Monthly Archives: June 2015

Metaphysics 101 Part 8

(Part 8 of Ten)

(continued from Part 7 of Ten)

In Search of Ethics and Esthetics

Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

–Rose Sayer, The African Queen

Rose instinctively knew that Ethics and Esthetics definitively distinguish human beings from all other species. Unlike Rose, most people don’t hold ethics or esthetics high on their list of items for contemplation. Yet, the fountain of everyday philosophy never runs dry. It gushes in the daily interaction of people whether or not they are aware of having a philosophy.

When ethics is discussed in academia as a topic in itself, it is generally denigrated as a collection of “handed down” precepts designed to control human behavior. Ignored is the fact that “handed down” precepts were once the original concepts of individuals who were the first to discover that human behavior need not be exclusively instinctual as it is with all other species. Consider the following.

Sophie’s Choice

The setting is a concentration camp. A sadistic Nazi commandant punishes a woman, the mother of two children, by forcing her to choose which of her children shall die. As we watch the climax of the film, we are subjectively compelled (along with Sophie) to make an unthinkable choice when the commandant orders Sophie to choose which of her children shall die so that the other may live.

In the privacy of a darkened theater we ask ourselves, “If I were Sophie, what objective moral choice would I make?” Our minds race for an answer although we don’t have to make that choice. However, Sophie must make that choice. She makes a random choice. Somehow we know she did what we would have done. Yet, long after we have seen the film and at length dispassionately but deeply search for an alternative answer, we still believe that the only choice must be a random one. But in her celluloid reality, Sophie’s agony is just beginning and her guilt inexorably leads her to suicide. Millions upon millions of people have suffered unearned guilt because of actions they have been compelled to take against their will.

Sophie’s ‘choice’ is as arbitrary as the flipping of a coin. Whatever else the film’s creators intended to project, Sophie was confronted with what appears to be a choice. But actually, Sophie had no choice. Her Nazi captor, did have a choice. The murder of her child was his choice, not Sophie’s. The commandant is morally responsible for the murder of an innocent child, not Sophie. Only free choices are subject to moral scrutiny. I submit that the title of the film is a contradiction in terms. Forced behavior is the opposite of free will. Free will and choice are corollaries. Neither can exist without the other.

There are three Ethics riddles that are popular in academic circles. Relativist university professors take delight in citing them to young students, usually as the introduction to a course on Ethics. Designed to baffle rather than enlighten students, the riddles are models for an ‘open-ended’ discussion at the end of which there are more questions than answers.

The Train Riddle

A Towerman is on duty in a tower that is stationed alongside a railroad crossing. Casually looking out of his workplace window he sees a car racing toward the barrier in an attempt to crash through it before an oncoming train collides with his car. Tires screech as the driver changes his mind and suddenly applies his brakes. Too late. The car collides into the barrier and stalls on the railroad track.

The Towerman realizes that if the oncoming train is not sidetracked immediately, it will collide with the car and kill all six of the car’s occupants. He has access to controls that can sidetrack the train, thereby saving the lives of six people. However, there is a man working on the sidetrack that will surely be killed if the Towerman diverts the train to the sidetrack. What should he do?

The Lifeboat Riddle

In the cold wet of a violent storm, six fishermen are faced with an unforgiving situation. Their boat is sinking and there is only one lifeboat that can sustain the weight of only five of the men. They know that the frigid water makes it impossible for them to take turns in and out of the lifeboat so that it can stay afloat. They also know that one of them must die so that five others may live. What should they do?

This riddle plays just as well as it does at sea when it is set at a coalmine disaster, a mountain cliffhanger, or a military battle.

The Transplant Riddle

There are six terminally ill people, each of whom can be cured by a healthy organ provided by the same perfectly healthy donor. The Chief Surgeon has the donor’s consent and full legal license to have each of the six patients be the recipient of the organ he or she needs to go on living. Should the Chief Surgeon arrange to have specialists cut and paste the donor’s organs?

The usual reaction to this riddle is visceral (pun intended). Yet, upon reflection, the riddle is perfectly compatible with the concept of an individual’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the group. Directly or obliquely, that concept is universally regarded and practiced as the essence of high ethical standards, whether religious or secular, where the source of religious ethics is God (e.g., Catholicism), and the source of secular ethics is society, a substitute for God (Collectivism).

Faith

Religious tenets are firmly entangled with faith. One individual might willingly adhere to a religious tenet based on faith, while another may adhere to that same tenet motivated only by fear of punishment in this life or in an afterlife, or both. Similarly, an individual may have faith in collectivism while another adheres to its mandates only because of the fear of imprisonment or death.

In a totalitarian theocracy like Iran, major religious and secular directives are one and the same and are mandated by God. In a totalitarian atheist state like North Korea, religious faith is not publicly tolerated and the State is God.

Altruism

A synonym for the word ‘altruism’ is ‘selflessness,’ a word that defines an act that benefits others without regard for one’s self. The opposite of selflessness is selfishness, which is as ethically unwarranted as selflessness.

However flawed by an overdose of non-provable hypotheses, the study of cosmology is in its infancy and will continue to fascinate and enlighten us with concrete fresh discoveries indefinitely. On the other hand, the arguments of Faith vs. Religion, although still emotionally heated, have played themselves out intellectually. The same is true of overall arguments pertaining to State Rights vs. individual Rights.

Given the geopolitical, technological, and environmental circumstances of our time, I sense an urgent need for a Global Code of Universal Ethics. The very survival of humankind depends on it.

(to be continued in Part 9 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 7

(Part 7 of Ten)

(continued from Part 6 of Ten)

Shakespeare was an artist philosopher. As an artist, he had license to express a variety of philosophies through his plays and characters. He was free from the conceptual IEDs inherent in formal philosophy because his characters, not he, expressed ‘their’ philosophies but not necessarily Shakespeare’s philosophy. Explicitly or implicitly, Shakespeare was not responsible for his characters’ contradictions, as is the case with formal philosophers. He freely has his characters contradict themselves, let alone the philosophy of other characters. Formal philosophers do not have license to contradict themselves, but they very often do.

A quintessential dramatist, Shakespeare was able to implicitly express the concept of determinism through his characters in Romeo and Juliet. He also succinctly comments on the motivation of a prostitute (Bianca) in his Othello with three simple words: (she) sells her desires. He is neither saying that he, Shakespeare, believes in determinism, nor that Bianca “sells her desires”: it is Iago that ‘says’ that about Bianca, not Shakespeare. Formal philosophers, however, are obliged to speak for themselves.

The Big Five

Logic is often included as one of the five major branches of philosophy instead of Politics. But Aristotle himself viewed logic as a tool of philosophy, not a branch of it. Encouraged by the view of the philosopher who introduced the iconic syllogism to the world, I’ve chosen to replace Logic with Politics as one of the five major branches of philosophy. Others have done the same.

Philosophy is not immune to major sociological changes, hence its history of shifting branches and subdivisions. Cosmology and religion were one in antiquity. Now, cosmology is a subdivision of science, which is a subdivision of Metaphysics, which (as addressed in Part 6 of this ten-page article) is something of a misnomer anyway. It’s centuries too late to change the word “Metaphysics” to “Physics,” which is a better known synonym for ontology.

One of the modern divisions of major branches of philosophy reduces the five ‘traditional’ major branches to three: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Logic. I don’t believe that logic should be one of three major branches. Arguably, Logic listed as a major branch of philosophy, if not gratuitous, is almost as extraneous as listing Mathematics as a major branch of philosophy (although many cosmologists and mathematicians swear that Mathematics is God!) I’m sure that if their claim were to be verified, it would promote Mathematics to a major branch of philosophy. After all, that was pretty much the case at the time when logic was invented (vide Aristotle’s Organon). I would welcome just two major branches of philosophy: Metaphysics and Ethics. Philosophy is the contemplation of everything. Every subdivision I’ve encountered—and there is a plethora of them—easily fits under one or the other (if not both) of those two most important major divisions of philosophy. An informed and thorough philosophical discourse is facilitated by the free association and overlapping of divisions whenever necessary.

[Note: Before the last two paragraphs, I carefully avoided being abstruse. However, those paragraphs serve as an example of the kinds of challenges that are inherent in covering all bases when discussing philosophy.]

But I don’t intend to bash philosophers. The majority of celebrated philosophers, including Plato, have written isolated and respectful—even poetic—passages in their writing. I respect and admire those passages, especially those of antiquity, but respect and admiration do not necessarily translate to reverence. Philosophy qua philosophy is jammed with subdivisions of subdivisions, cluttered with counter arguments to counter arguments, and with tedious hair-splitting to the point of absurdity.

I’m obviously not a formal philosopher. So, having briefly addressed the obligatory major branches of philosophy, Metaphysics and Epistemology, I’ll now exercise my layman’s license to freely combine and overlap the three branches of philosophy that deal with what is generally defined as the “Humanities”: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ethics. And, as context dictates, I’ll not hesitate to blend more Metaphysical and Epistemological factors into the mix. Life and thought are too important to be regimented and stifled by formalized expression.

Expounding a system of governance from the top down, as is the common practice of political philosophers as well as average politicians, is a horse that has been beaten to death since antiquity. Even Karl Marx is recognized by many as a ‘political philosopher’ because (in complicity with Friedrich Engels) he repackaged Hegelian Dialectic(s)—a.k.a. Ideal Dialectics—into Dialectical Materialism to espouse Communism (italics mine).

A large number of philosophers before and after Hegel expressed their philosophy dialectically (a function of logic), but Hegel’s philosophy earned him the distinction of having his philosophy identified with the word ‘dialectic(s)’ itself. The famous catchwords for his philosophy are Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, and his philosophy is generally identified as Hegelian Dialectic, as distinct from philosophy brands like Platonic Idealism or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and a host of other brands. His philosophy is also distinguished as singularly abstruse in a world where convoluted arguments are the norm.

As I noted in Part 5 of this ten-part article, both Plato and Aristotle explicitly included slavery as a valid institution within ideal political structures. Political systems created by most philosophers, ancient and modern, from the top down on stone or scrolls or paper, implicitly and explicitly posit systems that in effect enslave individuals under the umbrella of secular or religious ‘moral duty.’ In that context, you may recall from Parts 5 and 6 of this article that the word ‘metaphysics’ is often (but incorrectly) described as “the world beyond physics.”

Religion has largely been one-and-the-same as ethics for billions of people through the centuries. Organized religions equate religious tenets and ethics, and circumstantially hold a religious tenet above that of a secular one if the tenets are in conflict or even slightly differ. Not by chance, there are many religious tenets that are identical to secular ones. For instance, “Thou shall not kill” is viable as a global political tenet with or without a religious base.

At the base of all political conflict is the perpetual and hotly contested issue of individualist vs. collectivist government. That issue is severely complicated by misinformation and disinformation about political systems. For example, on the surface of the conflict between the U.S.S.R and Germany during World War Two, millions of Germans and Russians suffered and died believing that they were fighting for diametrically opposed ideals, Communism and Nazism, whereas in fact they were each fighting for basically the same kind of government: the collectivist state. An overwhelming global majority still does not perceive that Socialism and Fascism are both forms of government that are unsuitable for quality life.

If we are to understand the geopolitical dynamics of nations, it is important to recognize the fundamental political similarities as well as differences amongst nations. It is equally important to recognize the enormous difference between states whose titles often contain the words “Republic” or “Democratic”sometimes both wordsin their national titles, and those states that are genuine republics whether or not their national titles declare that they are republics.

Ethics is a casualty in totalitarian states: unfairness to the individual is built into the laws of authoritarian states of all stripes. But even in genuine republics, closest to which is the United States, Ethics is a branch of philosophyor more precisely, a branch of lifethat defies codification.

Politics, by definition, is embedded in groups. The larger a group, the less possible its ethical integrity. Given the cacophony of everyday politics from the town house level to that of international geopolitics, an individual might best develop high ethical standards that are not based on group behavior but rather on universal ethics and esthetics, the “living” branches of philosophy.

(to be continued in Part 8 of Ten)

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