The Death of Philosophy

1704, is the year that Isaac Newton published his revolutionary work Opticks; this is also the date that Philosophy, as a means of evaluating the world, conclusively died.  The work looked at the phenomenon of light, not through introspection propositions, but through strenuous experimentation and analyses.  Newton went so far as to stick a bodkin under his eye to see the effect it would have on his ability to see and register light.  No matter how many logical premises a philosopher erects, s/he will never be able to come close to providing this sort of insight about reality.

On the same note, there is no solely philosophical argument that can be made to conclusively demonstrates that two objects dropped from the same height, but of different mass, will hit the ground at the same time.  Nor that the earth orbits the sun.  (In fact, based on observations, a logically philosophical argument could be made to argue against the heliocentric model.)  For any of these things empirical data must be gathered.  When it comes to actually proving the soundness of its premises, philosophical studies today, have to always yield authority to the results of other academic disciplines.

Apologists will insist that my definition of philosophy is a strawman; that I’m stretching its definition in such a way, so I can then turn around and denounce the entire thing when it naturally fails to live up to my faux-interpretation.  I don’t consider this as much of a refutation, but more of an attempt to sidestep the conversation.

Philosophy was once a necessity in academic thought, because it was the pith of academia.  There was once a time when one individual’s musings would have been sufficient to overturn whole paradigms worth of our relations with reality.  However, for the last three centuries, the center of knowledge has gone through a transitional period; that is to say, the worthy functions of philosophy have evolved to more systematic and critical disciplines of thought, and what remains is a thrown away shell of sophistry.

It is no longer enough to ponder about ideas, and be satisfied by a speculation simply because it sounds philosophically plausible.  No!–there must be a convergence on ideas, and these convergences must be verified with broader (and narrower) ideas still, backed by a plethora of tangible empirical evidence.  Otherwise no reliable account of reality has been given, and to continue to build possibly false premises on top of an unverified structure is the antithesis of loving wisdom; it is a desecration of wisdom.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I am fully aware that a great deal of our species intellectual development of the last few centuries–even millennia–has been spearheaded by philosophers, and philosophical intrigue.  And at the most fundamental level, it can be argued that all people of functioning mental facilities use philosophy to evaluate the world around them.  What I mean when I say philosophy, is strictly confined to philosophical scholarship.

Indeed, Philosophy, as a viable academic discipline, is dead.  But knowing the nature of man, its shadow is bound to haunt the lecture halls for generations to come.

The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.

Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.

The Tower of Babel: An Alternative Perspective

When people speak of a need for their faith in God/s, they almost always come around to expressing how–though they’ll readily grant that organized religion, as an institution, may at times fall short of the ideal–the faith and grace of the Almighty still resonates in the hearts of all mankind (whether they acknowledge His omnipresence or not), and serves as the one true guiding force by which we may hope to find solidarity; through which we can strive to attain peace of mind, and (ultimately) peace on Earth, as surely as we are to find it in the coming hereafter.

When looked through the scope of the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, important events like man’s banishment from Eden, and the subsequent Great Flood meant to purge the world from the sinfulness that man had spawned in the world thereafter, are further reassurances of the need man has for God’s eternal presence in his life, without which he is doomed to be lost to both personal solace and eternal salvation.  Moreover, if we dwell further into the Christian perspective, it is in the figure of Jesus Christ–wherein God became man, and died at the hands of man, for the sake of absolving said man of his sin so that he may once more gain eternal life in Heaven at the side of his Creator–where we find the long awaited mending of the rift between man and his spiritual soul, and bring peace between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Given all of the above, the Tower of Babel stands as a rarely explored peculiarity to the common narrative.  The story of the Tower begins in the first verse of Chapter 11, in the Book of Genesis (this is after the banishment from Eden, and after the Great Flood had already taken place):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The whole earth was of one language, and presumably of a common understanding, as evident by the fact men journeyed and lived in some sort of union.  Though subtle, the placement of this story at this point of the Book is very significant in its relation to the theological underpinnings explored at the beginning of this post.  The story continues:

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

So united was man in his pursuits, he begins to set the stepping stones for architecture and human innovation by improving on common building techniques.  A symbolic act indicating the advent of greater civilization meant to sustain a decently sized population.

4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The common theological perspective is that this verse signifies how, rather than a symbol of man’s ingenuity, the Tower is a symbol of man’s pride.  The emphasis being on the hubris of mere men wanting to make a name for themselves by reaching the realm of God by earthly means, rather than spiritual ones, thereby making mockery of the very concept of salvation through the grace of God.  This reasoning is satisfying to many faithful, but rings hollow on a number of accounts.  The first of which being that nowhere in the verse is there any reference to God, his grace, subverting his grace, or even wanting to reach Heaven to reside there against the wishes of God.  At it’s most basic interpretation, what the verse does demonstrate is a wish to push human innovation beyond its limitations, to surpass our natural inhibitions and master it to our advantage.  And if this is a grave sin, then one might as well deduce all modern technological achievements to be sinful (and if you’re reading this post, by means of some technological device, one can safely assume you are not of this opinion).  Furthermore, such speculation is rendered moot by the subsequent verses, wherein God clearly states his reasons for disapproving of man’s construction of the Tower:

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

The construction of the Tower isn’t the problem for God.  His concern is the implication it holds concerning man’s collective potential to rise higher than his nature (where nothing “they plan to do will be impossible to them”).  There’s no mention of man’s pride–his hubris, if you will–nor is it even hinted that God’s concerns rest in anything other than his own self-interest, as he only identifies two contentions he holds with man’s construction of the Tower: 1. They are doing it as one people, 2. the construction of the Tower symbolizes man’s power to be limitless.  Now, God’s solution to this problem is a simple one.  Since 2 stems directly from 1, he sets out to undo 1:

7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible scholars will easily identify the Tower of Babel as being a clear example of an etiological myth, meaning a myth/story/legend meant to explain the origin of a phenomenon (i.e. think of the tale of how man received the gift of fire after Prometheus stole it from the Olympians).  In this case, the phenomenon being explained through the legend of the Tower of Babel is the origin of the diversification of languages.  Acknowledging this, from a philosophical/theological perspective, the actions of God as a character in the narrative are far more interesting of an indication of the dynamic between man and the Divine.  Because, for those who take this narrative seriously, God’s actions are not just responsible for the diversification of man’s languages, but also man’s segregation into different tribes, many of which undoubtedly grew to become opposing tribes, which inevitably led to these tribes waging war on one another on account of these differences.  Therefore, as the instigator of the tribalism among men, God can be credited as the direct catalyst of the warfare that came about as a result from said tribalism.  That is, if one takes the narrative seriously.  For those with a more scholarly interest in the subject, the greater plot implications between the characters are still equally intriguing.

Thus, to summarize the whole plot:  In a world following man’s banishment from paradise, following the Great Flood–a world just about all theologians and the faithful identify as being fallen and plagued by sin–humanity managed to surpass these great odds stacked against it and unite as one people, and coexist in such unity that it not only survived, but thrived in the harsh environment on the basis of its ingenuity alone.  According to the Bible itself, this great human unity did not need an appeal to the Divine to be achieved, nor did it require a blood sacrifice on the part of the Creator to bring peace and solace to the hearts of man.  And, amazingly, it was not man’s sins that halted this progress.  Nor was it man’s inherent wickedness that tore at the base of this serenity.  It was God, Himself.  Why?  In accordance to the story it can be simply put as God being afraid of man.

As heretical at it might sound, this underlying fear of man’s potential is not an uncommon theme throughout ancient mythology (when stories like the Tower of Babel would have been crafted).  The lineage of the Greek pantheon is a direct testament to this very concept.  The Titans were deposed by the very Olympians they had spawned, just as the Titans themselves had deposed the ancient gods that preceded them.  Given this tradition of cyclical deicide, it is not a farfetched interpretation to read the constant demand the Olympian gods place on being revered and worshipped by mankind not as a testament of their strength, but as a revelation of the fear that their own creation–man–will one day follow in the same traditions that all the higher beings in their history have done, and depose the makers that made them.

Aristotle could never rationally fathom way any god would be concerned with the daily happenings of a lower order of beings like mankind, and proposed a deity that took a laissez-faire approach towards human endeavors.  But perhaps Aristotle was not thinking creatively enough.  For what are gods without worship?  How many gods throughout the ages have met their fate in the graveyard of mythology simply because man stopped minding them any attention?  From this perspective, the prospect of man turning both inward to his own strength and ingenuity, as well as to that of his fellow man, is antithetical to the interests (and downright survival) of any halfway competent God.  And the God of the Book of Genesis is no exception to this, as shown by His own conduct in story of the Tower of Babel.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Religion and Atheism

In defence of slavery: Nietzsche's dangerous thinking | The Independent |  The Independent

Believe it or not, there actually exists some contention in Nietzschean circles about the philosopher’s religiosity (or lack thereof).  While most people maintain that Friedrich Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, a few commentators see his creeds against Christianity as being indicative of a deeper understanding of the mystical; leaving room open for a belief in the divine.  Adding to the possible confusion for some readers comes from the writings of certain cranks (i.e. Thomas J.J. Altizer), who promote a wholly bizarre “Death of God” theology that stretches Nietzsche’s writings to absurd lengths.

But the best way to put the issue to rest is to go straight to the source himself.  In his final and most autobiographical full book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche begins the second chapter, “Why I am so Clever,” by plainly stating his position on religious matters.

He states:  “‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘beyond’–without exception, concepts to which I never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child.  Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them?”  Here, he clearly sets his worldview as being completely divorced from what one would call religious sentiments, and, one could argue by the inclusion of ‘beyond,’ as devoid of the supernatural in general.  It is important to bring attention to the way Nietzsche claims to have never “devoted” any time to anything vaguely religious, because it is vital in understanding the manner by which he addresses theological positions in his writings.

Some have quoted the next paragraph in the text, where Nietzsche says, “I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event,” to indicate that Nietzsche might have still held to a spiritual sort of mysticism.  But this is unfounded in the actual text, because it places too much emphasis on the first part of the sentence, while ignoring the last.  Nietzsche qualifies that his did not know atheism as a result or event, precisely because his unbelief was not the product of some grand epiphany; he did not lose faith, because he never had it to begin with.  He goes on to explain, “it is a matter of course for me, from instinct.  I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer.”  To Nietzsche, disbelief is his natural disposition, his inquisitive nature demands him not to accept anything more.

I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertain any notion of the supernatural, and how this sentiment affected his approach to theology.  Unlike other prominent atheist writers of the 19th Century, who saw fit to argue against the existence of deities and religions, Nietzsche never bothered to engage or refute any of the arguments for the existence of gods.  He repeatedly affirms that gods do not exist, but his affirmations are meant to be taken as solid proclamations, rather than logical arguments.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche would have considered such engagements as insulting to his person, because to him, “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers–at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us:  you shall not think!”  To even go so far as to refute the standard theological arguments would have been too big of a concession in Nietzsche’s mind.  To him the nonexistence of gods was a given fact, unworthy of debate (a position that greatly influenced later existentialists thinkers, like Jean-Paul Sartre).

This might seem odd, since anyone who has read Nietzsche can attest to the fact that he spends a multitude of pages mentioning God.  Indeed, it can be argued that the topic seems to be somewhat of an obsession to the philosopher, even if he claims to not devote any time to it.  However, one must be very careful here.  In much of his writings, Nietzsche’s atheism takes on a very post-theistic tone (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, etc.), where he asserts the death of God, not as an actual entity, but as a psychological concept.  Primarily, because that’s all gods are to Nietzsche, man-made concepts, whose humble origins have been forgotten.  What he discusses in his writings is not any sort of deity recognizable to the religious, but the role, power, and influence the concept of God has had on the psychology of humanity, as well as how modernity is leading to the gradual (and unavoidable) erosion of this concept from our psych, as supernatural suppositions become more and more untenable in contemporary discourse.

In these regards, Nietzsche’s post-theistic atheism is a unique take on the issue on religion and God, but one should avoid assigning to it any deeper meaning than even the philosopher himself intended.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 1.

The specific translation I used for the quotes in this post, come from Walter Kaufmann’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 1967 (2000 reprint), The Modern Library: New York, pages 692-693.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your purported interests lie in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignities and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.

Nietzsche on the Origin of Justice

Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society – Western Society of  Criminology

Similar to the sentiment found in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in section 92 of his 1878 work Human, All-Too-Human, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the concept of what is just correlates from mutual agreements between persons.  Hobbes calls these agreements covenants, Nietzsche refers to it more pointedly by stating that, “the initial character of justice is the character of a trade,” and “justice is repayment and exchange on the assumptions of an approximately equal power position.”  Furthermore, Nietzsche follows Hobbes’ thinking that the root cause driving mankind to establish such ties is the desire for preservation, “Justice naturally derives from prudent concern with self-preservation.”  However, despite agreeing with Hobbes’ position on the natural origin of justice, Nietzsche differs sharply from the English philosopher in his analysis on man’s comprehension of justice.

Whereas Hobbes deems man as a rational animal, and his desire to forge a community, and maintain it justly, as the natural extension of his intellectual fortitude, Nietzsche has no such respect for human intellect.  He states, “In accordance with their intellectual habits, men have forgotten the original purpose of the so-called just, fair actions, and for millennia children have been taught to admire and emulate such actions.”  But if the origin of justice resides within man’s natural instinct for self-preservation, then–according to Nietzsche–it is by definition that just actions are egotistic.  Yet, mankind has forgotten this.  Instead, what one sees is the propagation of the idea that just actions are the result of selfless impulses, causing this false sentiment to be heralded in ever higher esteem as it gets passed on through the generations.  As this false notion of justice becomes more ingrained, individuals add value to this baseless sentiment, causing the morals of society to be founded on a flimsy structure of self-delusions, causing Nietzsche to declare: “How little the world would look moral without forgetfulness!”

The problem with what Nietzsche states here is the dubious premise he starts out with when he declares, “Justice (fairness) originates among those who are approximately equally powerful.”  However, it can reasonably be argued that, rather that originating amongst equals, the concept of justice traces its origin to the very presence of power inequality.  In an aristocratic system, justice is meant to preserve the hierarchical order by keeping the non-aristocratic masses content enough to not rebel.  In a democratic system, justice is meant to uphold the universal application of the nation’s laws, without regard to one’s individual power or influence (remember we’re speaking ideally here, not in practice).  In either case, justice did not originate among the equally powerful out of a fear of mutual destruction, but out of the sentiment that if a society is to function on all levels, some institutional gestures must be made to protect individuals from the influence of power disparity (even if such gestures are only superficially enforced).

Nietzsche’s point about justice being an extension of man’s egotistic instinct for self-preservation is still viable within this setting, however the strength of his assertion concerning the character of justice being a character of trade becomes problematic, since in the two examples above justice is not a mutual trade amongst equals but a bridging amongst societal antipodes.  It is true that justice can be an understanding between those of equal power, however the premise that this is the origin of justice, as opposed to being merely a derivative (or subset) of a broader notion of justice, is a matter that needs to be demonstrate, rather than simply granted as a given.

Truly, Nietzsche’s greatest blunder here is that he abandoned one of his own core principles; he attempted to give an absolutist answer to an issue that is largely provisional.  All-too-human, indeed.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human. Section 92, “Origin of Justice.”

All quotes used are taken from Walter Kaufmann’s The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000 reprint, 1967 original), pages 148-149.

Utilitarianism vs. Common Sense

Ethics word cloud — Stock Vector © Boris15 #60996871

Utilitarianism is a simple ethical theory that a lot of people fail to understand.  The reason for the confusions appears to result from approaching the philosophy either too broadly, or too narrowly.  Thus, I think its useful to take a look at the core points of utilitarianism, in order to get a clear analysis.

In simplest terms, utilitarianism is the ethical theory that actions are to be judged right and wrong solely by virtue of their consequences, and right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness.  With everyone’s collective happiness being counted as equally important.

The main line of objections one hears deals with the claim the utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense.  An argument that best illustrates this line of reasoning is known as the McCloskey Case.  This case uses a hypothetical example to illustrate its point:  Suppose that a utilitarian finds himself in an area that has a great deal of racial strife.  Furthermore, suppose that during his stay there, a black man rapes a white woman, causing a violent backlash to ensue against the black community in search of the culprit.  Now, if the utilitarian has the option of testifying against a particular black man (any black man), who happens to be innocent, in order to end the racist backlash and prevent further violence against other innocent people, by the reasoning of utilitarian standards he would be required to allow the conviction of the innocent man to produce a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness.  Here, the McCloskey case attempts to show how doing something that would otherwise be considered morally wrong, is acceptable by the principle of utility, as long as the good consequences that result outweigh the bad (such as bearing false witness against one innocent man to prevent the death of dozens of innocent men).  However, common sense dictates that it is still wrong to let an innocent man die on the grounds that it conflicts with our ideal of justice, which requires us to treat people fairly and in accordance to the merits of the particular situation.  Thus, as an ethical theory that places the demand for utility above the demand for justice, utilitarianism cannot be right as it conflicts with our moral common sense.

A related (less dire) objection against utilitarianism is based on what one might call backward-looking reasoning.  Here, you’re asked to imagine a scenario where you promised a friend you’d meetup with him later in the day, but as you prepare to leave you remember that you could instead spent the time reviewing your school work for the upcoming test.  By utilitarian standards, it is argued, you are justified in staying home and breaking your promise, because the consequences of you getting a better grade outweigh the irritation your friend might feel for being stood up.  Once again, the case can be made that this conflicts with our moral common sense, as most people would want to affirm that your obligations to keeping a promise are not something that can be so easily escaped just for a small gain in utility.  The argument maintains that because utilitarianism places such exclusive concern on the consequences our actions will have, it limits out attention only on future results.  But, normally, most people think that past considerations are also important, like keeping a promise to a friend.  Thus, utilitarianism seems to be faulty, because it excludes backward-looking considerations.

These objections have prompted utilitarians to respond with several rebuttals in defense of their ethical theory.  The first line of defense denies that utilitarians conflicts with moral common sense at all, as the examples given don’t sufficiently discredit utilitarianism because one could easily argue that acts such as bearing false witness (per the first example above) and breaking promises to friends (per the second example) don’t result in good consequences.  Thus, these acts would not be done or endorsed by utilitarians.  Lying under oath can get you in trouble with the authorities, and delay the capture of the guilty culprit.  Not to mention, broken promises lead to broken friendships.  Merely because one thinks that a particular action will have the best result, it is not possible to be completely certain, and since experience shows the contrary, utilitarians would not condone such behavior.  The best response against these utilitarian defenses is that it’s fundamentally weak, as it assumes that utilitarianism and moral common sense must be compatible because morally right decisions always yield good consequences.  But it is reasonable to assume that in at least some cases it is possible to achieve a good result by something moral common sense condemns.  Therefore, attempts to reconcile utilitarianism with moral common sense fails on principle.

A much better rebuttal made against the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with moral common sense is for utilitarians to just bite the bullet, and say, “Yeah, it does.  So what?”  After all, there is nothing inherent in the notion that a matter which follows in line with our common sense is necessarily correct.  Common sense would also tell us that the sun moves across the sky, as was once believed, but we now know to be false.  The impression that the earth is flat and stationary can also be defended rather easily just by appealing to common sense, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the planet is spherical and rotating on an axis as we speak.

As to the qualifier concerning moral common sense, a similar approach can be made.  For centuries, white people in American held it as a point of moral common sense that they were superior to other races.  Does appealing to common sense make them right?  What about a sexist male, whose moral common sense tells him that his misogyny is justified by the superiority of men over women?  These are not hypothetical examples; people like this actually do exist, and they do appeal to their moral common sense to vindicate prejudices the rest of us repudiate as absurdly wrong.  So, a utilitarian could easily argue that in certain circumstances it is quite appropriate (even necessary) to question whether it is our moral common sense that needs to be discarded in favor of utility.

Examining Rousseau’s Thoughts on the Significance of Children’s Tears

Crying is an infant’s native language, and tears are the syntax by which he first learns to articulate himself to the world.  At least, so much is true for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his groundbreaking thought experiment, Emile, attempts to give insight to the proper way of rearing a child to adulthood.  The significance of an infant’s tears is held to be most seminal in their early occurrences, as they will serve to determine the infant’s initial experience with a secondary person.  And, even more importantly, the reaction of the caretaker to these first cries will be the formative influence on the child’s future relations and expectations within society.

Infants are naturally subjective thinkers; having to learn about external objects and secondary persons through their repeated interactions with them.  The method by which all children eventually achieve an understanding of the other is through movement, or as Rousseau puts it, “It is only by movement that we learn that there are things which are not us, and it is only by our own movement that we acquire the idea of extension.”[1]  Nonetheless, this ability to use motion as a means to relate to our surroundings is a learned trait, hence the newborn infant suffers a great discomfort as he experiences a need to know and grasp the objects around him, but has to rely on others—constituting more exteriors he is also quite ignorant of—to satisfy this need.  The child is conflicted between the highly personal world he experiences, and the dependence he has for others to satisfy his needs; and “this is the source of children’s screams.”[2]  Tears are the words by which children make their needs intelligible to the world.  But because the infant is much closer to the nature of man, than the grown and corrupted adult, the language utilized is simple and basic, where all ills and discomforts are vocalized as pain.[3]  Although, Rousseau’s philosophy adamantly insists that man is a solitary being, self-sufficient by nature, here he does admit that in the earliest stages of life a person is in need of others for survival.  However, this apparent contradiction can be rectified by emphasizing the role self-preservation plays in Rousseau’s natural man.  An infant cries when he is in need of something, experiencing a specific discomfort, never to arbitrarily bond with his caretaker; his tears are an indication of a matter that he needs taken care of, not a want for pampered attention.  For if the latter was true it would stifle the solitary disposition of the newborn man.  A gross impossibility, since freedom is Rousseau’s man’s primary need.  Hence, it is not the cries of a child calling to satisfy his basic needs that set him on the path to social degradation, but the improper response rendered on to them by his misguided caretakers.

It is a natural phenomenon of modern childrearing to zealously fret over a child in order to prevent any harm from coming to him, only to cause him the greatest long-term harm conceivable in the process; a dependence on servitude, and an unnatural yearning for domination.  “As long as children find resistance only in things and never in wills, they will become neither rebellious nor irascible and will preserve their health better.”[4]  Unfortunately, this lesson is easily ignored, and children are nagged over under the false impression that providing for children’s needs entails accommodating their whims as a servant.  Rousseau urges on parents and caretakers to recognize the ills of this trend as a primary cause for the softening of societal children, in comparison to their more rural counterparts, and recognize how with every pampering, coddling, and needless fussing, a further step is taken to rob the child from becoming a wholly well-adjusted adult.  Tears originate as a means for children to communicate some legitimate distress they may have, but, “if one is not careful they soon become orders.”[5]  This is where man’s fall from the natural order starts.  Man has no need for the concept of servitude, either to serve or to be served, thus any implication to the contrary (including a constant yielding to his arbitrary wishes during infancy) immediately acts to take man away from his natural disposition.  Thus, it can be said that our entire notion of social relations is perverted because our caretaker’s lacked the patience to distinguish between our inherent needs for preservation and our acquired wants for dependence.

As stated previously, a child learns about his surroundings through movement, implying that he must be given the upmost freedom to roam and experience the environment around him.  Rousseau insists that exploration is natural for an infant, and gives the example of a child stretching out his hand to reach a far off object (page 66).  However, because he is incapable of estimating the distance of the object, his attempts to reach the object fail.  Now, the child will cry and scream in anger, not because he does not understand his own external relation to the distant object, but because he wants to will it to him through sheer force.  When such a situation arises the proper response is to ignore the child’s tears for obedience, as it will teach him immediately that he is not the master of those around him, nor can he command inanimate objects to obey him.  This sort of disciplining is also important as it will eventually lead to a general decrease in the amount of tears as children become “accustomed to shed them only when pain forces them to do so.”[6]

Although tears are clearly a natural mode of communication for children, the ease by which they are misused, and the potential dangers this leads to if the behavior is left uncorrected, is the formative cause of society’s degradation.  Rousseau argues that children’s dependency on other’s to satisfy their needs is a weakness, aggravated by the servile response of their caretakers, and that in this weakness “is subsequently born the idea of empire and domination.”[7]  When children learn from early on that their every whim can be satisfied through fury, rage, and temper tantrums, a dangerous precedent is set for how they will interact with the world as adults; they will grow accustomed to the servitude bestowed on them in infancy and through it develop an unrelenting demand for submission from their fellow man, who may or may not reciprocate kindly to the demand.  A struggle for power is thereby established amongst individual persons, each vying for dominance over the other, which will reflect in the despotic mores of society.  And man’s natural solitary state will be lost to the vices of anger, conceit, control, and power; otherwise known as the despicable world we are living in.

Emile is not meant by Rousseau to be a serious manual on how to rear a child from infancy to healthy adulthood, it is a philosophical reflection on how man has fallen to the state he is in, and how this fall begins with the first sounds we make.  Like man, the tears of children start out innocent, used to satisfy a natural need, but excess indulgence leads to the corruption of this natural feature, thus allowing man’s ominous passions to arise from it.  These passions corrupt precisely because they are unnatural, and due to the fact that society is built on these unnatural responses, the degradation is further agitated by each subsequent generation that is nurtured in the civilized fronts of existence.  And if the dilemma is to be remedied, then it must begin at the first whimpering made.


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile, translated by Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), p. 64.

[2] Rousseau, p. 64.

[3] Rousseau, p. 65.

[4] Rousseau, p. 66.

[5] Rousseau, p. 66.

[6] Rousseau, p. 69.

[7] Rousseau, p. 66.