Two Milestones for 2022
This year I achieved two important milestones for myself. The first involves my reading hobby. I have been keeping track of the books I read each year since high school and have been tracking these digitally for many years now on Goodreads.
In September of 2010 I finished my 1,000th book. This year I completed my 2,000th!
My second milestone involves my music. I released my first album titled Waiting for the Slipstream in 1997. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that release. As a tribute I released a "best of" album titled Twenty Five.
So, it's been a good year. Here's to a great 2023 with more books read and more music to be released!
This problem has probably been around ever since people began thinking of ethics but David Hume formulated it in concrete terms in the 18th century. Basically the problem is that you cannot deduce from a set of facts what ought to be. For example, murders occur in this country. That's a fact. But, can we deduce from that fact that murders ought to occur? No. What's especially troubling is that we also cannot deduce that murders ought not to occur. That's the problem.
To illustrate consider this case. You are a student in a writing course and have an assignment to write a 10 page paper. You know the following facts: the professor has a strong policy against plagiarism and being caught with a plagiarized paper means automatic failure of the course, studies show that at least 75% of students claim to cheat in one form or another during their college career, papers are easily available for purchase online that fit your assigned topic, you have a friend who has told you that you can use his paper from last semester.
So, you have a decision to make! You can either decide what must be done and provide a good justification for this decision or ask for more facts first. But, you can only appeal to the facts to make your decision. Looked at in this narrow fashion it seems that the is-ought problem is intractable and that we cannot make any moral judgments.
But, there is a way out. If you stop and think about it, there must be since we make moral judgments all of the time. While some of these are flawed, many are good judgments. How could this be if we cannot make inferences based on facts alone?
The solution involves recognizing that there are moral facts. Are there moral facts? David Hume denied that there were and this denial has carried forward very well and is still a pervasive attitude not only among philosophers but the public at large. After all, there don't seem to be elements to morality that clearly stand out as the facts which tell us that something is right or wrong.
According to James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, the mistake comes from thinking that there are only two possibilities regarding moral facts. Either they are like the facts of science or any other empirical study or there are no moral facts. But, this ignores an important third alternative. There are moral facts and these are facts of reason. The moral judgments we make are backed up by facts of reason which means that I can provide good, objective grounds for saying that a certain moral judgment is true and a certain other moral judgment is false. In other words, we can derive an ought from an is as long as we include in our facts some moral facts.
One of the reasons we think that this cannot be done is because we look at the most difficult cases, like abortion, find them difficult and from this conclude that proving anything in ethics is impossible. This is the wrong approach. To illustrate let's consider some simpler examples considered by Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy:
“A student says that a test given by a teacher was unfair. This is clearly a moral judgment— fairness is a basic moral value. Can this judgment be proved? The student might point out that the test covered in detail matters that were quite trivial, while ignoring matters the teacher had stressed as important. The test also included questions about some 9 matters that were not covered in either the readings or the class discussions. Moreover, the test was so long that not even the best students could complete it in the time allowed (and it was to be graded on the assumption that it should be completed).
Suppose all this is true. And further suppose that the teacher, when asked to explain, has no defense to offer. In fact, the teacher, who is rather inexperienced, seems muddled about the whole thing and doesn’t seem to have had any very clear idea of what he was doing. Now, hasn’t the student proved the test was unfair? What more in the way of proof could we want?”
Of course you might be saying that this wouldn't convince the teacher. But, there is a distinction between proving an opinion to be correct and persuading someone. The two are different and the fact that someone is not persuaded doesn't mean you haven't proven your case. What we need is a way to evaluate, objectively, whether the evidence we're putting forward is good, relevant, evidence. Certainly in the case cited, the evidence does prove the case. I mean, what else would you have the student do to prove their case?!
We can also illustrate the point with other cases:
“Jones is a bad man. Jones is a habitual liar; he manipulates people; he cheats when he thinks he can get away with it; he is cruel to other people; and so on.
“Dr. Smith is irresponsible. He bases his diagnoses on superficial considerations; he drinks before performing delicate surgery; he refuses to listen to other doctors’ advice; and so on.
“A certain used‐car dealer is unethical. She conceals defects in her cars; she takes advantage of poor people by pressuring them into paying exorbitant prices for cars she knows to be defective; she runs misleading advertisements in any newspaper that will carry them; and so on. “
In each case, we are deriving a moral claim from a set of facts. And, if we cannot derive these moral claims from a set of facts, we simply cannot make moral claims. After all, the facts are all we have!
Another take on this which illustrates that we can provide a way out of the is-ought problem is offered by Sam Harris in his TED talk: Science can answer moral questions
Why be Moral When There's no Judgment?
Quora Question: Why should we be moral if there's no judgment after death?
Morality evolved in the first place because of the benefits it conferred on the individuals who acted in accordance with these intuitions and has thrived not only because of the benefits to individuals but to society as a whole.
Most people have the disposition to be social, feel sympathy, and cooperate with others. These dispositions form the basis of morality. Imagine that you either did not have these dispositions or, as your question seems to imply, that you consciously reject them in the absence of a final judgment. Now, think about how your life might go as a result of that.
Or better, try a few simple, harmless experiments and see what happens. These will work very well if you live in an apartment complex or other fairly close community where you know many of the people you interact with on a daily basis.
Try ignoring them when they greet you for a start. Then try refusing to help them when they are obviously in need. Don’t help your neighbor carry in their groceries. Don’t offer assistance to someone who is asking you for help. Things like that.
What do you imagine will be the result of all of this? You may be thinking, nothing since there is no judgment after death. But, what about the judgment you will receive in the here and how? For most people, that will carry quite a bit of weight. And, make no mistake the judgment will be negative. Are you willing to alienate yourself from your neighbors in this way?
And, even if you do the odds are that you won’t feel good about it. This is true because, for most people not only do you have the dispositions to be social, feel sympathy, and cooperate, but you feel good when you do these things. That is another central feature of morality. One which naturally arose and benefits not only you as an individual but the rest of society as well.
Contrary to the belief your question presupposes, the world would be a much worse place if people only behaved morally because they feared a judgment after death. For one thing, people are not very good at projecting their future status and predicting what effects this will have on them. Witness most people’s poor savings habits. They know for certain they will need money when they get older but yet do not save it now to have enough to live on when the time comes that they will need it. And, this is a much more pressing need for most people than what happens after death. After all, we are absolutely certain that we will get old and need money to live on when we cannot work. We can only have strong beliefs about what will happen when we die.
So, the motivator you propose to keep people behaving morally simply doesn’t work. Psychology has shown that time and time again. People rarely alter their behavior now on the basis of consequences that happen in the long away future. That is why morality arose to work the way it does with both immediate and short term benefits.
Finally, on what basis would this judgment occur and what will be viewed as beneficial and what will be viewed as damnable? It is unclear from sacred texts how to answer this. Will it be beneficial to kill infidels? Some say it is a duty to do so and they derive this from a sacred text. You might argue they are wrong but the point is that the text is unclear enough to allow for alternate interpretations. Society could not survive on morality with such unclear rules.
So, there are good and natural reasons for being moral. Dale McGowan put the point nicely in this way: "But when the discussion turned to morality, he [the theist] said something I will never forget. 'We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,' he said. 'If not for the seventh commandment...' He pointed to his wife in the front row. ' ...there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!'
"His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.
"I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?
"Not love? How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn't want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don' t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone? Of course not. There are good reasons for being and doing good."
For a more extended analysis Sam Harris’ essay is also good: The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos
Taking a Different perspective
As human beings, we have a unique ability to see things in different ways. Two people can look at the same thing at see differences. Or, the same person can see differences when looking at the same thing at different times. This raises several interesting philosophical questions. What are things really like independent of how we see them? Can we ever know which perspective is the correct one?
Of course, for many people, the answer to the second question is very easy. The correct perspective is theirs! We often find it difficult to imagine how anyone could see things otherwise or that there could be any validity to a perspective other than our own. This inability contributes to many of our most contentious debates on topics of politics and religion.
The capacity for empathy is, in part, the ability to take the perspective of another person. It is a very powerful skill and one that is critical to good thinking. While it doesn't come easily this skill can be learned. But, it requires being open to asking a few difficult questions.
What if my view on this topic is wrong?
What if there is another equally valid viewpoint?
What if there is information I am missing which would cause me to change my perspective?
Here are some thinking tips from the C.I.A. which can also help with this:
1. Become proficient in developing alternative points of view.
2. Do not assume that the other person will think or act like you.
3. Think backward. Instead of thinking about what might happen, put yourself into the future and try to explain how a potential situation could have occurred.
4. Imagine that the belief you are currently holding is wrong, and then develop a scenario to explain how that could be true. This helps you to see the limitations of your own beliefs.
5. Try out the other person's beliefs by actually acting out the role. This breaks you out of seeing the world through the habitual patterns of your own beliefs.
6. Play "devil's advocate" by taking the minority point of view. This helps you see how alternative assumptions make the world look different.
7. Brainstorm. A quantity of ideas leads to quality because the first ones that come to mind are those that reflect old beliefs. New ideas help you to break free of emotional blocks and social norms.
8. Interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
If you look closely at this list and compare it with your everyday life you will see that you mostly don't do these things. Most people mostly don't do these things. We tend to associate with people we already agree with, read material we already agree with, and watch media with views we already agree with. So, it becomes very difficult to even imagine someone thinking differently. And, next to impossible to imagine that someone could think differently for good reasons.
But, keep in mind that since everyone else thinks this way as well there are people who are listening to and watching media with which they agree but that disagrees with whatever view you hold. And, they believe the same thing about your view! Breaking out of this limiting perspective is an important part of becoming a good critical thinker.
Is Life Just a Game?
Quora Question: What is wrong with the philosophy that life is just a game and humans are just the pieces you play with?
It depends on what the implications are that you have in mind but the way you phrase the question makes it sound as if there is potentially something deeply wrong with this outlook.
From a deontology perspective, you are putting forth a principle that would be very difficult to turn into a universal rule of action. According to this ethical theory, an action is morally correct if it could be made into a universal rule that everyone should follow. But, what if everyone acted on the principle that “life is just a game and humans are just the pieces you play with?”
Would there be any respect for individual liberty? Would there be any respect for personal autonomy? Would there be any respect for private property? Would there be any respect for anyone’s life? It would seem not. If there were, how could this be justified given your principle?
From a simple “golden rule” perspective how would this work? Would you wish others to treat you the way you are suggesting treating them? If not, why not? Would you try to maintain that you should be exempt from the principle that you are using to relate to others? If so, why?
If you would wish others to treat you this way, have you really thought through the implications of what this treatment would entail? If you are just a “piece to play with” does that mean if you no longer serve any useful (or fun) purpose we can just eliminate you? Would you be OK with that?
At best, your principle sounds like a version of egoism which itself is a problematic ethical theory. Without going into all the details of egoism, the basic idea is that we should act only out of our own self-interest without taking into account the interests of others.
A major problem with this outlook is that it is unacceptably arbitrary. What makes you so different from everyone else? Why are you so special? If you think about it you discover that there's no good reason for singling one person out as better or more special. We're all basically the same in our desire for happiness and our right to be treated with respect and dignity. Unless there are any relevant differences between ourselves and everyone else we cannot justify different treatment. If my desire for happiness should be fulfilled and if my basic needs should be met so too should everyone else's. There's no good argument for disregarding the interests of others.
As the Dalai Lama often points out, we should instead be “wisely selfish” understanding that our own interests and well-being are deeply connected with the interests and well-being of others. In a world as deeply interconnected as ours, we depend on others for our very lives. Their right to happiness is just as important as ours. Their right to happiness, their well-being, and their interests are just as important as yours.
And, because they have interests, rights, and the very kind of life you do, they ought not to be regarded as “pieces to play with.” For that matter, neither should you.
Theories of Happiness
From a philosophical standpoint there are several prominent theories of happiness each of which defines happiness in a slightly different way and offers a different approach to achieving it.
In addition to these major philosophical theories (which I’ll summarize below), there has also been a resurgence of interest by psychologists in happiness due, in part, to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology. This has led to quite a burst of popular books that have been published in recent years many of which are interesting and insightful.
As for some of the major philosophical theories:
Hedonism: The basic idea of this happiness theory is that pursuing pleasure is the best way to achieve happiness. But, philosophers like Epicurus who advocate this approach caution against misunderstanding what they mean by “pleasure.” For Epicurus, this does not mean the pursuit of “wine, women, and song.” Instead, it means the pursuit of those things which are necessary for happiness. For Epicurus that list is surprisingly small and simple: friendship, freedom, contemplation. For more on this approach you can read Epicurus’ Principle Doctrines.
Virtue Ethics: Similar in its promotion of things such as friendship and contemplation, Aristotle’s approach to happiness is one based on pursuing the virtues. But, again, like the word “pleasure” we may be tempted to misunderstand “virtue.” For Aristotle, the virtues are traits of character which will lead to a well-lived life. They are the mean between two extremes: either too much or too little of the virtue. Courage is a good example. It is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. For more on Aristotle’s approach to happiness you can read his Nichmachean Ethics.
Utilitarianism: This approach was advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries. For Bentham happiness was defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. While he thought these could be quantified he was quick to point out that he did not mean his approach to be confused with hedonism. Whereas hedonism is usually associated with the pursuit of personal pleasure, the utilitarians were always quick to point out that they were concerned with the happiness of everyone. Indeed, this is how the principle of utility was formulated by Mill who said we should act so that our actions create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Though he disagreed with Bentham’s purely quantitative approach, he was also concerned with the happiness of others, not just with the self. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good introduction to his ideas.
As I mentioned above, there is a rich literature concerning happiness that has developed over the past few decades. Among all the voices discussing this topic, the Dalai Lama is an interesting one to consider. He points out, much like Aristotle did, that happiness is the ultimate purpose of our lives as human beings. And, in spite of being a religious leader, in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, he advocates a secular approach to ethics to achieve this ultimate goal. His books on The Art of Happiness and The Art of Happiness at Work are insightful and well worth reading.
Other good works you may find interesting include:
Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
Quora Question: How can US politics become less acrimonious?
I think there are several components to this very good question. It may be that many of these will have to be addressed together before any real progress can be made. However, even if the political climate can be improved we must always remember that what is at issue are deeply held and divergent views about how life ought to be lived so a certain amount of acrimony will probably always be present.
Having said that here are a few of the components that, in my opinion as a philosopher and educator, need to be addressed.
Individual knowledge: The basic principles of government and economics are necessary to any well-informed political discourse and these basics are sorely lacking. Whether or not school curricula can be improved to address this problem, ultimately, individuals need to begin to recognize that they are responsible for their own education in these areas. Individuals need to read the central documents of American political literature including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist writings, and other relevant documents.
Individual discourse: The basic principles of good dialogue are also required in order improve our politics. Not only does that include some basic principles of reasoning and the ability to recognize logical fallacies, but as important, is the ability to engage in civil discourse. This video outlines a good way to do this:
Take "the Other" to lunch
Political Pressure: Having laid a foundation of individual knowledge and discourse it will then be possible to bring political pressure to bear on elected officials. One effective tactic is to give no attention to political demagogues; simply don’t show up at their events. Cut off their “oxygen supply,” so to speak. Encourage others to do this. For well-educated voters, this should be an easy tactic.
Join together: Political action can be more effective when individuals join together. There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying government through interest groups. If you don’t like the message that a particular interest group is promoting, join or create another to get the counter message out.
Discourage gratuitous partisanship: There will always be partisanship but it should be possible to discourage partisanship for the sake of partisanship. One possible group which can help with this is called No Labels: Stop Fighting. Start Fixing.
Finally, remember that people of goodwill are going to disagree about political issues. That makes them human, not evil. Not everyone will agree with your political outline. Let’s learn to listen, learn, and engage with the process.
Urban Confessional: A free listening project might be another good resource.
Do Politicians Have No Morals?
Part of the problem is the set of incentives that exist in the current system. So, even if you take a person who has a firm foundation of ethics (let’s assume for the moment that’s most people) once they are exposed to the system of incentives in politics they will be swayed to make compromises in their morality.
Consider, first what it takes to get elected to office. You have to raise enormous amounts of money and much of this will come from large interest groups. They will want something in return for the money they give you.
So, suppose you decide to take a completely transparent and ethical approach to this aspect of getting elected. You will openly and publicly declare that donations of any size will not garner any favor with you once you get elected.
What would happen? First, most of your potential donors will seek to donate their funds elsewhere. People will not gravitate towards you as a result of this stance however moral it might be.
So, even before you get elected you are confronted with a deal breaker. You will have to agree to be beholden to the people supporting you. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it contains a strong incentive to “sell out” if necessary.
Another factor is the self-selection process. We all know the grueling process that awaits anyone who decides to run for public office. So, in spite of the claim that many people make that they are doing this for selfless reasons, there has to be a strong attraction to the possibility of having power in order survive the process. So, only those who have this power motivation are going to seek public office in the first place. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no morals or ethics but that a primary motivation for them is the power they will have.
Combine that with the pressure of raising money and pleasing others to remain in power and you have a powerful combination of incentives.
But, even with those factors, it is unlikely that most of the people we elect have “no morals” since it is unlikely that most people in general have “no morals.” What would this even mean?
No, what is far more likely is that we are all susceptible to the lure of power and money and in an area of life where these are willingly given to those who say the right thing the temptation for anyone to succumb to is extremely powerful.
Ideally, we have a system where we obey the rule of law not the rule of men (or women). So, in such a context if a president were to lawfully appoint a replacement to the Supreme Court the Senate would lawfully do its job and hold hearings. That’s what the law says. But, the temptation to wield power seems to overcome even the clearly written dictates of the law.
There are many other examples of this as well. And, the solution, tempting though it may be, is not to look for someone “more moral” to run for office. The solution will involve more oversight of the election process and that oversight must come from the bottom up by voters. But, with voter participation at a very low rate that leaves the field wide open for politicians to say what they need to to get elected and then do what they need to to remain in power.
We’ve seen in recent years how powerful individuals can be if they stand up and collectively assert their desire for change. Same sex marriage is one example where the power of individual action led to major changes. Similar changes could happen with other issues as well but it takes the willing action of individuals. That means all of us.
Where do Morals Come From?
Quora Question: Where do our morals, ethics, and empathy come from? How can we distinguish between what is socially acceptable and what is not?
Morality seems to arise naturally as a result of the dispositions we have to feel sympathy and empathy and the requirements of living in communities. Examples of cooperation can be found in several animal species and to the extent that these exist they have some survival value. The same applies to human morality. It is likely that dispositions to sympathy and cooperation arose and then developed as they led to more success for those who displayed them.
In philosophy ethics is sometimes discussed in terms of finding a set of rules to allow people to make decisions based on reason and some basic calculation of benefit, motive, or happiness. But, it seems that many of these explanations are not so much explaining how morality arose but how it can be codified and formalized into a “decision model.”
Having said that, many of the starting points of these ethical theories do relate to dispositions, like sympathy and cooperation, that arose naturally. Deontologists focus on what motivates our actions and maintain that for an action to be moral it must be capable of being universaliazed. Utilitarians focus on happiness and the consequences of our actions. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of character. Feminist ethics focuses on care and personal relationships and social contract theory focuses on cooperation. Each of these is likely a critical factor in our overall view of morality.
Another aspect, discussed by psychologists is the importance of very basic concepts such as disgust, cleanliness, and our propensity to divide the world into categories of sacred and profane.
The overall emphasis and evidence suggest that morality arose naturally because it conferred an evolutionary advantage on those who acted on such dispositions. Rules were then developed to codify the importance of these dispositions and their cultivation. It is a fascinating topic and there are some very good books that explore these ideas in much more depth:
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser
The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright
The Origin of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley
The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer
Braintrust by Patricia Churchland
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Is my existence a Bother?
Quora Question: Why do i feel like life doesn't really need me and my existence is a bother to everyone?
The Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl once wrote: “I remember my dilemma in a concentration camp when faced with a man and a woman who were close to suicide; both had told me that they had expected nothing more in life. I asked both my fellow prisoners whether the question was really what we expected from life. Was it not, what life was expecting from us.”
According to Frankl “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
So, begin with the idea that life is expecting something from you. Your existence is not a bother but rather is important. What is life expecting from you? There is something you can do and that you offer to the world that only you can give. Your experience, your love, your actions. What can you create, what can you experience, how can you face suffering? These are the sources of meaning. And, they matter.
The biologist Richard Dawkins has an interesting perspective on this which might help: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly, those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
What I mean by sharing that quote with you is that we should all regard our life here as a wonderful opportunity. Out of all of the possible people, you are alive. Don’t waste that opportunity. The Dalai Lama makes a similar point that we should use our fortunate birth as human beings to further our ability to gain enlightenment.
Because this life is the only one we have there is all the more reason to make the most of it. Perhaps you can begin with a simple exercise I encourage my philosophy students to do. Ask yourself these four questions:
What do you want to learn?
What do you want to experience?
What do you want to contribute?
What do you want to leave behind?
Your life can have meaning and purpose and be richly rewarding; to yourself and those you help, love, and befriend.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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2022 Reading Challenge
Kevin has read 12 books toward his goal of 63 books.