ETHICS – THE PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN CONDUCT

“Philosophy is ethics, or it is nothing at all.” – Dagobert Runes

As I discussed in the introduction, the essential function of philosophy comes down to the question: how should I live my life?  Until now, we have been discussing the nature of reality which is the more static dimension of philosophy, and is, over the course of history, increasingly falling into the domain of science. Ethics is more dynamic and has defied scientific analysis to date. It is about how we live our life, about our actions, particularly determining right and wrong action.

Ancient philosophers called right action ‘virtue’ and wrong action ‘vice.’ Modern philosophers seems to prefer the word ‘morality’ over ethics and more recently the trend is to  dissect morality further into its atomic level of values. Perhaps these modified concepts of ethics will prevail in the future, but I still prefer the time honored terms of the ancient thinkers and will mostly address human conduct from that vantage point.

Of course the crux of ethics comes down to deciding what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean. This is an example of where one’s understanding of the nature of reality becomes critical. For instance, in the aristocracies of ancient empires or the middle ages, property rights and local order were maintained by a small group, so strength and honor were the highest virtues (think of King Arthur or the movie Gladiator). In modern history where the ultimate reality is a society or a nation (‘the state’), sacrifice and duty become the highest virtues (think of the soldier in World War II). In Christianity, where loving one’s neighbor is most highly regarded, charity and selflessness are the highest virtues (e.g. Mother Theresa).

The role of philosophy is to define a basis for ethics and conduct that is logically consistent with one’s picture of reality. Since people vary in their view of reality, there is room for variation in ethics. This is not to say that ethics are relative. Rather ethics tends to be tailored to historical and individual circumstances and one’s personal understanding of reality. In any case the carefully thought out ethical systems and principles of the great thinkers should not be discarded in the absence of careful reflection. One such example is abortion – forbidden by Hippocrates-  but after extensive medical, political, and judicial deliberation is legal today, and no longer part of the modern Hippocratic oath.  This site cannot determine what makes for right and wrong action for all its readers, but it can encourage critical analysis of one’s beliefs and actions, and offer robust systems for consideration.

As in our discussion of the nature of reality where there were multiple tiers, human behavior falls into five tiers:

 1.  Self-Mastery

2..  Direct Interaction with Others 

3.   Societal Duty 

4.  Relationship to Ultimate Reality 

5.   Supererogatory Duty

We will now discuss each tier in some detail.

ULTIMATE REALITY

“Not being cannot be – there is no void.  The One fills every nook and cranny of the world and is forever at rest.” – Parmenides.

 

 

While neither of my dictionaries defines ultimate reality, the online Merriam-Webster defines it as “the supreme, final, or fundamental power in all reality.” While I find this reasonable, I tend to think of ultimate reality as the highest reality inclusive of all being and all ideas or as the logically first being from which all other beings and cosmic law are derived. For the monist or strict materialist then, cosmic reality is ultimate reality and largely well defined. For some philosophers and virtually all theologians, ultimate reality transcends the physical universe.

Several ancient Eastern philosophies and religions embrace an ultimate reality. Hinduism identifies Brahman as the power sustaining the cosmos. Lao Tzu refers to the ultimate reality as the Tao, or Way, a somewhat obscure concept of timeless universal order.

Plato finds ultimate reality in the Ideas or Forms, perfect higher level realities only reproduced imperfectly on Earth (think of a perfect triangle in your mind versus the best triangle you can draw on paper). Plotinus takes Plato’s thoughts to a more mystical level with the One representing the supreme form of the Good. St. Augustine imports this view into Christianity, identifying the Christian God as the supreme Good. Spinoza sees ultimate reality as the totality of Aristotelian substance in the natural world usually considered a form of pantheism. Einstein embraces this concept of ultimate reality, “ that is God and the universe are indistinguishable; the better one understands how the universe works, the closer one comes to God.”1

One important recent writer is particularly poignant in approaching this subject: Paul Tillich, a theologian, who following an existential line talks about ultimate concern from a more real-life perspective. He proposes that each individual will identify and then act on or default to the most important focus of his or her existence. It may be, for instance, material goods, another person, a nation, humanity, or a deity. However if one chooses as the ultimate concern something less than the ultimate reality or an erroneous ultimate reality, it may lead to disappointment, disillusionment, or alienation from life and ‘true’ being. In that case the ultimate concern becomes effectively the object of ‘idolatry.’ Tillich believes that the sum total of being is the ultimate reality and equivalent to the God of religion, especially the Christian God, and only there can authentic meaning be found.2

As I was reading many of the great philosophers I tried to identify their concept of ultimate reality and it became apparent that their concept of ultimate reality drives much of their philosophy. I believe this applies to us as well; our concept of ultimate reality will drive most of our philosophical beliefs and even direct our lives. Therefore the most important issue on the nature of reality that determines behavior and meaning is likely to be your definition of ultimate reality. It justifies a significant amount of personal reflection: Is there a creative unity or consciousness that underlies the universe?

1 Calaprice, Alice, The Quotable Einstein. Princeton University Press. 1996. ISBN 0-691-02696-3. Page 147.

2Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8. Pages 11-15.

COSMIC REALITY (continued)

Of course the current scientific picture is not final, and a definitive picture may never be possible. Nonetheless the elegance of mathematics, the power of universal constants such as the speed of light and equations such as E=mc2, the splendor of the atomic model and of subatomic physics, the awesome beauty of the DNA double helix, the revelation of the fossil evidence of past geologic ages, the unfathomable energy of the sun, the magnificence of the Hubble deep field photographs, and much more  defy reasonable challenge. This cosmic reality, understood only because of thousands of years of human seeking is worthy of our acceptance, wonder, and reverence.

However the scientific portrait leaves unanswered problems such as whether there is a multiverse, a creator, strict determination, or any immaterial facet to the universe. Consciousness remains inadequately explained and mysterious. There is still the question of the validity of advanced theoretical mathematics that lies beyond empirical confirmation, or even why there is anything at all. So some gaps in our understanding of cosmic reality remain. Philosophers known as positivists and some scientists assert that in the absence of material evidence or clear proof of a hypothesis (e.g. a creator of the universe), we should reject non-scientific theories, often citing some variation of Ockham’s razor. However there is room here for debate by reasonable persons, including many without strong religious beliefs. While science is likely to be the best tool to resolve these unknowns, there is no way for us to be sure for now.

In addition, even today, people of faith challenge science on the basis of revelation and spiritual experiences. Science by its nature is not a tool appropriate to study that model of cosmic reality, but the issue of faith and the reality of religious texts will be the subject of future blogs. And finally skeptics still find room to challenge science as statistical or probabilistic, even occasionally contradictory, rather than absolute.

 

1 Bacon, Francis, Novum Organon, The Great Books, 1952. Especially pages 127-136.

2Hume, David, Concerning Human Understanding. The Great Books, 1952. Pages 476-478.

3Haick, Ernst, The Riddle of the Universe. The Thinker’s Library. 1931. Especially chapter XX, pages 298-312.

4 For an excellent review of the current scientific understanding of the universe and the limitations of science and mathematics, see Professor Steve Gimbel’s Redefining Reality: The intellectual Implications of Modern Science. The Great Courses, especially lectures 1-13.

COSMIC REALITY

“Cosmology leads logically to the idea of a transcendence beyond space and time.” –                    Milton Munitz, The Great Ideas Today, 1992.

 

Beyond internal, proximate, and cultural reality is the level of cosmic reality. By this term, I mean reality not directly observed by the mind or the senses and outside the realm of human relations. Cosmic reality depends on scientific tools, experiment, and advanced mathematics and is circumscribed by laws that govern the universe and the constituents of matter (especially as conveyed by cosmology and physics).

First I should mention that natural science is the greatest of the offspring of philosophy though most scientists feel the child long ago surpassed the parent. But speculation on the nature of reality by the ancients was in fact the means by which science developed. For instance, the atom was first postulated by Democritus in the 5th century B.C.E. Moreover the scientific method was developed through philosophy (induction is a form of logic) especially in the writings of Francis Bacon1, and also challenged by eminent philosophers such as David Hume2.

Ernst Haick in his 1899 book The Riddle of the Universe3 argues that the scientific advances of the 19th century lead thoughtful men to monism, or strict materialism as the explanation of the universe as opposed to dualism which accepts non-material reality, for example God. Most scientists seem to grant Haick’s conclusion. Given the subsequent developments in science and the amazing success of technology, most of us accept that science gives us the best and most complete description of cosmic reality. That includes the origin of the universe in the ‘Big Bang,’ the development of galaxies and our solar system, the spontaneous appearance of life on Earth and evolution by natural selection, the space-time fabric, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the laws of thermodynamics particularly as they apply to the indestructibility of matter and energy and the arrow of time. This site cannot serve in the role of a detailed proof or explanation of these complex scientific theories, but all of the following posts will assume some level of acceptance of this developing picture of cosmic reality.4

(continued next post)

CURRENT READINGS – TRUTH

Rise of 20th Century Philosophy –Pragmatism – Professor Lawrence Cahoone1

“Truth does not change because it is, or is not believed by a majority of the people.” – Guido Bruno (burned at the stake for heretical philosophical beliefs in 1600).

 

 

Today I was listening to Professor Cahoone’s lecture on Pragmatism. After an introduction to the three main lines of philosophy of the early 20th century, he discusses America’s greatest contribution to philosophy – pragmatism. However, during the lecture almost as in passing he delineates the three canonical theories of truth. These are:

  1. Correspondence – truth is what corresponds to reality or fact (the common idea of truth).
  2. Coherence – truth is that which coheres with other truths or beliefs.
  3. Pragmatism – truth is that which can be used to guide behavior; that is ‘what works.’

In the lecture Cahoone also discusses Charles Pierce’s convergence theory where truth is the point to which inquiring persons studying a thing converge. For this blog, we will consider that a variation of the coherence method.

Now I should start with a reminder that there is no certainty in this world. However it seems to me that thoughtful persons should attempt to deploy all three of the theories of truth if possible (rather than choose one) to achieve the greatest confidence possible of the truth in any given circumstance.

For a relevant example, let us consider the current issue of global warming – particularly with respect to the impact of human activities – an issue which seemingly defies certainty. From the vantage point of correspondence theory, if global warming is true, scientific measures should confirm this on an ongoing basis, that is, global temperatures should continue to rise and polar ice should continue to decline. If the work and opinions of most scientists in multiple fields – meteorologists, geologist, oceanographers, climate experts, biologists, astronomers – concur on the validity of the theory, we add more confidence of this truth by virtue of the convergence (coherence) standard. Therefore those two theories of truth appear to apply here.

The associated counter arguments are that the history of global temperature rise is brief on the order of geological time, so remains potentially suspect, which questions correspondence. Also the convergence of opinions is not infallible in science as revealed in Thomas Kuhn’s book,  The Structure of Scientific  Revolutions 2, where Kuhn demonstrates scientific communities dependence on ‘paradigms’ that eventually are superseded.

It seems to me the counter arguments are weaker but not philosophically illegitimate. However, just as in William James’ essay The Will to Believe 3, where the decision to believe or not to believe in God cannot be delayed indefinitely as one must live assuming one or the other, the situation of global warming may not be able to wait for greater scientific certainty. Pragmatism offers a solution: take reasonable actions our best science shows will slow down and/or reverse temperature rise to validate or disprove the correspondence and convergence views on the question. If we are committed to truth, our obligation is to make this attempt thereby attaining the highest certainty possible, while potentially eliminating or minimizing harm (evil) to the planet.4 As in all things ethical, personal sacrifice is not a valid excuse to commit a wrong.

1 Cahoone, Lawrence, The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  The Great Courses. Lecture 17.

2 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press. 1970. ISBN 0-226-45804-0. Pages 174-210.

3 James, William, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Dover Publications, Inc. 1956. Pages 1-31.

4 This approach recently was successful with respect to the theory of ozone depletion being caused by human activities. USA today reported November 6, 2018 that the United Nations announced slow healing of the ozone layer following “decades of global cooperation to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.”

CULTURAL REALITY (continued)

Politics is perhaps the most challenging division of cultural reality. The word originally referred to the ancient branch of philosophy that investigates governance. Of course political science is the more modern technical discipline, although again it lacks the precision of the natural sciences. The truth of real world politics is found by the same process as history and current events, though one needs to have an even higher level of wariness and seek more sources especially in the present environment. One key principal to bear in mind is that in situations of political disagreement, no position is likely to be completely correct or incorrect, in fact, all may be either mostly correct or incorrect depending on the vantage point of the spectator. Herbert Spencer in Synthetic Philosophy 1 concludes on his analysis of truth in the realm of politics (as elsewhere) that between the most diverse beliefs there is usually something in common or taken for granted in each which has the highest probability of truth. It is the philosophical person’s task to identify those underlying truths.

More general interpretations of human behavior can be found in texts of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, with the same cautions. I personally have been influenced most by Ernest Becker who in The Denial of Death attributes key actions of great historical figures and common men to the enigma of finding meaning in a finite life through a subconscious striving to illusory heroism or significance. I was also deeply impressed by J. Bronowski’s essay Knowledge and Certainty3 where he notes that dogmatic certainty may lead to tragic consequences, and that every judgement stands on the edge of error. Meanwhile, John Dewey attributes human conduct to a mix of habit and impulse where (learned) habit encourages societal stability and impulse informs the change required of a varying environment. Intelligence then is a proper balance allowing a thoughtful reconstruction of society- the alternatives being stagnation or disorder.4 Each of us needs to try out a variety of theories in the context of our experience and observations to derive our particular picture of society.

Cultural reality is perhaps the most vital level of reality to grasp for everyday living. We can survive and even thrive without concentrated attention to the other components of reality, although life’s meanings may be obscure and fixing a direction in life may be a struggle. But as long as we are social animals, cultural reality is likely to remain the most important aspect of reality to access from a purely practical standpoint.

 

1Spencer, Herbert, Synthetic Philosophy.  D. Appleton and Company, 1903, page 8.

2Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6.

3Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.

4Dewey, John, Human Nature and Conduct. The Modern Library, 1930. Pages 125-180.

CULTURAL REALITY

Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find the causes is implanted in man’s soul. – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

 

The next tier up from proximate reality is cultural reality. By this phrase I mean social, political, and historical facets of reality. It differs from the earlier strata in that for the most part we do not directly perceive what happens within our community and nation, the realm of politics, and most importantly the historical context of the world we live in. Rather this reality comes to us second hand, typically from the testimony of others, sometimes in person, but more commonly via print and other media. For this reason the certainty of cultural reality is particularly limited.

Starting with history, of course nothing in the past can be known for certain. Most historians reconstruct history from physical evidence seeking at least two separate documents or other forms of substantiation to confirm any putative fact. This gives history the gloss of science, though it is of course much less exact than the natural sciences. Philosophers of history are most concerned with the interpretation of past events where they note it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a historian to generate a truly objective thesis independent of his or her underlying bias or opinion. It seems to me that the best approach is to read multiple historians on the same period to increase the scope of evidence reviewed and permit the reader to determine which interpretation is most consistent with the aggregate or to cultivate his own opinion.

To my knowledge there is no systematic philosophical discussion of real time cultural reality, i.e. current events, but more than other types of reality seems to call for familiarity with epistemology, the study of truth and what makes a statement true. The process of confirmation of the truth of current events should mimic that of history. The most trustworthy sources must be identified and scrutinized bearing in mind the apparent or potential bias of the source. Then the reader will be in a position to decide on the logical consistency of the sources and their interpretations of events as they occur.

PROXIMATE REALITY (continued)

Edmund Husserl concerned about the uncertainty of assumptions of the natural sciences – such as the existence of the external world or the constancy of nature – develops a philosophical system which he calls phenomenology: the philosophy of experience. In this method, one studies experience while suspending any pre-existing beliefs by a process he calls ‘bracketing.’ Given subject matter is converted from external object to lived experience leading to his slogan, “Back to the things themselves.” For instance a tree is not seen as an object separate from experience but as the perception we experience. Proximate reality then is the experience of an object rather than the object itself.2

Phenomenology is picked up by many philosophers and some psychologists in the 20th century. We already alluded to Martin Heidegger who uses phenomenology to investigate internal and external reality in his challenging book, Being and Time. While his initial intention is to understand the concept of ‘being’ in general, he decides the most effective way to investigate it is to use phenomenology to understand his individual being, in German, dasein. Early in his investigation, he notes that dasein perceives at once ‘being-in-the-world.’ From this starting point he determines that the world is a region of human concern, shared with others, and man’s involvement in the world is constitutive of man’s being.3

From these sources, we learn that proximate reality is assembled from sensory perceptions by the organizing process of the mind, and while not absolutely reliable, can be trusted when based on sufficient evidence and confirmatory experience. By suspending judgment on the context of things, we can live the experience of things at hand, and the world we experience becomes integral to our own being.

As always, many philosophers do not agree with all or even any of these assessments of proximate reality, but each of these concepts was derived from deep thinking about the problem. Fidelity to philosophy means giving them substantial thought before discarding them.

 

1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 17-25.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 502-509.

3Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.

PROXIMATE REALITY

” … reality is a term of discourse based on a psychic complex of memories, associations, and expectations, but considered in its ideal independence by the assertive energy of thought.” – George Santayana

 

Of course an individual’s concept of internal reality will color the interpretation of the other tiers of reality.  Internal reality is by definition accessible without the use of the senses; proximate reality is my term for the composite of things as they present to us directly through the senses.  Now on the face of it, we should have no doubt about the reality within the reach of sensation, especially vision, but philosophically we want to confirm that assumption and investigate the consequences.

For example, in the last blog, I alluded to Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Pure Reason notes that real things can only be experienced by us as perceptions – in fact we can never know the ‘thing-in-itself.’ For example, a red apple is only red because of the way its surface reflects light to an eye with a certain physiology; it is not red in-itself.  However Kant believes the mind naturally takes perceptions and places them into categories such as cause and effect or possibility and impossibility. From this Kant creates his “Copernican revolution”; reality in not mainly a function of external things but is generated by the mind’s organizing of external perceptions, that is the center moves from the things themselves to man’s mind. His model did in fact start a revolution, that is, a new field of philosophy known as German idealism which dovetailed nicely with 19th century romanticism.

George Santayana provides a critical analysis of the reality of perceptions in The Life of Reason. He agrees with Kant that the perceived world is universally experienced by man as occurring in space and time.  He observes that perception does not define a reality, rather reveals a ‘chaos of multitudinous impressions’ mixed with internal feelings and emotions.  Using the faculty of memory, vestiges of prior perceptions are correlated to current perceptions to give form to reality, a process he identifies as intelligence.  Knowledge is a recognition of something absent in direct perception – representation. In response to the skeptic, he says we cannot expect certainty in our knowledge of external reality, but belief is warranted by evidence (of the senses) as revealed through understanding. That is, pragmatically, reality is the mind’s impression of the immediate world that assures consistency in future perceptions and sensations.1

(to be continued next post)

INTERNAL REALITY (continued)

Other philosophers approach internal reality from a different point of view. Immanuel Kant shows that the world we experience can only reflect our perceptions of things (that is only our sensory inputs of them) and that we can never truly know thething-in-itself.’ Arthur Schopenauer counters that  we should be able to know the ‘thing-in-itself’ as it applies to ourselves. When he looks for it, he finds ‘will’ – that is, ‘will’ is the thing-in-itself for human beings.3 Friedrich Nietzsche drawing on Schopenauer uncovers within himself the more active and assertive ‘will to power.’ Sigmund Freud delving through the lens of psychology identifies the ceaselessly conflicting tripartite self as ego, id, and superego. Martin Heidegger uses phenomenology to explore human ‘being-in-itself’ which he calls dasein, and which is revealed to him as ‘in-the-world’, subject to mood, and in search of authenticity.4

Thinking about internal reality also leads to examination of the manifestations of the self – external, internal, and primal – most profoundly investigated in mystical traditions. External self is that persona we allow the world to see perhaps tailored to the expectations of others, often imperfect, even selfish. Internal self is the more complex personality generally known only to the individual himself, capable of virtuous transformation. It is the focus of the Western religious mystics such as Meister Eckhart. The primal self is that unthinking, non-egoic being which underlies and precedes personality and intellect, seen in the consciousness of the not yet self-aware infant. It is the point of emphasis for the great Eastern spiritual teachers such as the Buddha.

Philosophy offers much to the understanding of internal reality. Each of us needs to take the time to contemplate deeply our mind and inner self as part of meaningful growth. It appears that the likely conclusion of deep internal reflection for us will be a mixture of these  great philosophers’ impressions –    a thinking, willful, assertive, emotional, conflicted, individual being that feels both distinct from and part of the world, in search of an authentic existence.

Along the way , we will need to resolve the issue of monism versus dualism. But perhaps the greatest reward will be the profound insight gained from reconnecting with your primal self.

1 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 224-228.

2Berkeley, George. Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.  The Great Books, Volume 35.  1952. Pages 403-444.

3  Schopenauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea, Everyman. 1995, ISBN 978-0-4608-7505-9. Page 32.

4Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.