CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS

“Good is all that serves life, evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life…and all that enhances life. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it to pieces.” – Erich Fromm

 

To further define the concepts of good and evil, it is helpful to identify the various goods and evils we detect around us. In general philosophers do not list more than a sample of goods and evils, so I have created a fairly comprehensive table of goods and evils from reading and personal reflection. (See Table 2 in the Appendix).  For many of these, a different name or manifestation might be chosen, but for the most part the reader should be able to trace a given good to one listed.  I also listed the corresponding evil – essentially the opposite of the good listed although there is some variation in this, for example for the good, security, the related evil is fear (i.e. worry about one’s safety).

Traditionally philosophers divide ‘good’ into two types. First is intrinsic which is good in itself rather than as a means to some higher good. Happiness is the most noteworthy example; we do not usually think of achieving happiness for some other reason, rather because we think it is desirable in itself. Alternatively an instrumental good is not good in itself, but by virtue of the good that can derive from it. Wealth is an example; good only as a means to comfort, happiness, or charity. In Table 2, I have tried to categorize the listed goods by which type they fit.

(to be continued in the next post)

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GOOD AND EVIL

“Good then if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the thing is good, is incapable of any definition…” – G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

The crux of reality and life for sapient beings revolves around the concepts of Good and Evil. For instance one may question whether the universe is mostly good, mostly evil, or neither. Individual actions are considered ethical if ‘good’ and immoral if ‘evil.’ Therefore the next step is to think through these two words and the relationship between them.

Like we found with the word ‘reality,’ philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias tend to avoid defining the word ‘good’ per se. Dagobert Runes has a passable two part definition1:

1.  In ethics, morally praiseworthy character, action, or motive.

2.  Anything desirable, or that ought to be desired.

However, the words ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘desirable’ seem a bit circular rather than defining to me, and leave the real concern of relativity. After all a tyrant believes control of others is desirable, but it is not clear that makes for a ‘good.’ Webster’s dictionary has a half-column, 58 meaning entry for the word ‘good.’ None is more exact or more useful than these.

Aristotle thought of a ‘good’ as something which leads to happiness, but that seems insufficient for more general use. Accordingly I will again suggest my own definition:

Good is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe. Evil then is simply its negative.

No one need accept this definition, but the alternative is to rely on one’s own intuitive definition of good.  G.E. Moore thinks it is too basic a concept (like ‘yellow’) to be truly definable. This is troubling given the foundational nature of good and evil in much of practical philosophy, but the reader can at least get a sense of my use of those essential words from my definition.

1  Runes, Dagobert, Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, 1950, p. 118.

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SPECIAL PROBLEMS

“Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it. That is knowledge.”  – Confucius

 

Unfortunately before we can reasonably move forward to outline the path to philosophically based happiness and meaning, we need more than makes up the  broad outline on the tiers of reality and ethics. If they are the highways on a cross country drive, the ‘special problems’ are the roadside stops on that journey. Each of the special problems will require careful analysis as part of developing one’s concepts of reality and ethics. A short cut now may divert one from the correct route or lead through a maze of confusing dirt roads. They require separate analysis and are distinct from lesser problems in that one’s view in these areas will color one’s personal philosophy at every level.

The key special problems I will discuss include, in logical order:

  1. Good and evil
  2. The existence and nature of God
  3. Body and soul
  4. Death and immortality
  5. Free will and fate
  6. Teleology
  7. Grief, illness, and pain

During my discussion, I will focus on defining terms, providing context, reviewing traditional viewpoints and debate, and choosing the most reasonable resolutions. I will search for means to accommodate rejected alternatives in order to minimize the consequences of error. This may be done by identifying common elements, exploring metaphorical meanings, or assigning likelihood of truthfulness.

As always we cannot expect certainty, nor can we wait for it; rather we must make choices and live life within a framework of informed uncertainty. Following this phase we will be ready to draw up a blueprint for living a flourishing life.

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CURRENT READING

The Philosopher’s Magazine1

“Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity….”– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

 

While perusing the incredibly useful book, The Philosopher’s Toolkit2, by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, I noticed that Mr. Baggini had founded a quarterly philosophical magazine and decided on a whim to subscribe for one year. What a delightful decision! I received my first issue in December and thought it might be interesting to blog about its contents.

I’ll begin by noting the quality of the publication is excellent with a thick glossy cover and heavy stock paper. This issue has 120 pages of content with about 10% being aesthetically produced photos and illustrations. The advisory board consists of four women and eleven men; five of the twenty-four essays are written by editors or advisory board members.

There is a medley of subject matter starting with an editorial essay memorializing a British philosopher by the name of Mary Midgley who at age 99 wrote a book titled What is Philosophy For?, wherein she tries to “make sense of this deeply puzzling world”. Then come additional articles such as ones on fake news, sustaining the planet, and the esoteric What is dirt? There is also a challenging article on time as conceived by Henri Bergson and reflected in Doctor Strange.

This issue’s forum is on neuroscience, looking at some philosophically relevant features of that field including neuroexistentialism, transcendence, free will, utilitarianism, and the relationship of neuroscience to philosophy of consciousness. I enjoyed the book review on Iddo Landau’s Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, written by Kirsten Egerstrom, a philosophy professor whose research focuses on the topic of meaningfulness in life, an area of particular interest to me. The final piece is an interview of Matt Teichman, whose podcast is known as Elucidations, but who also refers readers to The History of Philosophy podcast which is one of his favorites.

However my favorite essay is Philosophy as a Way of Life, by John Sellars, professor of ancient philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. In the article his stated goal is to move philosophy away from modern concerns of what we can know and how we know it to philosophy as a guide to living. He discusses Pierre Hadot’s book (of the same name as the essay) which starts with Socrates’ emphasis on “care of the soul” and traces that approach to three later schools of thought. The first is developed by Epicurus whose efforts to explain natural phenomena scientifically is directed at alleviating unwarranted fears to bring about ataraxia, or untroubledness. The second is the stoicism of Zeno which identifies philosophy as the “art of living,” with a focus on control of the emotions, and seeing nature as a unified whole. The third is Pyrrhonism which renounces all beliefs, and suggests cogent counter-arguments lead us to ‘equipollence’ (the midpoint between two sides of a debate), and an involuntary confusion, resulting in an unexpected tranquility. Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus progressively refine these Hellenistic philosophies into approaches to real life problems and emphasis on deeds over words. Later philosophers such as Montaigne and Nietzsche also adopt the principle of philosophy as a guide to living rather than a simple mental exercise.

Overall the material in this periodical covers an amazing spectrum of philosophy in a succinct yet robust fashion. I found it very helpful in learning about current approaches to philosophical questions and for comparing my own thoughts with those of some academic experts. My only caution is that the content is by and large most appropriate for more advanced readers.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 83, 4th Quarter 2018.

2 Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S., The Philosopher’s Toolkit. Blackwell Publishing. 2003. ISBN  978-0-631-22874-5.

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SYNOPSIS OF THE BIG PICTURE (continued)

Second, external and cultural reality require care to avoid misperception and overcome bias. Observation of external reality requires caution – the world does in fact appear flat and the Earth does not seem to be moving, which is why it took millennia to get even intelligent people to believe otherwise. Multiple sources of data and detailed knowledge of history will reduce the chance of error in understanding society or how we got here.

Third, acknowledge the power of science. Whatever religious or personal beliefs you have, science has consistently proven to be the most reliable means to truth. It must be studied to avoid blatant error and to fully understand the physical world and cosmos. While much of science is designated as ‘theory’ (such as the ‘theory of evolution’), the real world utility and astounding predictions of science are proof of science’s validity (think of the technology in your cell phone or of the success of medicine in treating illness). Denying or dismissing science is done at great risk – consider the possible death of your child from refusal to vaccinate her.

Finally, accept that absolute certitude will not be possible in most or any of these areas. The degree of confidence should be a factor in how strongly any given notion of reality is embraced. For instance, in politics, recognizing the uncertainty of most political views is essential to social virtue. The less secure you are in an area, the more you will have to develop an ethical approach that minimizes the consequences of potential error, while accommodating the largest number of possibilities. Wisdom is not intrinsically dogmatic; rather adaptive and balanced.

Ernest Becker in his book Escape From Evil and J. Bronowksi in his towering television series and book, The Ascent of Man, highlight the horrific consequences of mistaken certainty. Ethical behavior requires an open mind in dealing with others and pursuing a better world.

If the goal is a meaningful life, errors due to a rush to judgment, denial of science, and over-reliance on imperfect perception and pre-existing bias are among its greatest dangers. In addition, there are some special problems that need to be worked out before we can finalize a pathway to that end. The reader is advised to review the following chapters to complete his or her preparatory work.

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SYNOPSIS OF THE BIG PICTURE

“The ancient precept ‘Know thyself.’ and the modern precept ‘Study nature.’ become at last one maxim.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

In the last thirteen sections, we have defined and examined the nature of reality and the philosophy of human conduct. The big picture of philosophy then distills into thinking about the five tiers of each of these  two basic components:

REALITY                                                       ETHICS

Internal                                                            Self-Mastery

Proximate                                                      Conduct to Others

Cultural                                                            Societal Duty

Cosmic                                                            Relationship to the Ultimate

Ultimate                                                          Supererogatory Duty

As you begin your process of sorting out these 10 areas, a few principles may be helpful to keep in mind.

First, internal reality and ethic will require intense self-examination. You are likely to find the self consists of three parts: external, internal, and primal. The external self is that which makes up your visible persona, the person you present to others; it is likely to be least important. The internal self is the psychological and mental self, most of which you share with very few others or no one. The primal self is the ineffable being Heidegger calls dasein and the Vedas call Atman– the ‘you’ that exists without adjectives, your newborn self that you have carried since before your first coherent memories; it is the being or identity which exists independent of participation in the world.

Each of these parts of the self needs defining and understanding. Phenomenology with its concept of ‘bracketing’ of the uncertain elements offers an excellent tool in this exploration.

In addition self-mastery will require long periods of reflection and lifelong commitment. Its five components of self-discipline, selflessness, self-knowledge, self-improvement, and self-actualization will accompany the journey that makes up the meaningful life. The importance of humility cannot be over-emphasized; one simply need look at the large number of historical figures brought down by hubris. Another crucial factor in the ultimate worth of life is to be guided by a strong moral compass. But in the end, the greatest reward may be the final connecting of your primal or ontological self with the unity of the cosmos in a transcendental act of enlightenment.

(continued next post)

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SUPEREROGATORY DUTY

“Charity is the gravitational force which keeps civilization in its orbit.” – Arthur Koester

My final category of ethics – ‘supererogatory duty’ – is not often the subject of philosophical discussion, but its sporadic appearance in my reading suggested to me a potential role it could play in human ethics. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy1 defines supererogation as action beyond the demands of duty, noting that such actions are praiseworthy to perform, but not blameworthy to omit. Traditionally such acts are seen as those of a saint or a hero. However I see supererogatory duty as the best means to resolve one of man’s most difficult conundrums, that of guilt and the myth of ‘original sin.’

Most Christians and many non-Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin, where the disobedience of the first humans, Adam and Eve, eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In this tradition, as we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, we inherit their sin and thus come to the world as sinners or impure, fallen creatures. I struggled with the fairness of this assertion in my youth, and only later philosophical study opened for me window of understanding.

It dawned on me that man’s ‘fallen’ status or ‘original sin’ is best seen as a metaphor of the imperfection of being human and the universal and perhaps unavoidable propensity to error and vice as viewed from at least four vantage points:

  1. Biologic – Non-human life exists instinctually, is untroubled by reflexive thinking, and incapable of immoral behavior so remains intrinsically a part on nature. Man lives deliberately beyond instinct, ruminates constantly, and acts in ways contrary to his environment, thus separating himself from nature.2
  2. Psychological – Man has a protracted period of dependence and societal immaturity during which he makes errors of judgment and causes harm to others.
  3. Existential – Man has unlimited desires, imagination, and freedom, but is confined to a limited body and lifespan, and is a result overwhelmed by the universe.3
  4. Cosmological – Eastern traditions depict negative karma lingering from prior lives as causing suffering in our current life.

If we are in fact ‘fallen’ creatures, imperfect and impure for most or all of our lives, making countless mistakes, and hurting others, even if unintentionally, the question remains, how can we expect to find redemption or salvation? For Christians, belief in Christ completes this process. For the rest of us, supererogatory duty (combined with humility) seems to me the best means to psychological and spiritual cleansing. Culturally this is labelled as charity (not accidently one of the Christian virtues- despite the presumption of salvation through faith, the Church fathers understood: personal salvation demands supererogatory duty). For the wealthy, this is financial munificence (noblesse oblige); for others it may be volunteer work, a heroic or pious occupation (e.g. firefighter or monk), or taking on a cause.

Added to atonement and self-forgiveness, I believe supererogatory duty offers the final ethic in personal apotheosis.

1Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 903.

2Tolle, Eckhart, Living a Life of Inner Peace. New World Library. 2003.       

3Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 144.

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ETHICS AND ULTIMATE REALITY (continued)

For some of us, the universe is not only a multitude of physical phenomena, but also a unity of which each of us is a part. The Upanishads speak of Brahman, the ultimate power sustaining the cosmos, and Atman, the internal spiritual power of the individual. In a divine equation of unspeakable sublimity, they determine that Brahman and Atman are one. Some Hindus spend the later part of their life in meditation of this cosmic mystery. Some Western philosophers also speak of a cosmic unity including Pythagoras, Plotinus, and Spinoza. Here self-mastery and relationship with the ultimate intersect in an ethical absolute.

Still others believe that there is a divine being separate from or superadded to the cosmos. Most who believe in a divine being do so as practitioners of a particular religion, such as Christianity or Islam, with recognized sacred texts. In that case the sacred text and experts such as priests or clerics typically provide guidance on relationship with the divine. This site cannot address in detail those authorities, but I urge those readers to read carefully the texts, reflect deeply on the meanings, and avoid the error (sin) of misinterpretation. A divine creator it seems to me would judge harshly the destruction of His creation or the taking of life in His name. It also seems unlikely that a divine creator of man would infuse in us reasoning power like that thoughtfully used by traditional philosophers that errs greatly in the ethics outlined above.

For the religious, there is another key method of relationship with the divine, discussed in detail by Thomas Merton in his book, The Inner Experience.1 Merton layers on top of classic Eastern meditation a higher level he calls contemplation, man’s ability to experience the divine in mystical union. Sufiism is the Islamic version of this union.

In summary, no matter what concept you possess on ultimate reality, there is an ethical correlate. It seems to me that at a minimum everyone should embrace a scientifically supported cosmic ethic through respect of nature and desire to appreciate, understand, and learn about the universe. For others there will be religious obligations and perhaps a desire to probe deeper by means of meditation and contemplation.

1Merton, Thomas, The Inner Experience. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. ISBN 0-06-059362-8. Chapter 2, pages 7-18.

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ETHICS AND ULTIMATE REALITY

Philosophy is to be studied , not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”  – Bertrand Russell

The fourth level of Ethics is goes beyond human relations to how one should behave with respect to ultimate reality. If your ultimate reality is humanity, there is in theory no further moral burden, but while humanism may be the dominant belief system of contemporary society, I suspect no reader will on deep consideration stop there. At a minimum, cosmic reality as defined by science obliges humans to develop a mode of conduct consistent with science outside of immediate human interests. We inhabit the Earth and our treatment of our home planet and its other inhabitants is an issue of ethics. We have to come to terms with the consequences of human actions on other species, natural beauty, and the environment. I believe most thoughtful people feel that we have an ethical duty to protect for the future these nonhuman assets from common stupidity, individual avarice, and our immaturity as a species. We should carefully consider the advice of reputable scientists when it is based on consensus. The greatest vice of our lifetimes by our species may be irreparable harm to the only planet known by us to have life, and especially advanced forms of life.

Relationship to the cosmos can be more however. It can take the form of direct observation and appreciation of nature, the practice of astronomy, scientific research and experiment, or even the commitment to learning in the many branches of science and mathematics. For those not disposed to believe in God, this is their religion. It is not a worship of the universe per se, rather an awe of its magnificence and a deep desire to understand it to the extent possible. Whatever one’s personal beliefs, an ethically driven interest in nature and the cosmos is a value not to be overlooked.

(continued next post)

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SOCIETAL DUTY – PART II (continued)

As members of society, the benefits and rights we derive from social order impel the correlative responsibility to discharge our duties to promote that order. In addition, some duties are simply incumbent upon us as members of humanity.

Table 1  is my list of the duties needed in modern societies ranked in order of priority (See Appendix – Table of Duties).  For most of us, all of these duties will apply and in general when duties conflict, the higher rated duty should be chosen.

Readers will note that I consider responsibility for one’s own physical needs as the highest duty to society thereby relieving society of providing for him or her. With the exception of the ill and disabled this is the logical first duty each adult has to society as it allows one to meet the other duties of a full member of society.  Ayn Rand states it succinctly, “Living in a society, instead of a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life.”I am aware this is likely to be controversial.

The logically second most vital duty is support for social justice, that is, all lower ranked duties must meet the tenet of equality and fair treatment for all. It is also a critical element of a constitutional republic for members of the majority to look after the rights of the minority and to oppose inequality. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrated brilliantly and unforgettably the ethical course of peaceful disobedience in the case of injustice and oppression. Violent revolution is only justified in the case of persistent tyranny and the suspension of human rights.

Items 3,7, and 8 define the individual’s duty to communal government specifically the duty to follow laws and obey authorities in the absence of ethical conflict. When one must disobey a law for ethical reasons, one should be prepared to suffer the consequences with honor – consider the incarcerations and punishments of Sir Thomas More or of Nelson Mandela.

The fourth and fifth items represent humanitarian duties to others – everything from helping a handicapped person cross the street to saving a drowning child when it is within your means.  In addition, as long as there is poverty and vulnerability in society, the more fortunate are morally bound to offer charity to the less fortunate – this is the great humanist teaching of Christ.

Sixth is the personal obligation to aid in the security and defense of one’s community and nation. This is the fundamental justification of military and police actions by governments and those serving in those roles although even security concerns must be subject to the constraint of avoiding injustice and unnecessary evil. Here too the ill and disabled are ethically absolved of direct responsibility.

The ninth and tenth items are moral duties of participants in capitalist societies necessary to the logical continuation of that economic system and are essentially the fulfillment of contracts. The first is to reciprocate fair labor for fair pay, the duty implicit in employment arrangements. The second is to provide market quality services and merchandise in return for a fair price; which is the duty implied by business-customer relationships.

The eleventh item recognizes the desirability of civil behavior to the quality of communal life and free exchange of views. The last two items delineate the civic duty to stay current in world events and to critically evaluate information in order to facilitate good decision making in voting, political action, and social conduct.

Readers may wish to create their own version of Table 1 or change the prioritization, but fulfilling societal duties is essential to the virtue and personal contentment of a meaningful life.

1Hadas, Moses, The Basic Works of Cicero. The Modern Library, 1951, pages 3-60.

2Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet Books, The New American Library, 1964, page 52.

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