Conversation: From Milan Kundera to Morality

Three is a charm. Recently I finished reading Milan Kundera’s masterpiece <The Unbearable Lightness of Being> for the third time. The first time I read it I was in middle school. By then I understood absolutely nothing. I don’t remember if I finished reading, but I remember saying ‘什么玩意乱七八糟的!(WTF was that!)’ The second time was about seven years ago. With a superficial social experience I started to understand a little, and commented, ‘very interesting’. And this time, with more understanding of the world, although still superficial, I started to resonant with the author in his thoughts.

My interpretation of Milan Kundera’s ‘kitsch’ is an acceptance, a surrender, a worship, and a flatter to humanity. There are many traits of humanity, and whichever ideology (political, philosophical, etc.) is based on certain traits of humanity. And what separates people to believe in different ideologies is the preference to certain traits over the rest. That’s why no matter how different those ideologies are, every single one of them could attract loyal believers. For example, one of anarchism’s kitsch is freedom, one of conservatism’s kitsch is unwillingness to change. All of them are humanistic, therefore there is no good or bad of an ideology in nature. It depends on the audiences, depends on the era.

Nature sets humanity traits on default; nurture changes individual preferences of the traits. It works like an equalizer (imagine the one we use to fine-tune the Music output). Different settings (such as levels of altruism, compassion, change, freedom, etc.) result in different outputs (personalities / cognitions). Which means, people who do not have kitsch don’t exist. Even Sabina. Kundera seems to indicate her only kitsch was her image of ‘home’. I believe there are more.

In a sense, I think everything is a kitsch. ‘Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.’ This is also a kitsch – being safe and accomplish the holy mission of reproduction, exactly what the genes want us to do. Another one is ‘humans are the masters of the animals, of the world.’ For people who are against this kitsch, what should they do? Should they walk away from the road humans are, like Nietzsche and Tereza? Should they walk among people, and try to change the road? I believe Chomsky’s answer will be the latter.

Yichen: I finished <The Unbearable Lightness of Being> for the third time! Every time it makes me think more and deeper. The more I learn the more I feel everything is equal. Even far right is not wrong. It’s just not suitable for this era.

Josep: Then, do you think there’s no right and wrong? An idea like slavery can be suitable (for ruling class) but it’s not wrong? Or, asking for bailout of public money from citizens who pay taxes and are poorer than you, when you don’t pay any of them, it’s also not wrong? This is linked to moral relativism which says you never can know what’s right or wrong, because it changes with society, it’s a cultural thing. But I don’t agree, I think there’s a human moral base, common to all humanity, and cultural changes are marginal. Like language, we are biological creatures, and our moral and sense about right and wrong are genetically determined.

Yichen: I do think there is right and wrong. But it’s regarding to actions, consequences, not personalities. I think there are different dimensions. For example, Satre says the method to tell virtue and evil (right or wrong) is to imagine everyone is doing the same. If the result is good then it’s virtue. If the result is bad then it’s evil. And then hard determinism indicates there’s no virtue or evil, moral doesn’t exist. But actually these two are not in conflicts because Satre is talking about actions, hard determinism is talking about personality. Modern philosophers have done a research, and what they’ve agreed with (also the court’s sentences are based on) is that everyone’s personality is equal, there’s no difference between the souls of a criminal and a normal person. But they have to be responsible for the consequences of their action, the actions that they made for any reason, including luck. I think it’s easier to think, if we separate personality and actions.

[Sending over a weblink <How to tell a bad person from a person who did a bad thing?>]

I do think there’s an instinct for morality, but again it’s about action. Not about personality, or the core, the ‘reason’ of an ideology. For example, Hitler is a normal soul. But his actions are evil and he should be condemned for that. Sr. Branson is a normal soul but the action he made is disputable.

Josep: But how do you separate personality and actions? The second is a consequence of the former. For me it’s difficult to think about it separately. For example, if you say ‘this actions are bad but he is ok’ it makes no sense to me.

Yichen: Personality is only one factor of action. Actions and consequences include many other factors, for example luck. The link I sent is an interesting moral experiment. This experiment helped me to think more clearly on these issues. Many paradoxes are due to confusing personality and action.

Or maybe I’m using the wrong concept. When Hitler was born, he was naked, and then nurture put him on different cloths. Family environment is the pants, education is the vest, music is his jacket, social system is the poncho, etc. Then he became the Hitler that we see. But under all those cloths, he was still a normal soul, he appreciated the same kitsch as many other people, for example love, coziness, etc. His actions were the fault of many other factors. so I think what I mean equal is the born humanity, the instinct that made us human. It’s all the same, no matter what we become in the later stage of life. Have I expressed clearly?

Another thought experiment. If I meet another person as the bad guy in Miami, I would dodge him because I know his actions may cause bad consequences. But I don’t know what had happened to that guy, maybe he lived through extremely hard times and abused by his dad as sex slave when he was a kid. His view of life and the world is distorted because of that. I feel bad for a person like this. It’s not that he’s inherently bad, right? Taking off the cloths of nurture, he’s just another soul like all of us. But again, his actions should be condemned.

Josep: Interesting theme, i will take a look and read carefully the thought experiment.

Yichen: Yes it’s very interesting. I think I agree with their opinions. Mine is considering born humanity, theirs is more about personality (humanity with cloths) and actions. I think I’ll agree with you there is good and bad personalities though. But they’re outcomes of the ‘cloths’, not the person as a person to be blamed.

I think there’s a more meaningful outcome of separating humanity, personality and action. If you blame a person’s action, you’ll be fine after the action is punished. Afterall, actions are temporary. However, if you blame a person’s personality, you’ll always live in hatred because the person is still there even if the action is punished and became a thing in the past. So, to know what exactly is to be blamed, and accept the innocence of humanity (including the moral common ground), helps to avoid living in hatred, and find inner peace.

Josep: It’s an interesting topic! As you said it can be subject to different interpretations depending on definitions and which terms you use. As usual in philosophy it’s easy to get lost in details and distract from the main issue.

My view, let’s put our engineer glasses and be reductionist about human beings. I would define our ‘soul’, essence, or ‘initial mode’ as our genetic program when we born. This ‘soul’ can be state as a neuronal program. Let’s define our identity as our brain process. This mental process can evolve into thoughts and furthermore, into actions. But, I think we agree, thanks to hard determinism, that the origin is our brain process.

Because of hard determinism and no freewill there’s nothing to blame, that’s how you are, that’s how you think, that’s how you act. Those are different things, different stages and manifestations of our ‘souls’, our humanity, our brain processes. In that sense, the analogy of a robot is useful. We know something is wrong about it because of its actions (the output, routines, actions, etc.) but we address the issue (we blame) to its ‘soul’, its silicon processes. In humans, how are we reprogrammed? Well, I would say it’s the environment, the nurture, the education, etc. This process of feedback is the one that helps us to evolve and be more social and good relate to human moral. For me there’s no distinction between soul and cloths, adopting your terms, those are from the same code.


Actions are the only way to help others monitor your inner code, and because you can not punish thoughts, you punish bad actions. A punishment is not seen as a blame (there were no other choice) but as a way to reprogram our codes. Punishments prevent us to do bad things, also give us an intuition about what is accepted in a society, therefore reprogramming our codes as well.

Making a recap about what we’re saying, I’d say that when I was talking about good or bad, or right or wrong, it was not about blaming. The article you sent me is a paradox about blaming, yes? And I agree that first you tend to blame some actions more than others, but then if you study them carefully, they deserve the same degree of blaming, like the drunk driver who killed a person and the one who did not. If you are logical then there’s no paradox. Of course, I think we all agree that two drivers deserve the same guilt, no matter if one has better luck than the other. But that’s because we are logical and we understand the situation. And then different actions deserve the same blaming or same guilt. Because what matters is not the action, but who you are, or how you think – the brain processes I told you
.

But the problem is how do other people know these brain processes. There’s no way to know but through the actions. So, for a society, if there are some behaviours that are against social benefit, or are not as I would say good for the community, or actions that everyone or maybe the majority of people would think are good. Maybe you can live on that society thinking always in a bad way like for example I want to kill my neighbour or I want to kill everyone who cross a step in my way, but you don’t do it, because you know you are going to jail. That’s what I was talking about reprogramming your code. You maybe have some thoughts, but you restrain yourself to do some actions, because there are some punishment or some grudge from other people. Then you don’t do anything, you act well. So in that case, we should punish you because you have those bad feelings, or only punish you until you commit those actions. I think the second is better. It’s like psychopath. Psychopaths don’t feel any empathy for the others, but they can live normal lives because they know how to follow the rules. Even if they don’t share it, there’s no problem for them.

So I think you can talk about good and bad, even if you have no right to blame anybody. Because there is no free will, so you cannot be otherwise. There’s no option for you. But I think if there’s a sense of social morality, and if those values are shared by everyone, and everyone is aware of that, then they help them to behave in conscience. So, punishment as a way to reprogram your code to have better clothes, as you said.

Yichen: To further develop your robot analogy, I think every individual is a machine (which we both agree), aka the robot. Nature (the manufacturer) wired us with an original code which is a template so everyone started off the same (initial/default mode). And then nurture (the programmer) reprogrammed us to ‘suit the era’.

So, if there is something wrong about the robot, do you think it’s the robot’s fault or the programmer?

By ‘soul’ you mean cognition / personality / the Programme after being reprogrammed, right? Which means it’s actually humanity + clothes. But that’s not important. I like the idea to use punishment as an ‘education’ tool, to debug and correct the programme (the efficiency is another topic because we know from neuroscience people learn better from appraisals). But I think only people who are rational enough (like you) can treat punishment unbiased like this. Most people (well, at least in some parts of the world) will emotionally abduct all criminals and many innocent. (Shrugging…)

Josep: “So, if there is something wrong about the robot, do you think it’s the robot’s fault or the programmer?” It’s not robot/person’s fault, there’s no free will, that’s how it is (that’s why I said there’s no one to blame) but that is independent of the existence of right or wrong. Hitler could be not responsable of his actions but that’s different to say that he was not wrong.

Yichen: I never denied the existence of right and wrong. Just trying to figure out what exactly is wrong. And I think Hitler SHOULD be responsible for his actions, which is in line with the conclusion of ‘moral luck’ experiment. So I expand my theory to three levels: 1. humanity, the default mode, as a person, everyone is equal and every soul is the same. No right and wrong here; 2. cognition / personality, it is level 1 + nurture. There is good and bad based on the era; 3. actions / consequences, the result of level 2, has right and wrong.

When I said this I was referring to the ‘kitsh’ Kundera was talking about. Every ideology emerges out of certain humanity. I guess there’s even a historical necessity for slavery. But I’m not a historian haha, it’s just a hypothesis. I guess, if there were no slavery, there won’t be people angry enough to overthrow this system and create a new one better than before slavery emerged… It’s really difficult to judge.

Josep: Humanity and clothes is who you are (brain processes) and the origin of your thoughts and actions. I think this is the most important thing. When there’s something wrong with someone those are the core issues.

If Hitler thinks all jews must be exterminated, maybe we can not blame him, but his actions and his thoughts are wrong, and that is because his mental process is also wrong. That’s related to the inner core of his existence.

To address the situation, we should find a way to reprogram his code, maybe he is sick (he need medicine), or badly educated (need education), or counterbalance a bad experience with jews in the past (fall in love with a beautiful jew).

Yichen: Hahahaha the last may not work, look at Trump!

I think it’s an interesting discussion, and there are more to consider: maybe there should be a revolution in the juridical system, making the court a place to educate both the criminal and the whole society, instead of purely arguing about guilty or not, or whose guilt it is.

Josep: The prison is supposed to rehabilitate, but in reality the opposite happens.

Yichen: Yes, which validates the necessity for a revolution haha!

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