Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Do you need religion to give your life meaning?

March 31, 2016

In LIFE AFTER FAITH: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014), Philip Kitcher argues that religion is not necessary to lead a happy, meaningful and ethical life.

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_His argument is obviously true, as far as it goes.  I know of many people, through personal aquaintence and reading who aren’t in the least religious, but are happy, wise and good.

But there also are saints and heroes whose religious faith enables them to go beyond what average human nature is capable of, as well as many seemingly ordinary people for whom faith is a source of quiet serenity and unpretentious goodness.

Others are hurt by their religion.  Their faith fails them in times of crisis.  Or they are tormented by a sense of sin because they can’t obey certain rules or accept certain beliefs.

Religion certainly makes life more dramatic.

If I believed, and internalized the belief, that my life was a high-stakes test, leading to either eternal bliss with God or eternal pain without God, my life would be much more intense and meaningful than it is now, but not better.

I would have to struggle to stop myself from thinking about why a merciful and loving God would condemn people to infinite pain for sins committed during a finite life or, even worse, for choosing the wrong creed.

One way to have the satisfactions of religion without being chained to harsh dogmas is through what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture or Reformed Judaism.

“Refined religion” puts theology on the same level as art, literature, philosophy and science—part of a treasury of human wisdom on which we can draw as needed.

“Refined religion” is not far from Kitcher’s own “soft atheism”, which doesn’t claim that science and philosophy have all the answers and which sees much of value in religious tradition, but sees no basis for affirming that religious beliefs are objectively true.

He admits that both refined religion and secular humanism are weak tea compared to the powerful emotions evoked by the great religious traditions and rituals.

But the great religions traditions have thousands of years’ head start, he wrote; there is no reason in principle why secular humanism cannot evolve rituals and traditions that are just as compelling.


Meaninglessness, horror and philosophy

August 8, 2015


My friend Hal Bauer called my attention to a radio interview with a young philosopher named Eugene Thacker, author of In the Dust of This Planet: the Horror of Philosophy, Volume I.

Thacker, a self-described pessimist and nihilist, thinks that horror fiction—in which nothing makes sense and something bad can happen at any moment—is a good guide to the modern predicament of living in a meaningless world.

My argument with Thacker is that he treats meaningless as a fact, and I think meaninglessness is a choice.

The old Greek and Roman philosophers were not concerned about meaninglessness.  To them, the purpose of philosophy was to teach you how to endure hardship, pain and death, with dignity and without whining.

Christianity created meaning.   The Christian church taught people they were actors a drama that extended from birth to the afterlife, and from Creation to the Last Judgment.

I once read Dante’s The Divine Comedy as part of a reading group, and was saw how Dante gave every little thing that he encountered a theological significance, a metaphysical significance and a moral significance.  It would be wonderful to see things that way, I thought.

The disappearance of this significance is hard on people who can’t believe in Christianity, but who’ve grown up in a civilization formed by Christianity.

Thacker tries to get this back through the study of occult philosophy, which does indeed give things metaphysical and magical significance.

There may well be “hidden worlds” as occult philosophers believe.  If you think, as I do, that everything that exists is the result of impersonal natural laws and of the decisions of sentient beings, then the occult is the realm of natural laws and sentient beings we don’t know about.

The problem with occult philosophy, as opposed to empirical science, is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing truth about the “hidden world” from meaningless gobbledegook.

In science, if the experiment doesn’t work or the prediction doesn’t come about, the theory is not true—or at least is subject to doubt.  In occult philosophy, the only criterion is whether it rings true to you personally.

If you can’t believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other established religions, I recommend you took at the classic Greek and Roman philosophers.  Broadly speaking, they were concerned with happiness, not with meaningfulness, and they pursued happiness in two ways.

One was to learn to appreciate life’s blessings, however small, and to not make yourself unhappy wishing things could be different from what they were.  The other was to live your life in such a way that you could look back on it with justified satisfaction at having done your duty.


In The Dust of This Planet – Radiolab.

Playing: In the Dust of This Planet.

In the Dust of This Planet: an excerpt from the book.

The Sight of a Mangled Corpse, an interview with Eugene Thacker.


Ian Welsh on the way of thinking we need

October 25, 2013

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh, whose blog link is on my Blogs I Like page, wrote four excellent posts this week on the current economic and political situation and how we should think about it.

They are all worth reading in their entirety, along with the comment threads, but here are some highlights, with links.

The preferred business model today is to make it so that no one owns anything: everything is unbundled, instead of owning it, you lease or rent it and the moment you can’t pay it all goes away.  This is what “cloud” computing is about: a revenue stream. Lose your revenue, lose everything.  Ownership of DNA sequences, ownership of seeds, effective ownership of your intellectual property because it appears in someone else’s pipe (like Google using people’s endorsements without compensating them), you will own nothing, and all surplus value you produce in excess of what you need to (barely) survive will be taken from you.

To put it another way, the current business model is value stripping.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

We’re going to hit the wall.  We’re going to have fight a dystopic panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create.  We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events”, droughts, water shortages and hunger.

That’s the baseline scenario.  That’s what we have to be ready to deal with, to change as much as we can, to radically mitigate to save hundreds of millions or billions of lives, and to make billions of lives good, instead of meaningless existential hells.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.


‘There but for the grace of God go I’

October 1, 2013

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

I mean by that what I’ve always meant by that, even when I believed in God.  “Boy, did I get lucky!”

I used to think that’s what everybody who said it meant.

Over time, I’ve learned that’s not the case.

For a lot of people it isn’t another way of saying “Phew!”

It isn’t a warning that luck is capricious and indifferent and has a way of running out. It isn’t a reminder to be merciful, tolerant, understanding, compassionate, and helpful to the unlucky.

It’s a way of saying “Aren’t I special?” and an excuse to add “And I guess that means God has decided you aren’t so I’m under no obligation to treat you as special. I can treat you just as God has treated you, as undeserving.”

For them it’s the Pharisee’s boastful prayer at the front of the temple: “Thank you, dear Lord, for not making me like them.”

via Lance Mannion

I think that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in life is to think that you deserve what happens to you—either good or bad.  That doesn’t mean to sit back passively and let things happen to you.

img-great-depression-streetperson-x350-j3In any circumstances, a person of good character who keeps their word, does their job and learns all they can will do better than if they were dishonest, lazy and ignorant.  But that doesn’t mean that honorable, hard-working and smart people will always succeed, and their opposites will always fail.  These things affect the odds, they affect the odds a lot, but they do not determine the outcome.

Looking at my own life and at people I know, I see people who are more talented and more self-disciplined that I was who are struggling just to get by.  I never had to do that.  This is not something I feel guilty about.  I don’t feel I’ve done anything to be ashamed of.  I merely recognize facts.

Part of my luck is having been born in the United States of America, rather than in a poor country; in the year 1936, rather than 30 years sooner or later; and with a white skin.  But I also am lucky in having made mistakes in my work, in my life choices and in my relationships with people that could have spoiled my career or my life, but didn’t.

there_but_for_the_grace_of_god_go_i_magnet-p147870870668429149qjy4_400When I worked for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I once wrote a feature article about a man who had a successful contracting business.  He was healthy and active, and loved the out of doors.  One day he felt a stinging sensation in his legs and back, and blacked out.  He regained consciousness months later in a hospital.  He was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of being bitten by fire ants!

When I interviewed him, he was working for a department in the City of Rochester, holding a pencil-sized stick on his mouth and using it to operate a computer.  Thanks to New York state’s vocational rehabilitation services, he was able to hold a job and earn a salary, but nobody could give him the use of his arms and legs back.  Things like this could happen to you, to me or to anyone.   Disabled people speak of the “temporarily abled” and there is truth in that expression.

My thoughts on this subject were inspired by a blogger named Lance Mannion. Click on The Grace of God to read his whole post.  It’s worth reading.

Then click on Even when you do everything right, life happens for another story which made me think, there but for the grace of God go I.

What do we owe the world?

September 9, 2013

The following passages are from DEBT: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.  

We owe our existence above all:

  • To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature.  The ground of our existence.  To be repaid through ritual: ritual becoming an act of respect and recognition to all that beside we are small.
  • To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape.  Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread.  We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
  • To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors.  We repay them by becoming ancestors.
  • To humanity as a whole.  We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence human life, possible.

… … These are nothing like commercial debts.  After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.

Myself, I wonder:  Couldn’t that really be the point?  Perhaps what the authors of the Brahamanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be.  That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation.  These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage; you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity.

All the more so if one is speaking of the universe.  If you cannot bargain with the gods because the gods already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe because the universe already is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself. 

One could interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start.


Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds.  There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.


… the Church had been … uncompromising in its attitude toward usury.  It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry.  

Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself.  Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison.  For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise.  Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation.

Exactly so!

Instructions for Life by the Dalai Lama

June 2, 2013

1.  dalai-lamaTake into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.

2.  When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

3.  Follow the three R’s: – Respect for self, – Respect for others and – Responsibility for all your actions.

4.  Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

5.  Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

6.  Don’t let a little dispute injure a great relationship.

7.  When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.

8.  Spend some time alone every day.

9.  Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.

10.  Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

11.  Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.

12.  A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.

13.  In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.

14.  Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.

15.  Be gentle with the earth.

16.  Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.

17.  Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.

18.  Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

19.  If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

20.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Hat tip to Watering Good Seeds

The experience of seeing Earth from space

March 17, 2013

Hat tip for this to Hank Stone.

Adam Smith on happiness

August 12, 2012

What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt and has a clear conscience?

This quotation is from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is the founder of the modern discipline of economics.  He was a strong advocate of free enterprise and business competition, but he was not a friend of corporations, which in his time were almost all government-sponsored monopolies, nor did he oppose public works or a social safety net for the poor.

Being an old, retired guy with time on his hands, I read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments  several years ago.  As with most great classics, I found it different from what I had been told about it.   Adam Smith was not a social Darwinist, who believed in competition as a way of weeding out the unfit.   Rather he saw free enterprise as a way people could exchange things to their mutual benefit without interference of government on behalf of vested interests.

I hesitate to say how Adam Smith would judge current economic controversies, since today’s issues are so different from those of his time.  I don’t claim his ideas are the same as the ideas of self-described liberals such as myself, but I don’t think he aligns with self-described conservatives either.  He most certainly did not believe in maximizing wealth as a worthy purpose in life.

Click on Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy for a blog devoted to setting the record straight on Adam Smith.

Click on Adam Smith’s Theory of Happiness for more about Smith’s moral philosophy.

How to Treat a Woman? | Ask Old Jules

July 22, 2012

Old Jules is the handle of a blogger who lives in the Texas hill country.  In his Ask Old Jules blog, he answers questions from readers such as this one.

Old Jules, what can you tell me about how to treat a woman I care about?

I was only married 25 years, divorced 15 years ago.  Still learning a lot, but I think there are some learnings I’ve gleaned from 45 years of intimate contacts with women.

  1. Be attentive and listen to what they say, even if you don’t agree or like what you hear.  The person probably knows you better than anyone else on the planet. Knows things about you that you don’t even know about yourself.  Listen and consider what’s said, ponder whether it’s true, or untrue.  And ponder whether, if true, it’s something you respect in yourself and don’t wish to change, or something you’d like yourself better if you changed.   Not for the woman you care about, but for yourself.
  2. Respect boundaries.   Recognize the woman you care about is a human being with a life and desires unrelated to your own.  Recognize for your own benefit and for hers that much of what goes on in her head, her heart, and her life is simply none of your business unless she chooses to tell you.  Care enough about her to support her needs and goals even if they mean nothing to you.
  3. Don’t expect your woman, nor anyone else, to ‘make you happy’.  That’s your responsibility.  Not hers.
  4. Don’t use the phrase, “You make me feel [fill in the blank]”.  Nobody ‘makes you feel’ any way.  People behave the way they do and you choose how you will feel about it.
  5. Remember things you might consider unimportant if they are important to her.  Valentines, anniversaries, birthdays and just simple hugs, hand-squeezes and touches mean a lot more to most women than they mean to many of us men.  It’s a small thing to us, but frequently a big thing to them.  Not doing it is nearly certain to result in frustration and tension.
  6. Remember to say “I love you” frequently if you want to keep the woman you care about feeling you are the man she cares about.

Click on Make a Girl Like Me? for another sample of Old Jules’ wisdom.

Click on Ask Old Jules and So Far From Heaven for Old Jules’ blogs.

A message for our time from Bertrand Russell

June 3, 2012

I’m a member of the Bertrand Russell Society, and just now got back from the BRS annual meeting, which was held this year in Plymouth, N.H.   My friend Tim Madigan, who teaches philosophy at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, showed some video clips of Bertrand Russell that he uses in his class—including this one, which was taken from an extended interview shown on the British Broadcasting System in 1959.

Russell was asked what message he would sent to the future.   We are part of the future for whom his message was intended.

Below is another video clip of Russell.


Benefits of the unexamined life

May 31, 2012

Socrates is supposed to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

But Martin Cohen, commenting on a Marginal Revolution post, disagreed.

1.  You don’t have to waste time and energy listening to those others you know are wrong.

2.  You can make use of the dynamic duo of “It’s not my fault” and “It’s not my problem”.

3.  You can get from here to there much faster if you ignore the “Warning – thin ice!” signs.

4.  You will be supported in so many ways by the others living in the fact-free zone.

5.  It’s much easier if you think of those things you are climbing over as minor obstacles rather than people.

6.  It’s so much fun to creatively decorate those walls that surround you.

7.  Focusing on your own well-being takes all your energy, anyway.

8.  Finally, if you’re screaming inside, you don’t have to listen.

Click on Marginal Revolution and scroll down for Cohen’s comment in context.  The comment is on a thread discussing Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Teachers.

Julian Assange meets the Occupy movement

May 29, 2012

Julian Assange is under house arrest in Britain and can’t get out and about to interview people for his The World Tomorrow TV program, but an interesting array of people come to him.

In Episode 7, he interviewed members of Occupy London and Occupy Wall Street, including David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist and political theorist, who was one of the original Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Click on Digital Journal for a summary of Episode 7 and links to previous episodes.

Click on David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street for a Business Week article about Graeber.

Click on “Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe” for reasons why David Graeber should not be considered the leader or intellectual mentor of the Occupy Wall Street movement. [Added 6/5/12]

Click on Davod Graeber: anarchist, anthropologist, financial analyst for an article about Graeber and many links to his short writings.

Update [5/30/12]  Julian Assange lost his appeal to Britain’s supreme court against being extradited to Sweden to face chargesallegations of rape and sexual molestationmisconduct.  However, inasmuch as the ruling was based on an interpretation of international law not argued in court, Assange’s lawyers will have until June 13 to make an argument against the ruling.  Assange’s lawyers also are appealing to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

If there is good evidence to support the charges, Julian Assange should be put on trial just like anybody else.  The problem is the possibility that Sweden’s current conservative government will hand him over to U.S. authorities, where he could be tried and sent to prison for revealing secret information about U.S. government misconduct.

Click on Julian Assange loses appeal against extradition for a report in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

Click on Julian Assange Loses Extradition Appeal for Time magazine’s account.

[Added 5/31/12] Click on Julian Assange: The Rolling Stone Interview for background to the case.

Freeing yourself from illusion

May 13, 2012

A friend of mine who practices Zen Buddhist meditation spent Saturday at a workshop studying a Buddhist sutra (teaching) that all is illusion.   On a superficial level, I don’t take this seriously.  I don’t believe I am living in the world of The Matrix, and quantum theory doesn’t have anything to do with my life.

But on a practical level, this teaching is profoundly wise.   People make themselves unhappy for all sorts of reasons that wouldn’t matter unless they thought they mattered.  I’m speaking now of healthy, well-fed people whose loved ones are healthy and well-fed, and not about Buddhist teaching about accepting pain and loss.  I know in my own case that I feel frustrated, insulted, disappointed, resentful, envious and angry about things that, in the cosmic scheme of things, do not matter in the least.

I can’t help these feelings.  But I can refrain from dwelling on them.  I can refrain from thinking up rationalizations as to why my disappointment or resentment is justified.  I can disconnect my ego from my negative feelings.  If they come into my mind unbidden, they aren’t what I think of as me.  If I didn’t do this, I can easily imagine myself dwelling on petty insults and jealousies to the point where they poisoned my whole existence.

Christians teach this too.  Martin Luther once said (if I recall something I once read correctly) that you can’t stop the birds of anger from flying overhead, but you can stop them from building nests in your hair.

Henri the existentialist cat

May 5, 2012

Nonviolent resistance to Hitler?

April 29, 2012

On this web log, I favorably reviewed two of Gene Sharp’s manuals for nonviolent resistant to despots.  A friend asked if I think nonviolent resistance would have worked against Hitler.

His ideas rest on the truth that the power of a tyrant is the power to command the obedience of the people he rules.  To the extent that they cease to obey, his power disappears.  Gene Sharp cited examples of successful nonviolent resistance to Hitler, including Norwegian school teachers who successfully resisted demands that they teach Nazi doctrines, and German women married to Jewish men whose protests caused the German government to rescind orders to deport their husbands to death camps.

But nonviolent resistance would not work for peoples marked for extermination or ethnic cleansing.  this would not work for the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.  Hitler did not wish to rule the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.   He wished to eliminate them.  Nonviolent resistance would not have been an obstacle to that goal.

I am not a pacifist.  I understand that war is sometimes the least bad option.  I do not think that the line between nonviolent and violent resistance is always clear.  Many campaigns of mass defiance involve both.   A nonviolent struggle has the merit of being inherently democratic, in the way that many seizures of power in the name of liberation did not.  M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had power that rested on the voluntary compliance of their followers.  Unlike the leaders of many supposed liberation movements, they didn’t kill people to keep their followers in line.

Click on The realism of nonviolent action for my review of Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Click on Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook for my review of his From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Click on Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare for a good profile by CNN.  [Added 6/27/12]

My thoughts on the nature of evil

April 6, 2012

My definition of a good person is someone who understands what is right, and usually does the right thing.

My definition of a bad person is someone whose understanding of what is right is overridden by some more powerful motive – pride, anger, fear, laziness, self-interest or appetites of different kinds.

My definition of an evil person is someone who is actively hostile to the good.   Such people exist, although they are unusual.  I know they exist because I have met some of them, and I recognize the evil in myself.

When I meet someone who is manifestly superior to me in any way, I feel judged.  I feel the lack in myself of whatever quality I admire–achievement, courage, compassion, professionalism in work, whatever it is.  One healthy way to respond to this is to try to emulate the good qualities I admire.  Another is to refrain from making comparisons.

But I feel the temptation to try to tear down the admired person, at least in my mind.   I think of all the reasons they might not deserve credit for being what they are, and all the excuses I might have for not meeting their standard myself.  I can imagine myself trying to tear them down in reality.  That would be evil.  The evil person is committed to the belief that there is no such thing as good, and that the good person needs to be taught a lesson–to be shown that their goodness does not coincide with the way the world is.

During my life, the people for whom I feel the most resentment are not people who are rich and powerful.   They are peers whose achievements are greater than my own.   I have learned to abort these feelings.  If I did not, I would be miserable, and I would make those around me miserable.   When I know someone whose achievements make me jealous, I make a point of going to that person and congratulating them on their accomplishment.   When I do that, I feel as if all the poisonous feelings are draining out of my mind, as if there was a boil that had been lanced with a red-hot needle.

I like egotists–that is, the kind of egotists who think well of themselves without having to think badly of other people.  It is a great mistake to based your self-respect on lookind down on other people.  This is especially true when you look down on other people because of their race, religion, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or political perspective, because your sense of superiority requires no effort on your part.   But it is a a mistake in any case.   No matter who you are, you can always find someone to look down on, just as you can always find someone who by whatever measure is better than you.  I have always found it a mistake to judge myself by comparing myself with others.   I have resolved to never let my sense of self-respect depend on things that are outside my control.

Imaginary evil is glamorous.  That’s why Nazism has such an enduring fascination.   Sauron, the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings epic, is a glamorous figure.   But in the story, giving yourself up to the Ring of Power will eventually turn you into a Gollum, someone whose personality has been reduced to a bundle of appetites.   That’s a good metaphor for how things are in reality.   Real evil is not glamorous.  It is petty and trivial.

What liberalism ought to be

February 17, 2012

Fundamentally liberalism is an attitude.  The chief characteristics of that attitude are human sympathy, a receptivity to change and a scientific willingness to follow reason rather than faith or any fixed ideas.
    ==Chester Bowles


This, perhaps, is the testament of Liberalism.  For underlying all the specific projects which men espouse who think of themselves as Liberals there is always, it seems to me, a deeper concern.  It is fixed upon the importance of remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances.
This is why Liberalism has always been associated with a passionate interest in freedom of thought and freedom of speech, in scientific research, in experiment, in the liberty of teaching, in an independent and unbiased press, in the right of men to differ in their opinions and to be different in their conduct …
    ==Walter Lippmann

The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.  This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology.
    ==Bertrand Russell


What do I understand by the Liberal principle?  I understand, in the main, it is a principle of trust in the people only qualified by prudence.  By this principle which is opposed to the Liberal principle, I understand mistrust of the people, only qualified by fear.
    ==William E. Gladstone

A philosopher on love

February 14, 2012

To love someone is to find happiness in their happiness.  This is what is common to all forms of love  — of parents for their children, of a man for his wife, or of a saint for all mankind. …

To be loved is to have someone find happiness in your happiness.  To love someone who loves you is one of the most glorious things that can happen, for happiness builds on happiness as is possible in no other way.

This is adapted from The Moral Rules by the late Bernard Gert, a philosopher who claimed that it is possible to create a rational code of morality, based on rules of conduct that would be publicly advocated by all rational persons—a rational person being defined as someone who desires to be happy or to make a loved one happy.   He noted that most human beings agree on what is right and wrong.  Where we disagree is what the exceptions are, and he agreed that any rule can have an exception.

What I like about Gert is that he did not set up a false opposition between logic and love.  Reason, in his philosophy, was not a substitute for emotion or desire.  It was a means by which you harmonize and prioritize feelings and desires.

Fun, money, honesty: pick any two?

February 8, 2012

Enjoy your work.

Make lots of money.

Work within the law.

Pick any two.

I don’t know who originated this.  It is clever, but is it really true?  Joseph Wilson of Xerox, Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid, Milton S. Hershey of Hershey’s Chocolate, and George Romney of American Motors were examples of business executives who were decent, honorable, enormously successful and, by all accounts, happy, and there are plenty of examples outside the world of business.

Equating the unethical with the practical is a way of excusing unethical behavior and also a way of excusing failure.  This kind of thinking goes back a long time.  G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man speculated that ancient Carthaginians sacrificed infant children to Moloch because they thought that just because this was so savage and cruel, it would be practical and effective.  I could imagine a Carthaginian merchant saying, “Our religion might not be very pretty, but it works.”

I don’t think Chesterton knew much about ancient history, but he had great insight into universal human nature.  Today’s admiration for greed and ruthlessness in business is no more rational than the worship of Moloch.  Rationality means behaving toward others in such a way as to make it in their self-interest that you succeed.

Bertrand Russell said that if people really understood their self-interest, their behavior would be on a higher ethical level than it is.  He wrote nearly 90 years ago in Skeptical Essays: “It may be laid down as a general rule to which there are few exceptions that, when people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.”

When I was small, we boys would organize games, and everybody was expected to play by the rules.  If you cheated, nobody would play with you.   In adult life, it takes longer for cheating to catch up with you, but very often (alas, not always) it does.

Good intentions alone won’t make you succeed, but neither are crookedness and double-dealing a magic formula for success.  The saddest thing in the world is somebody who has in effect sold their soul in return for success, and failed to find a buyer.

Click on shirky’s law: “equality. fairness. opportunity. pick two” for a related “law,” somewhat off topic, of which I also am skeptical.  I found the “enjoy, money, law” version in the comment section of that post.

Click on Shirky: Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality for thoughts on the sources of success in blogging, and an argument (with which I disagree) that these are the same as the rules for success in the real world.

The war on empathy

February 3, 2012

This is from Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s column in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle.

Today, I am a rich guy, a one-percenter. … … My late father could not even fathom how much money I make.  I have trouble processing that as well. … …

Bill O'Reilly

Today, the Occupy Wall Street crew and many progressive Americans believe that I am a greedhead, even though they have no idea what I do with my money.  Just the fact that I have it gives them license to brand me as a dreadful “one-percenter.”

The reason that I have prospered monetarily is that I put freedom to good use.  I worked hard, got a great education, paid my dues in journalism, and finally hit it big.  America gave me the freedom to do all those things.  In the past, my achievements might have been celebrated.  Not today.  Now, more than a few folks say I am not paying my fair share to ensure the security of my fellow citizens. … …

… …  I’ve decided that those demanding more of my money for “social justice” are really attacking freedom.  In this country, it is not wrong to prosper.  You should not be demeaned for “having.”

via Bill’s Column.

What I get from this column is a lack of empathy for people who’ve been less successful than Bill O’Reilly, and a fierce anger at anybody who thinks he should feel such empathy.  I think Bill O’Reilly speaks for many Americans, and not just those in the top 1 percent income bracket.   Opposition to empathy is widespread.

The big objection to Justice Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings was that she said she could identify with people who were victims of racial or sexual discrimination.  During the current Republican presidential debates, the crowd cheered Ron Paul when he said that if somebody could have afforded to buy health insurance and didn’t, he would be willing to let that person die for inability to pay medical bills.  Other crowds cheered executions.  The common feeling, in my opinion, is a push back on claims for sympathy for people in bad situations.

I can sort of understand this, in a way and up to a point.  I don’t like freeloaders.  I don’t like guilt salesmen.  I object when the Haves try to help the Have-nots at the expense of the Have-a-littles, as in the Boston school busing controversy of the 1970s.

But neither do I think of myself as an individual, separate unto myself, whose well-being is due solely to my own merits and not at all to good fortune or to the help of other people.  It is not a question of altruism.  It is not a question of me sacrificing myself for the good of others.  Rather it is that my well-being being is tied up with people around me.

I can’t have a secure retirement income unless everybody has a secure retirement income.  I can’t have snowplows clear my street unless everybody has snowplowing service.  I can’t hope for a good future for my little grand-nieces without hoping for a good future for everybody’s grand-nieces.

Now this would be less true if I were in the upper 1 percent income bracket, but it would still be partly true.  I read an article in the Democrat and Chronicle some time ago about how the wealthiest people in the Rochester area objected to paying for a public water supply.  They reasoned that they had clean water, and saw no reason to subsidize clean water for the masses.  It was pointed out, however, that an unsafe drinking supply helps the spread of infectious diseases, which are no respecter of economic class.

I don’t want to give up what I have—food, shelter, good medical care and leisure to enjoy life—but I wish everybody else had at least as much as I have.  I couldn’t lead a happy life if everybody around me was miserable.

I know, however, that there are those who feel the exact opposite.  For them, having things that other people don’t have is precisely the point.  I’ve seen this attitude expressed on T-shirts.  Winning is not enough.  Others must lose.  The joy of owning stuff, for such people, is that others envy them for having it.  I don’t know what to say to such people, except that to say they have no standing to complain about “the politics of envy.”  Or to suggest that if they lack the ability to imagine themselves in somebody else’s place, they lack a basic tool for understanding the world and are likely to be blindsided by reality.

Click on The One Percent Blues for the complete Bill O’Reilly column.

Click on The Empathy Gap for series of columns on the subject by a Psychology Today writer.  [Added 2/4/12]

Click on Empathy and Compassion for a web site devoted to the subject [Added 2/4/12]

The psychopathic 1 percent

January 20, 2012

The board of the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been bailed out by the British government, wants to give its chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, a $2 million bonus on top of his $2 million salary. A “senior banker” told the Financial Times that Royal Bank employees will be demoralized if he doesn’t get it.

Dick Fuld, the former CEO of failed Lehman Brothers, told his staff he wanted to rip out his competitors’ hearts and eat them while they were still alive.  E-mails revealed Goldman Sachs executives gloating about how they’d unloaded worthless securities on unsuspecting customers.

How to you explain such behavior?  Certain British academics speculate that such people are, literally, psychopaths.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to the top of seemingly successful corporations? Boddy says psychopaths take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.”  Such circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behavior invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

via Bloomberg.

Boddy admits this is an unproved hypothesis.  But he thinks it wouldn’t hurt to have those whose decisions affect the well-being of other people to undergo a psychological test just to make sure they’re not psychopaths.  Does this seem far-fetched?  Two other British psychologists found that psychological profiles of 39 British senior managers and CEOs matched profiles of the criminally insane.

In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses.  They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated.  On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients.  In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for.  Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people.  Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations.

Via The Guardian

Brian Basham, a British financial journalist, knows of at least one important bank that gave psychological tests not to screen out psychopaths, but to make sure to hire them.


Six notable people to invite for dinner

January 10, 2012

An on-line poll asked viewers to name six notable historical figures whom they’d invite dinner.  One of the responders was Newt Gingrich.  He listed Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Winston Churchill and John Ford.

The composite consensus of top invitees, as I posted this,  consisted of Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Jackson.

As for myself, I in a way already have notable people as guests.  They are guests in my head.  That is to say, I have imaginary conservations with people whom I’ve read or heard about, but never met.  I do not of course mistake them for real people, but I can’t always predict their responses, and I sometimes change my opinion as a result of these conversations.

I have imaginary conversations with George Orwell, Henry Thoreau and Ayn Rand, but I probably wouldn’t invite them.  I don’t think they’d be the life of the party.  But I think I’d have a good time talking to Bertrand Russell, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and maybe Richard Feynman or William James.

Or maybe I should invite Socrates, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, the Buddha, and Confucius and, if I am not too awestruck to open my mouth, ask them what they think of their professed followers.

What notable people would you like to have dinner with?

Click on Who are the six notable people you’d like to have dinner with? for the current version of the on-line poll.

Click on Dinner With Newt? A TIC Colloquium for thoughts about Newt Gingrich’s choices.  Stephen Masty, writing for the Imaginative Conservative, said it would be enlightening to ask all the Presidential candidates for their favorite imaginary dinner guests, more enlightening than the current debates, anyhow.  But the candidates would have to submit to lie detector tests to guarantee honest answers.

Of course the great thing about living in an age like this, when books are easily obtainable from stores, public libraries and the Internet is that you don’t have to meet great people in the flesh in order to interact with them.

The here and next

November 20, 2011

These are my sentiments in regard to my own life.  I have lived a fortunate life, and I love the life I lead now.   I wish I could say the same thing in regard to the United States as a whole.

The paradoxical nature of humanity

November 13, 2011

I like this, even thought I am not sure it is correctly attributed.

The imaginary political spectrum

November 3, 2011

We talk about political ideas and proposals in terms of an imaginary spectrum.  Politicians are leftist, rightist or centrists.  But what does that mean?  Self-described left-wingers generally see themselves as champions of poor oppressed people against their enemies.  Self-described right-wingers generally see themselves as defenders of traditional moral values against their enemies.

A Tea Party supporter once explained to me that the Right consists of the champions of individual liberty against governmental authority.  By this definition, Hitler was on the Left, and people such as President Obama and myself, although not Nazis, were closer to Hitler on the spectrum than the Tea Party leaders.  But the American Civil Liberties Union champions individual civil liberties against government authority.  Is it then a right-wing organization.

The so-called Nolan Chart addresses this complexity.  Libertarians see self-described liberals on the left as defenders of personal liberty and self-described conservatives on the right as defenders of economic liberty.  But libertarians think that they alone are consistent defenders of liberty in all aspects.

Click on Nolan Chart Survey for a quiz that will show you your place on the Nolan chart.

Click on The Wheel of Politics for another libertarian-centric chart, this one a hexagon showing libertarianism in relation to progressivism and conservatism.  Libertarians go in more for this kind of political taxonomy because, in my opinion, they see politics more as a conflict of ideas while liberals see it more as a conflict of interests and conservatives as a conflict of values.

The SF writer Jerry Pournelle produced a chart placing political ideologies along two axes – statism versus liberty, and rationality vs. irrationality.

This explains how Nazis and Communists can be so alike, yet so opposed to each other.  Rationalism in this case does not refer to what people really are, but how they think of themselves.  Communists thought of Marxism-Leninism as the only scientific philosophy; the Nazis glorified instinct and despised intellectuality.

 Click on The Pournelle Political Axes for Jerry Pournelle’s explanation of his chart.

But this way of looking at things leaves out an important dimension, which is captured on a chart, shown below, created by political scientist Daniel Chirot.

Click to enlarge



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