence, wouldn’t it? Since most (if not all) of the existing states in the world today at some point in their history were founded as a more or less abrupt break with a previous state formation, they must have been illegal and therefore lacked a justification from its very beginning. The absurd conclusion would then be that hardly any country should have existed. (And maybe their existence is still unjustified.)

A law exists until another law takes its place; a country exists until it is replaced by another country. One authority is substituted for another.

In a totalitarian state it’s illegal to strive for a replacement of the existing government. Dissidents in China or Iran do break the law, but that simple fact is of course ignored in the West, and rightly so. The dissidents are not doing something bad because they are doing something illegal; the law is bad and therefore they are doing something good by breaking it.

That is the question that must be asked in Catalonia: Is the law that prohibits any attempt at secession a good law? Well, according to previously acknowledged European standards it isn’t.

To dismiss something simply because it happens to be illegal is to avoid the difficult considerations of right and wrong.

November 2, 2017 / Congau

The Double Standard of Catalonia

What is so special about Catalonia? Or rather, why is it not special?

There was a time when the European moral authorities eagerly supported secessionist movements referring to the holy right of self-government: Yugoslavia split apart actively encouraged by unbiased Western principles. The Soviet Union broke asunder, Czechoslovakia was divided. Kosovo has departed and even Scotland was allowed to hold a referendum on possible secession. Only in Spain is the current national laws perceived as more important than what used to be eternal laws of liberty.

Catalonia may or may not be better off without Madrid. Their cause may or may not be just, but whatever the arguments one precept must always prevail: Like cases shall be treated alike. If the case of Catalonia is the same as that of Croatia, the conclusions must be the same: Independence for both or for none.

Of course the acute analysts in the European capitals are ready to explain to us why the cases are totally different. Spain is a democracy and therefore any part of it is necessarily free already. But where did that argument come from? When has it been used before to deny separation of any piece of land from any other? Almost all of Europe is democratic now; does that mean that the shape of the political borders of Europe is irrelevant for the conception of freedom within those borders? Perhaps, but that is not what we have always been told. For Ireland to be free it must supposedly be separated from the UK although no one doubts the British democracy.

As always in politics, principles and moral standards are highly flexible entities shaped to fit the demands of the structures of power. Catalonian independence would be a disturbance to the EU machinery while the Yugoslav split-up, on the other hand, increased the Western sphere of control. Principles can be freely thrown around, now using one and then another. Standards are double and triple and their manifold uses adapt to the needs of the moment.

Whether Catalonia should or should not be independent is not my concern, but the Spanish handling of the crisis makes a mockery of what some of us thought was the meaning of democracy. But don’t worry, democracy is hereby redefined, and so it remains secure.

May 9, 2017 / Congau

Dissatisfied Acceptance

The social order should always be questioned, but not necessarily challenged.

There is something wrong with any society; there has to be for the simple reason that perfection is unattainable among fallible human beings. But there is more to it than that. The rational animal is not at all rational. Self-interest makes us act contrary to our own interests and greed makes us lose what we have.

It may look like some simple adjustments in social structure and attitude would make things so much better and eager social reformers never run out of suggestions for improvement. Sometimes their advice is tried. Sometimes full-fledged revolutions have been carried out and promised a complete overhaul of the existing order. They invariably failed. Even mild reformers fail when trying to transfer their ideas from the drawing board and into physical reality. What comes out is always different from what was imagined.

Then some conclude that whatever we have is always better. The world may not be perfect, they admit, but it’s the best of all possible worlds. The present is the best that has ever been, they think, not because they are particularly happy, but because they cannot imagine things being different. Their habits have frozen their ability to do that.

These two basic attitudes, the dissatisfied reformer/revolutionary and the satisfied safe player, are not the only possibilities. The satisfied revolutionary would be a hypocrite and an opportunist and should not be taken seriously (although he can cause a lot of damage), but the fourth brand, the dissatisfied safe player is worth a look.

It is perfectly possible to recognize that society is full of irrationality and injustice without advocating any specific program for reform. You know what you have and you realize that it’s not good enough, but you are aware of the risks of change and are resigned to accept whatever you have. In personal life that attitude is a recipe for apathy and maybe also depression, but as a social attitude it keeps you safe while still refusing to submit to the powers.

Questioning the social order without actually challenging it is a way to keep your personal integrity. You can’t beat them, but you don’t have to join them.

May 8, 2017 / Congau

Freedom and Real Freedom

Real freedom should never be restricted. Vulgar freedom needs restriction. Real freedom is doing what you really want. Vulgar freedom is doing what you think you want.

Who is to say which is which? You don’t know yourself and other people are in no better position to know you. Yet there is often a difference between what we really want and what we think we want.

No one wants to hurt oneself and we all want what is best for ourselves. Still we often do what is unhealthy and act contrary to our best interests. So if there was a way to know in advance what is to our disadvantage, it would be meaningful to say that our actions could be restricted while still keeping our full freedom.

Well, there is no way to know anything with absolute certainty, but we do have clues as to what reality looks like. We can be quite sure that the Earth is round and that certain things are rather likely to cause damage. If someone insists on playing with explosives or jumping out of windows thinking they can fly, more sober minds may rightfully be able to correct their illusions and stop them from carrying out their intentions. In that case freedom is not really restricted for we assume that such madness is not what a person actually wants.

Now, once we allow for such a qualified interpretation of what it means to want something, this principle can be extended even to less obvious cases of illusion. We should not be allowed to do what we want when what we want is not what we want. Then it also makes sense to say that we can be forced to be free.

The practical problem is of course that no one is objectively placed to prove anything. No government can prove a superior knowledge of the real wants and needs of its citizens. But then neither can the citizens themselves.

Freedom, real freedom, remains an elusive quantity. It can’t be proved, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The only thing we can say for sure is that when there is an agreement between what a person seems to want and what he would have wanted if he had possessed all relevant knowledge, his action should not be restricted.

May 7, 2017 / Congau

Cultural Universality

Human beings are always the same, at all times and all places. Culture is a detail; interesting as a shade of a color, but insignificant for understanding what it means to be human.

History is also mere variations of scenes from the great human theater. Where and when the stage is set is of less importance, for the same tragedy or comedy is played over and over. To understand the contemporary world one might as well learn about the past and to grasp the mentality of the West one might as well look to the East.

Great literature, or any literature worthy of the name, is aware of that. The story takes place somewhere and sometimes, for reality needs a background to be real, but its significant elements are not dependant on those specific settings.

Therefore there is little need to worry about being exposed to a too one-sided cultural influence in literature. The basic themes of any story worth reading are always universal. The demand for cultural diversity often seems forgetful of this fact. Stressing the need for variety in areas of less importance may have a divisive effect instead of the unifying ideal that is intended by the messengers of multicultural understanding.

On the other hand, stories of a somewhat cheaper value, particularly what is mass produced by the movie industry from a particular part of the world, rarely provide much psychological insight and then those insignificant cultural details may reach the forefront of attention where they don’t really belong. One may call it the culture of globalism, but in reality it’s the culture of a very contemporary America which doesn’t actually exist; an artificial culture without depth.

This is the kind of cultural uniformity that should be avoided, but under the seemingly neutral globalist label it is spread to a world hungry for light entertainment. It’s not at all universal and therefore there isn’t much to be learned from it. One could get a better understanding of the contemporary world by reading a more than two millennia old Greek tragedy than when indulging in the latest box office hit from Hollywood.

When real human beings are portrayed, they happen to come from a particular culture, but it doesn’t matter which one. Any culture can represent any culture.