Hey everyone, I apologize for the late post but I was really tired last night so I decided to wait until this morning to post. Anyway, Saturday has rolled around again so its time for another Philosophical Story Challenge. This week’s topic goes all the way back to the days of Plato and Aristotle: identity. What makes you who you are? What makes anything that particular thing. How can we look at a horse and know that it is a horse even if it’s missing a leg or has some deformation? Where does identity really lie? Plato’s view, or at least the view that has been derived from Plato’s works, is that identity is entirely within the soul. To him, there is a level of distrust of the physical world because our senses are so clearly fallible. On the other hand we have Aristotle who argued that all of our knowledge and experience comes from the physical, observable world. It is important to note that Aristotle is not denying the existence or importance of the soul, but rather denying that our identity could be so completely contained within it. In his view, your identity is as much a part of your body as it is your soul. If your soul were removed from your body we would no longer say that your body was you, and Aristotle would also argue that your soul isn’t you either. A human is a body and a soul; take away one and while the other may remain it is not that person in their entirety. Conversely, Plato would argue that your body, because it is physical, is a hindrance; your real being is that of your soul unshackled to your body. Your challenge this week is to write a story that explains identity like Plato or like Aristotle. As always, please keep your stories under 1,000 words if you want to post them on here, but feel free to write more!
Well, it’s Sunday! As you all know we like to take Sunday’s off here at the Art of Writing. I hope that all of you have had truly excellent weeks. I’m starting to get settled in and actually start my research here, which is a wonderful thing that is going to take up a massive amount of my time. Also, if you haven’t heard of Khan Academy I thoroughly suggest it as worth your time. If you have kids it’s a great website that a friend informed me about for supplementing (or… you know… improving) their school education. Also, if you’re just looking to improve your own knowledge in weak areas, the site is extremely useful for doing so. Personally, at the moment I’m using it improve my paltry mathematical skills. Anyway, I hope you have a wonderful day! And lest you think I forgot, I found this for you. Inspired by my current readings on Socratic and Platonic virtue concepts:
Welcome to Monday, everyone! I hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful week for all of you. Of course, I hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful week for myself as well, so I might be a little selfish here. Anyway, if you remember, a few of months ago I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what Courage is, and two months ago we looked at Temperance. Last month I asked you to explain Wisdom to me. So, we only have one of Plato’s initial virtues left. For your story challenge today we’re going to be discussing Justice.
Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of Justice (consider that the original word used by Plato here could also mean ‘rightousness’ or ‘moral uprightness’). What does it mean to be ‘just’? What makes us ‘just’ men and women, and how do we know if we are ‘just’? Is it possible to be just without reference to the law? If so, what does that look like?
Well, it’s the beginning of a brand new week, and for some reason I feel like it’s going to be a long one. I can’t really explain why, and I certainly hope that I’m wrong, but it’s just the feeling that I have at the moment. So, last month I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what Courage is. This month we’re going to look at Temperance. So, this is your story challenge today!
Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of temperance. What does it mean to be ‘temperate’? What makes us ‘temperate’ and how do we know if we are ‘temperate’? Is it possible to be temperate in the absence of temptation?
Plato proposed four classical (sometimes called cardinal) virtues: courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance. He argued that a virtuous man would display all four of these virtues in his daily life, and that this man would be not only a good man, but a happy man, and a worthy king (admittedly I’m simplifying the argument of Republic a lot here). Last month I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what wisdom is. This month we’re going to look at courage. So, this is your story challenge today!
Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of courage. What does it mean to be ‘courageous’? What makes us ‘courageous’ and how do we know if we are ‘courageous’? What is the relationship between courage and fear? What is the difference between courage and fearlessness?
Hey there, all you aspiring writer… or skilled writers who just need practice, or just random person who likes to read this blog! Welcome to February! So, this is the time of the week for some thinking! You all know the way the works by now. I give you a classic philosophical question and you write a story of 100-1000 words that presents and defends your response to that question. So, your question this week goes all the way back to Plato: Is virtuous living its own reward and if so, how? This is something that has been assumed, rejected, and debated by philosophers for over two thousand years. Plato claimed that virtuous actions were there own reward, and so no material or measurable benefit was necessary to motivate a person to right living. Some have accepted this claim whole-heartedly, while others have rejected it out of hand. This week, I want you to respond to Plato’s contention.
Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:
“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.
Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.
More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!
One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!
Well, last week I spent a little time talking about the nature of morality, and concluded that while there must be an ultimate morality (i.e. an absolute moral law), all of our attempts to identify and understand this ultimate morality are subject to our own biased perspectives, and thus woefully inadequate. However, this does not mean that any moral system will do. Just because we don’t know what the right answer is doesn’t mean we can’t identify wrong answers. For instance, I could not tell you the square root of 5,182 (at least not off the top of my head, I’m sure I could figure it out eventually with a calculate and a math text). However, I can promise you that the square root of 5,182 is not 5,183. The same principle can be applied to morality. We cannot effectively identify what the ultimate morality consists of, but we can identify some things that are certainly not included. For instance, murder is an easy example. Murder is a legally defined term: i.e. killing which is against the law (for all you pro-lifers out there [I’m one of you], this is why you can’t argue that abortion is murder [so stop it]. Abortion is not against the law, thus regardless of whether a fetus is a human life, abortion is not murder. What you can and should argue is that abortion should be considered murder). Considering that every moral system (at least every moral system that I know of) outlaws some kind of killing, we can safely say that murdering people is not allowed under the ultimate morality. However, this is not generally a simple thing to do, and with so many conflicting moral systems trying to identify things that can absolutely be disallowed becomes a bit of a crapshoot. So, the first step in examining this issue is to examine how moral systems conflict, and how to deal with conflicting moral systems.
So, what exactly are conflicting moral systems? That is simple. When the same action is run through multiple moral systems sometimes the moral/ethical nature of that action changes. For instance, in the Judeo-Christian moral system suicide is wrong (pretty much always). However, under the Japanese code of Bushido seppuku (ritual suicide) is a means of restoring honor lost through dishonorable actions, and thus is right (pretty much always). In fact, a given moral system might change the way an individual sees not just an action, but an entire circumstance. For instance, a woman is raped (actually raped, not claiming rape): is the Judeo-Christian moral system that woman is the victim of a crime and is not responsible for the actions of the man who raped her. However, under the Islamic system (at least some versions of it) that woman allowed herself to be raped (i.e. obviously somehow put herself in a situation she shouldn’t have been in), and thus bears culpability for the crime approximately equal to the man who raped her. Furthermore, in allowing herself to be raped she dishonored her family, and that honor must be restored by her death (this is one basis for Muslim ‘honor killings’ that have made the news in the past few years). Here, two moral systems vastly conflict, not on whether the rape was wrong, but on where culpability for the rape should be paced and how the individuals involved should be treated.
Determining which moral system is correct is something that philosophers have been trying to answer for… pretty much as long as we’ve been asking it. Seriously (again), read Republic. Plato gives a whole discourse on the nature of justice and right action (actually… I think those might be two separate discourses, it’s been a while since I read it). We have contract based ethics (i.e. Whatever everyone agrees on is right), values based ethics (i.e. whatever such and such holy text says is right), reason based ethics (i.e. Kant’s categorical imperative – whatever it would be good for everyone to do is the right thing to do), etc, etc, etc, etc. However, ultimately, what it all comes down to (as Hobbes and a few others point out) is that might equals right. As much as we value ‘justice’ and ‘the rule of law’, when it comes down to it the person with the most power determines how we should/shouldn’t act. If two people disagree on what is right, then they take it to a magistrate (judge, arbiter, etc) and he decides what is right. If two arbiters disagree on what is right, then it is taken to a ruler (government, supreme court, etc) and they decide what is right. If two rulers disagree on what is right, then they go to war and the winner decides what is right. If you believe in a god, then ultimately he decides what is right because he can make anyone who disagrees go away. So, while without government, law, justice, etc we would live in Hobbes ‘state of nature’ (i.e. everyone does what is right in their own eyes and when they disagree they fight to the death), which would be a bad thing, ultimately it is force that decides what is considered right action.
However, does this mean that force determines what right action is, or just what we consider right action? What is the difference? Simply put, the difference is this. If everyone else was going to jump off a cliff, would you jump off with them? I think that every mother in the history of the world has said something like this. Just because force determines what we consider right action, doesn’t mean that force determines what is right action (this has some interesting implications for the morality of deity as well). We can find generous real world examples of this (i.e. the Nazi regime, American slavery, eugenics projects, etc), what we consider right is not necessarily what is right. And this leads us back to our starting point: how do we determine what actions are in accord with the ultimate morality? One giant, thought provoking circle. I know I’m crazy, but this is actually a lot of fun for me.
Alright, well, I’m over a thousand words, which is what I try to limit these too, so I’m going to leave off for now and I’ll pick this back up next time… next time being next week, not tomorrow. Don’t worry, I won’t dump too much of this on you at once. Just remember this, historically speaking moral conflicts (at least on a grand scale) are usually solved with violence, because ultimately this is the only way to solve them. Either be prepared to respect your neighbors moral philosophy, or be prepared to go to war with him eventually.
This post has relatively… well, nothing to do with writing. I mean, I’m sure that I could spin some convoluted web to connect this post to a writer’s responsibility to his audience, or something similar. Honestly, though, this post isn’t about writing, it’s about behavior. I regularly teach a class on ethics, and one of the things that my students continually struggle with is the question of how to judge morality. Some people want this to be a simple list of do’s and don’ts (such and such is right or such and such is wrong), but in truth it is rarely that simple. On the other hand, some people want it to be completely free (whatever is right for you), and this is equally simplistic. This is the case because morality exists on a few different levels. These can be broken down to: personal morality (those moral/immoral actions that affect me and those around me), community morality (those moral/immoral actions taken by a specific community as a whole which affect the entire community), national morality (those moral/immoral actions that are taken by a national government and affect the entire nation), and ultimate morality (that which is ultimately moral/immoral). However, even these levels commonly intertwine, and some situations have no realistic, moral solution. The question asked cannot be answered in a few blog post (this is something that scholars have been debating for [literally] millenia – just read Plato’s Republic), but some thoughts on this question can be shared, and specific examples given.
In the course I teach students are asked to identify themselves as either a moral absolutist (i.e. believing in some form of moral absolutes) or a moral relativist (i.e. rejecting any form of moral absolute), and many of them cannot do so. They correctly argue that while they believe in some absolutes, not every situation contains a moral absolute (i.e. when I sit down to eat dinner it is not morally right or wrong to eat meat – yes, I know, some of you disagree – shut up, I eat meat, and this proves my point), some things are morally relative, at least in perspective, and this leads us into the center of the quandary. Many people argue that ‘what is true for me, might not be true for you’, and in this they are right and wrong at the same time. They are wrong in that we can safely assume that that which is real is true (truth=reality), and so there can only one truth (physicists: stop now, I know there could be more than one reality, but when I say ‘reality’ I mean all of ‘reality’, not this specific reality). However, while there can only be one reality, one truth, there are multiple perspectives on that reality, that truth, and thus Nietzsche correctly points out that everything is perspective (I think he actually says perception, but here I mean the same thing). What one believes the truth to be impacts their actions, thus what one believes to be the truth ‘becomes’ the truth for that person – this is something that relativists get completely right. However, one’s beliefs concerning the truth (and the actions that belief causes) have no impact on the truth itself!
For instance, I believe that God exists, and I believe that the Christian bible is his divine revelation to mankind. I am confident in this belief, and thus it has a profound effect on my actions. However, my conviction has no impact (none whatsoever) on God’s existence or non-existence. God is not dependent on my belief, he either exists or he fails to exist on his own, and to him my belief is a non-issue. Thus while my actions are dependent on this belief, and this belief is dependent on the evidence of God’s existence that I have seen, the reverse is not true. My belief is not depended on my actions (though other’s perception of that belief might be), and the evidence of God’s existence (and his existence itself) is not dependent on my belief. Thus what is ‘true for me’ may or may not actually be true, but my actions reflect the guidance of that ‘truth’. This is the case for everyone – it is one of the most basic laws of humanity, true objectivity is impossible because we are all biased by our most basic beliefs (i.e. the fact that I trust my senses biases me). It is laudable to strive to identify and remove as much bias as possible, but it is foolish to assume that bias can be entirely removed. Thus, while there must be an ultimate morality (i.e. truth=reality) we can do no more than form beliefs (often conflicting) about what that morality is, and even these beliefs are severely limited*.
So, the question inevitably arises: does this mean that all ‘truths’ are equal? Of course not. In hermeneutics (the interpretation of written material) it is possible to have several valid interpretations of a single statement. However, this does not mean that any interpretation is correct. For instance, Nietzsche’s comment that ‘everything is perception’, could validly be interpreted literally (i.e. literally everything is perception), or as exaggeration (i.e. most things are perception, but I’m trying to make a point so I’m going to say everything), or as dealing with a specific area (i.e. everything in moral philosophy is reliant on perception), or in a few other ways. However, it could not be validly interpreted to mean that nothing is perception, or the Nietzsche really, really wants ice cream. These are faulty interpretations, because they do not reflect any possible reality of Nietzsche’s statement (deconstructionists: I don’t want to hear it, by your own admission your words are meaningless, thus your arguments are moot). We may examine relative truth claims in a similar manner. Those that best reflect the reality of the world (admittedly as interpreted through the biases of the viewer) are most likely to be true. However, we must also realize that all of us utilize some degree of faith and intuition (generally a lot) in forming our beliefs, and that all of us are biased. Thus, while an ultimate moral truth must exist, we are all guessing at what it actually is, and while some guesses may be closer than others, it remains an uncounted jar of jellybeans.
All right, that’s enough of my prattle for today. Tomorrow will (see should :P) be another post in my world-building series, and check back next weekend for the next post in this series. I would tell you what it will be, but that will probably change between now and then.
*For you Christians reading this who will inevitably claim that Biblical law is the ultimate morality – scripture itself implies that it is not. In a few instances we are allowed to do something that God has clearly expressed his distaste for – divorce is a prime example. God makes it clear throughout his word that he detests divorce (thus is does not fit within the ‘right’ of ultimate morality), and yet he allows it in the Old Testament, and in a few instances in the New Testament specifically because man is morally weak and incapable of living up to his ultimate morality. I am not saying that Scripture is not authoritative in the life of the believer (I believe that it is, and that Christians should and indeed must abide by its commands), but that God makes allowances for our weakness in scripture such that the commands reflected within must be considered significantly less than the ultimate moral law – this is one example of natural sin vs. personal sin (which is a subject for another post).