December 30, 2006


El Cabrero has resolved to be a better person in the coming year and can think of no better way to do this than to reflect on the subject of ethics and morality.
However, my earnest efforts for self-improvement have been stymied by philosophical confusion.
In order to resolve that issue, it seemed necessary to me to discuss these dilemmas with someone with unassailable moral standing and a reputation for wisdom.
At Goat Rope Farm, that means alpine goat Arcadia S. Venus. What follows is a transcription of a philosophical dialogue between us.
EC: Venus, thanks for taking time for this little talk. As you know, I really want to be a better person this year and I'm not sure how to get there.
VENUS: Whatever.
EC: I've consulted the wisdom of the ages and found that philosophers disagree on how to do it. Some say that what really matters is our motivation while others think its what we really do. If I could figure that out, I'd have a better sense of which way to go.
VENUS: Are you going to talk all day or are you going to give me some alfalfa cubes?
EC: In a minute. According to the deontological school, it's all about intention. If I mean well, that's the main thing, regardless of how it turns out. But then we know from experience and psychology that all human motivations are ambiguous and we can even deceive ourselves about them.
VENUS: Cubes. Apples. Some of those things you keep in that jar.
EC: And then, sometimes we do the right things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. Is it better to have really bad or cynical motivations if you do things that are good or to mean well and do things that don't work out?
VENUS: Slice the apples first. And don't drop them. When you finally get around to it.
EC: But Venus, I really can't get around to being a better person until I figure this out. This is serious!
VENUS: You're still just talking.
EC: Alright, let's use an example. Suppose I intend to give you an alfalfa cube but don't. Would that be just as good as the real thing?
VENUS: That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
EC: Or suppose I didn't really mean to but left a bunch of alfalfa cubes just lying around where you could get into them?
VENUS: That's what I'm talking about!
EC: So you're saying that what we really do matters more than just intentions?
VENUS: How are those alfalfa cubes coming?
EC: Thanks, Venus, now I think I understand. It's all about what we really do! Now maybe I really can start being a better person. I feel so much better after talking to you!
VENUS: Are you still here?
(Note: Goat Rope will resume regular posts on Jan. 2. Happy New Year!)


Unknown said...

I appreciate your dialogue with Venus. I have attempted similar conversation with my cat, Alex. However, Alex is not nearly as verbal as Venus. I am envious. Should I get at goat?

Claude Scales said...

A few days ago, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson had a column in the New York Times with the title "Our Overrated Innner Selves", that's relevant to your dialogue with Venus. Unfortunately, the column is on "Times Select", which means you have to pay to peek. Fortunately, Todd Mitchell, in his excellent Article of Faith, has discussed and quoted from it extensively.