THE SUMMUM BONUM (HIGHEST GOOD)

The highest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God.” – Benedict De Spinoza, Ethics.

 

Few philosophers attempt to rank goods and evils, but for thousands of years, philosophers have been trying to determine the most desirable good often referred to as the summum bonum or ‘supreme good.’ Classical Greek philosophers believe the highest good is eudaemonia, which translates roughly as ‘happiness,’ but is more commonly thought to mean ‘flourishing life.’ Aristotle feels that since man is in essence a rational being, his highest good is the exercise of his rational powers or contemplation. St. Thomas Aquinas thinks God created man to seek beatitude or supreme blessedness. Spinoza echoes this in his Ethics. Montaigne considers pleasure attendant to virtue – especially in the form of contempt of death as the means to tranquility – as the ultimate good for most men.

In a different vein, Utilitarians see the highest good at a societal level as the maximum happiness or pleasure for the largest number. To my knowledge, in all of philosophy, only Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of this approach, attempts to rank and quantify goods – in his case: pleasures and pains. However his list is intended to guide governance, whereas the list in Table 2 is focused on individuals. His list of pleasures includes wealth, skill, friendship, good reputation, power, piety, imagination, and relief. His list of pains includes: privation, awkwardness, enmity, bad reputation.  He also has the following on both lists: sense, benevolence, malevolence, memory, expectation, and association. He goes on to define each and attempts to create a ‘hedonic calculus’ by considering several ‘calculable’ factors: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

I attempt in Appendix – Diagram 1 to create a chart ranking the goods listed on Table 2. For each of us, I suspect internal and intrinsic goods rank the highest in thinking about our own life. The two highest ranking goods by this process seem to me to be equal: happiness and meaning. I suppose some readers will feel they are essentially the same, but in my mind and perhaps by philosophical tradition they are distinct.

As in all things, I think it may be best for each reader to create his own chart. In later chapters we will come back to the question of the summum bonum, but in general this site will consider happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia) and meaning as the twin supreme goods.

CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS (CONTINUED)

In the last blog we discussed classifying goods and evils referring to Table 2 in the Appendix. We discussed the difference between  intrinsic and instrumental goods. A second distinction between goods is the location where they originate. An internal good is situated within the individual and cannot generally be directly shared with others, though this type of good can lead to good for others. Health for example cannot be directly shared, but healthy individuals can help the sick or disabled. An external good is outside the individual and relies on or is shared by others. Friendship and justice are obvious examples. Some goods, such as peace can be both, in which case I categorized them by the location that seems to me more essential to the individual.

Of course all goods are not equal with respect to desirable intensity. For instance, some goods are such that we can never have enough or too much of them. It seems illogical to say one has too much purpose, functional capacity, or creativity. Therefore these rate a 5 on a scale of 5 in the desired intensity column on the chart. Other goods are optimal in moderation and of diminishing value when excessive. Food is an obvious example; too much leads to obesity and lesser health. A classical example is courage where Aristotle sees moderation as ideal; too much courage being foolhardiness; too little cowardice.

The reader may have different thoughts on these ratings and categories, any of which I am happy to discuss and even modify. However it may be advantageous to create your own version of this chart, perhaps even with your own concepts of goods and evils for your contemplation.

You may also notice some items missing such as fame or power. I left these off because they seem to be of uncertain value or are not universally recognized as good or evil. The reader may prefer to add these and others to his own list. The other missing element in Table 2  is a ranking of goods. That question is addressed in our next blog.

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)

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.

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.

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 in 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.

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.

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)

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.

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.