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Book Review Decision making Ethics International Development Moral dilemmas Risk

Book Review: “The age of reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre

“The age of reason” is a haunting account of Philosophy professor Mathieu’s own battle with identity and freedom when he learns that his girlfriend, of whom he had no intention of marrying, is pregnant.

The story follows Mathieu over two days of anguish as he tries to raise the money needed for an abortion and debates if an abortion is the right thing to do, if it will really bring him his strongest desire – freedom. During these two days Mathieu juggles a bourgeois background, strong moral convictions and opinions upholding his bohemian personal philosophy, a streak of cowardice, love, poverty and mostly narcissistic friends. Eventually balls begin to fall and at the end of the story, Mathieu is left with nothing, not a single commitment and also no freedom.

Sartre somehow fills the pages with surreal characters that can still be admired, despised and empathised with, sometimes on successive pages. For example the indecisiveness of Mathieu is pathetic yet his dedication to making the right decision is admirable. In the introduction to the version I read David Caute describes Sartre as a ‘master cartographer of the landscape of evasion, the flight from responsibility’ and this is very evident in Mathieu and this story.

Much of the book is beyond me, indeed the introduction itself reminded me far to much of high-school English class, but despite this and the warnings in the introduction, I found “The age of reason” a pleasant, compelling read. it is a book that you can think about a lot, or a little and still enjoy.

One of the lessons I take from this book that be applied to development is the need for adaptability and decisiveness in dealing with difficult, morally challenging situations. Mathieu was a rigid character, jailed by his ideals and reasoning into a life of nothing. In development, the outcome is rarely questionable, it is the process that is debated, as it should be.  Mathieu failed to make a choice, he lost nothing and gained nothing. In development, this would be considered a failure. Adaptation to the situation and finding the best possible outcome is necessary, but as “Poor Economics” taught us, we should be careful where possible to test the assumptions we make in determining the best possible outcome.

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Book Review Culture Ethics Fiction Global International Development Moral dilemmas Societal value

Review: “The satanic verses” by Salman Rushdie

Literature is an art. In art, there is no right or wrong answers. There is only the impact, the resulting inspiration, the feelings and emotions created by the art. In terms of impact, this book created a storm.

If you’re looking for a technical review that sheds light on that storm, your reading the wrong review. If you want to know why Muslims considered it insulting you can read this post from the Islamic Centre. Be warned, it’s hardly objective.   This review on  Goodreads by Riku Sayuji probably does a better job of saying what I’m trying to say but you need to know a little Shakespeare to understand it, and probably to have read the book already!

Enough caveats. This book is hard to read, yet strangely hard to let go. Even if it is a struggle it seems many people try, try and try again to read it. It is compelling and rewarding. Once I got past about pg 60 it become hard to ignore. The mix of dark and light, evil and goodness is obvious enough after a while for a layperson like me to understand. And yet, that same battle of hero and villain is sufficiently convoluted and complicated by the doubts, transformations and schizophrenia in its characters to represent reality, to have application in today’s morally complicated world. This is one of my favorite topics and has been covered before in the travel blog in such posts as a Guiding Light and the Genealogy of morals.

There was once a time that I thought it was possible to keep light and dark separate in this world. No doubt the definition of naïve. No doubt also, at that point, when on the moral high horse, we all have the capacity to be  “the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze?”. The kind of notion that would not permit integration, that would never be grey.

Rushdie goes on to show us that we need to accept that everyone, including ourselves, has the capacity for evil inside them. It is one of our challenges as conscious, empathetic beings to recognise when “Something [is] badly amiss with the spiritual life of the planet…Too many demons inside people claiming to believe in God.” Where God represents strict moral righteousness. The 10+ commandments of your choice, your cultures choice, your societies choice.

Whats the message for sustainability and development? Societal values and morals are influenced by culture. When working in unfamiliar cultures we need to take care to ensure our programs benefit from values that are consistent with the local societal values, where appropriate. And they wont always be appropriate – there are lots of grey areas out there and change is just as certain as death and taxes.