On the ethics of keeping ethics to yourself

Nietzsche in a cowboy outfit for some wonderful reason

The people I know who do not believe in god tend to wind up with the same ethical systems as the people who do. Maybe it’s the beneficent influence of a traditionally religious society; maybe it’s biological, but people of all creeds enjoy consensus on basic altruism. You don’t need the Bible to tell you stealing is bad, for the same reason that you don’t need a referee to play backyard football. Ethical systems are based on actions, results and sometimes motives. Provided they agree on what’s right and what’s wrong, two ethical systems can be functionally congruent while totally disagreeing on why wrong is wrong and not right.

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What does a protest do?

Demonstrators at last week's Occupy Wall Street protests object to the Euro, the Reddit logo, semiological uncertainty and running out of cardboard.

The protestors who camped out on the streets of New York’s financial district as part of Occupy Wall Street did not disrupt much. Mostly, they blended in with the other people camping on the streets of New York as part of the ongoing Don’t Have a Place to Live demonstration, which also is probably related to Wall Street. That’s what OWS is upset about, kind of. The ostensibly leaderless group convened in order to show that they will “no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” They did it by going down to Zuccotti Park and tolerating it in person, shortly before they decamped to tolerate it from a distance in Union Square and also before they got rounded up in plastic netting and pepper sprayed.

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Bolt upright in the world of fiction

The graph above comes from this excellent New York Times article about the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a massive, searchable database of written and spoken language from the last 20 years. As you can see, people sit bolt upright in novels a lot more than they do in journalism or conversation, possibly because interviews rarely start with the subject waking up and possibly because contemporary fiction is more mannered than we think. There is a big difference between vernacular and prose, as anyone who has read Dostoevsky will tell you. People are always exclaiming and crying and saying darling! in 19th century novels—a cataclysm of melodramatic affectation that was supposedly fixed by the advent of modernism. Modern and postmodern fiction prides itself on writing the way people really talk. The work of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace is peppered with likes and neurotic digressions, and if it does not exactly capture how we speak now, it at least gets how we think we speak now. As a little fiddling with the COCA reveals, however, the gulf between lived experience and fiction remains as wide as ever.

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