Two nights in a row. I awoke at 3:30, decided to try to get back to sleep, but failed. I finally got out of bed around 5:30. Spending two hours on two consecutive nights, thrashing about trying to get sufficiently comfortable to sleep, indicates either excessive patience or madness. I’m inclined to go with the latter, as that explanation might make me seem edgier than I am. What do I care, though, how others perceive me? I’m 67 and should no longer need to worry about my image. Actually, I suppose the fact that I’m posting about my sleeping habits and insomnia on a publicly viewable blog confirms I am not particularly concerned about my image.


This morning, I read a riveting but terrifying article (with photos) about conflicts between wild animals and humans in parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir. This excerpt from the article summarizes the issue:

According to official data, at least 67 people have been killed and 940 others injured in the past five years in attacks by wild animals in the famed Kashmir Valley, a vast collection of alpine forests, connected wetlands and waterways known as much for its idyllic vistas as for its decades-long armed conflict between Indian troops and rebels.

Most of the attacks (around 80%) have been by Himalayan black bears. The article suggests that human incursion into the animals’ territories have had the effect of changing the bears’ habits. The bears used to hibernate in winter, but with the ready availability of food, thanks to human populations and their trash, etc., they no longer hibernate. Military camps, barbed wire, and other changes in uses of the land have changed the bears’ habitat, resulting in more interactions between humans and animals. Fascinating stuff that highlights the negative impact of population growth and changes on both humans and the creatures we are crowding out.


Public conversation of late have called attention to the fact that the growth and success of the United States has depended, in large part, on the early enslavement of Black people, who did much of the work required to build this country. While enslavement finally ended, reliance on Black labor through unfair and inhumane practices continued. Many of the public conversations rightfully (in my opinion) call for White Americans to recognize and to apologize and to provide reparations in some fashion for those abuses.

While thinking about these matters, my mind has drifted to another set of dependencies, dependencies that are less visible but, I would argue, equally as inhumane and inexcusable: the reliance on Chinese and other Asian labor to provide too affordable products we use in our everyday lives. Though we see plenty of posturing about companies relying on cheap foreign labor (essentially equivalent to slave labor), actions seem few and far between. It is, in reality, only posturing. In the meantime, we buy cheap clothes, cheap computers, cheap food, cheap furniture, and thousand of other categories of cheap consumer goods that rely on the labor of people who may well be surviving on below-subsistence-level wages. But we’re not guilty, because we do not employ them, right? B.S. We should not get away with it that easily. We should look at the labels of every product we buy and think long and hard about who sews or assembles or manufactures it. If we were as morally indignant as we should be, we would insist on paying more for products so people around the world could live less stressful, less impoverished, and more comfortable lives. Would I insist on that, though? Would you? Or can we somehow continue to pretend that we are blameless?

I think this quote from Thomas Henry Huxley states the matter clearly:

“The practice of that which is ethically best…repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live.”


Morals change. That may not please some of us, but it is true. I think a quick review of history would reveal the veracity of the claim. Within the last few days, I’ve dabbled in reading about philosophy (not philosophy itself, so much, as discussions of what constitutes philosophy). I’ve come to the conclusion that philosophy is equivalent, in many respects, to mathematical equations. Yet we know that mathematics is precise and (we think) unchanging. There exist unwavering “laws” of mathematics that do not rely on context. But morality (and the philosophies that underlie morality) is not a stable, static “thing.” Take marital fidelity, for example. In our society, marital fidelity is generally viewed as a moral obligation (though belief and action differ significantly). But in other societies, marital fidelity is not seen as an obligation at all; in fact, in some societies the practice of having multiple spouses argues that marital fidelity is an irrelevant concept. It’s a matter of context. But get into a discussion of contextual ethics and sparks fly. “Murder is wrong, no matter the circumstances!” “Abortion is wrong, no matter the circumstances!” But, wait. Even those “absolutes” are contextual, aren’t they? Just like marital fidelity. If we were to take any moral “absolute” and dissect it, I think we’d find circumstances in which the ethics of a behavior is not necessarily clear. What is the rationale behind marital fidelity, for example? Aside from protections against jealousy, what purpose does it really serve? That question is valid not just for marital fidelity, but fidelity in general. Fidelity is a relatively easy subject; abortion is much more difficult, thanks to the incorporation by people on one side of the argument of yet another moral absolute: murder. That’s where mathematics and philosophy differ: in mathematics, we all agree that A + B = C. But in philosophy, we sometimes can agree that A + B = C, but B has a different definition in philosophical arguments, whereas in mathematics, B is B is B.

Even within a society, morals are not universally accepted. Yet we base our laws on morals, don’t we? Stealing is against the law. Situational ethics do not have a place in the law, but in passing judgment on someone caught stealing, the penalty may well rely on situational ethics.

“She is guilty of stealing, but she stole milk for her baby, so her action was understandable; she is sentenced to time served.”

“He is guilty of stealing a motorcycle. He already has three motorcycles. He is sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.”

I have no good reason for writing about morality and ethics and philosophy this morning. It’s just a set of topics I find fascinating. If I were younger, I might spend more time delving into philosophy; it’s such a fascinating subject.


Back to the real world; the mundane, gut-wrenching real world. My coffee is cold and my elbows ache from arthritis and my neck and left shoulder are punishing me for my immoral thoughts. I must put an end to this. I feel a need to withdraw from the world for a while.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Withdrawal

  1. Pat, we can’t rely on Mathematics for certainty? I guess I’ll just have to assume my convoluted thoughts are the only things on which I can reliably depend, then. 😉

  2. Pat Newcomb says:

    John – I rather enjoyed your foray into philosophy, ethics, morality and “meta-philosophy”. Your comments about Mathematics are interesting. Most of our understandings of what Mathematics is or does is not much more sophisticated than the Calculus, which gets us up to the 18th century in terms of technology. This is the “Mathematics” that we call on when we want to be precise. The best we can say about Mathematics today is that it is a language through which complex concepts from physics, chemistry and even social sciences are told. The most revealing moment of my undergraduate theoretical Mathematics education came when I realized that entire systems are based on a set of “Postulates” or core assumptions. If one changes the “Postulates” – then the entire system changes. The economists picked up on this right away with the “waving of the hand” 🙂 — Bottom Line: at its extremes, we can’t even rely on Mathematics for certainty. Thanks for the “prompt”.

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