It is rarely denied that, in societies remotely like our own, an impressive array of vices or human failings is on display. Hypocrisy, greed, cruelty, prejudice, envy, sentimentality, dishonesty, hubris… these are just a few of them. But what if many of these vices are not simply familiar but, as it were, baked into human life as we know it? How should it affect a moral verdict on humankind if its failings are necessary to its forms of life?
Responses to this question will vary. For some people, the necessity of many vices merely adds to their already bleak, pessimistic assessment of the human condition. For others, by contrast, it is pointless to bemoan failings without which the benefits and even existence of civilisation would be impossible. Before these responses can be judged, we need to flesh out the idea of necessary vices, so let’s look at some authors who have championed it.
But even before that, it’s important to distinguish this idea from a less contentious one. You don’t have to be a utilitarian, or to subscribe to the Buddhist doctrine of ‘skill-in-means’, to accept that, in certain circumstances, an otherwise wrong action is justified. One thinks, for example, of the lie that is told to a dying person to avoid causing distress, or of killing a potential murderer to save lives. It is a different matter, however, to condone vices or failings, not because of exceptional circumstances, but because, in ordinary everyday life, they play strategic roles in the running of a society and economy.
It is these strategic roles that have been the focus of some acute observers of the moral condition of humankind. They have argued that vices, as well as virtues, are essential to secure the advantages and stability of complex social systems like ours. For the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, in the 17th century, several of ‘the innumerable faults to be found in [our] apparent virtues’ are as necessary for alleviating ‘the ills of life’ as are the poisons contained in some medicines. Hypocrisy, for example, by paying lip-service to moral behaviour, does something to encourage it, while wilful self-deception contributes to self-esteem and contentment.
Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, half a century later, is equally – or even more – emphatic: our ‘vilest’ qualities are ‘the most necessary accomplishments’ for creating and prospering in ‘the happiest and most flourishing societies’. It is envy, love of luxury, vanity and fickleness of taste that, for example, enable industry and trade to prosper. ‘The moment evil ceases’, he adds, ‘the society must be spoiled’.
Echoing such remarks, the 20th century philosopher, E.M. Cioran, declares ‘Root out [our] sins and life withers at once’. Unscrupulous opportunism, intolerance, prejudice and …
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a medical doctor, protestant theologian, musician and philosopher – an almost mythical presence of a man. In many ways, he was a son of his time, contemporary to others who seem larger than life: he was born right between Gandhi, who was six years older, and that other Albert, the physicist Einstein, four years his younger. It was an age whose protagonists built and destroyed empires, erected cathedrals of science, and dedicated their lives to almost inhuman levels of altruism – and all that over lifetimes that included the two most terrible and inhuman wars that history had ever seen.
Thinking back to the world they inhabited and formed, one is reminded of that great line in the script to Graham Greene’s Third Man, where Harry Lime says:
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Albert Schweitzer is not much remembered today. His legacy is not carried forward by an army of scientists or a whole nation of a billion people. Philosophers never took him seriously as an ethicist, although few who call themselves ethicists today would be willing to put their whole lives in the service of their beliefs, as he did.
As a young man, he studied theology and music, becoming an expert in the study and restoration of historic church organs. He was such an accomplished musician, that in 1905 he was invited to play for the king and queen of Spain. After the concert, the king asked him: “Is it difficult to play the organ?” – to which Schweitzer answered: “Almost as difficult as it is to rule Spain.”
As a scholar, he wrote two books on the interpretation of Bach’s music and published more, widely acclaimed books on the historical Jesus and (much later) the mysticism of early Christianity. But as he grew older, he also grew restless, unsatisfied with a life of privilege, as we would say now, asking himself how he could justify his existence in the face of Jesus’ commandments. To a friend he wrote:
For me the whole essence of religion is at stake. For me religion means to be human, plainly human in the sense in which Jesus was. In the colonies things are …
Kant is an unlikely source of humour, one might suppose, given his, by all accounts, reined-in, well-regulated way of life. On the other hand, others report that he could be quite a wit and good company when out convivially eating with others. Be that as it may, the connection with Kant is not with him personally, but with that perhaps even more unlikely joke-source, the Categorical Imperative.
It is not the Categorical Imperative that generates the joke, but rather it allows us to understand a kind of joke, and in such a way, in addition, that we may better understand the disquiet, even revulsion, some feel about that kind of joke, especially if taken too far. But the title is justified, and that it is Kant’s Joke,1 as it is hard to see how the joke and the misgivings we may have about such jokes can be understood properly without understanding the central feature of Kant’s ethics. This is not to say he would have liked the joke; he would not.
I refer of course to the so-called Practical Joke. Practical jokes always involve some kind of deception, either by deliberate expressed falsehood (one may say, lie) or by deliberate omission of some truth that could be expressed. This deception may not be verbal, it may be brought about by some action or inaction. Then, after some supposedly suitable period of time the deception is reversed or at least the initial situation revealed to be something other than it first seemed to be.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
A friend’s exam results arrive, which you know mean a great deal to them. You bowl up to them with the envelope, and open it, or ask them whether you can open it (it doesn’t matter which) and solemnly declare that they have failed, while knowing that they have passed. But then after a suitable pause – how long that is depends on how much you want to screw up the tension – you say ‘no you haven’t, you’ve passed!’
Here you boil some spaghetti, let it cool, and you put it in someone’s bed down at the bottom where their feet go – perhaps you watch them get into bed, though that’s not essential – the point being the alien shock the person feels when they put their bare feet into what appears to be a load of worms, or something else ghastly, that should not be there. The relief comes, as it always does with practical jokes, on realising it is only cold spaghetti.
In both cases, and in all cases in practical jokes, the trajectory of the joke is the shock or an initial bad thing happening being replaced by relief that things are not what they seem. Now for this not to be simply cruel – for sometimes it is when practical jokes ‘go wrong’ …
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We are happy to announce that Daily Philosophy will from now on be available in German, in addition to the international, English-language site.
Since these are still the early days of the German site, only a few articles have been translated, but we are working daily on more and hope, eventually, to have most articles available in German.
We know that some places, like menus, dates, headers and footers and so on, might not yet all appear correctly in German; be assured that we are working on those, but it may take a few months to get everything sorted out. Until then, you can already read all the articles that have been translated by either:
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Cover image by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash.
The central claim of anti-abortion activists is that destroying a fetus or embryo is wrong because it’s killing a being that has a right to live. And part of the case for abortion access is the opposite claim, that a fetus or embryo is not yet a being with rights. This denial is only part of the case for abortion rights: there’s also the claim that even if a fetus or embryo has rights, the pregnant person’s right to bodily autonomy should take precedence, and the claim that banning abortion is harmful to women’s health, safety, and equality. But it is nevertheless worth exploring the question of what rights a fetus or embryo should have – the question of its ‘moral status’.
The question of moral status is difficult because it depends on multiple other questions, spanning different disciplines: ethics, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience. In this article I’ll try to tease apart five of those questions, and get a sense of what some plausible answers might be:
What features give a being moral status? This is a question in philosophical ethics. Among the popular answers, the most significant for the abortion debate may be sentience.
What is sentience? This is a question in philosophy of mind. We should distinguish physical detection of a stimulus, the conscious experience it gives rise to, and cognitive awareness of that experience.
What makes us sentient? What brain structures enable conscious experiences? This is a question at the intersection of philosophy with neuroscience, and while there’s still uncertainty, most evidence points to the cerebral cortex.
What brain structures do embryos and fetuses have, at various points during pregnancy? This is a question in developmental neuroscience, where the preponderance of evidence is that the cerebral cortex forms quite late in pregnancy.
Finally, how much does potential matter? When something isn’t yet sentient, how much should it matter if it could become sentient in the future? This is another question in ethics, though it connects with philosophy of mind through the question of personal identity.
None of these questions are easy, but some answers are likely to have more widespread appeal than others. After reviewing these five questions, I’ll suggest that combining the most appealing answers supports thinking that moral status appears quite late in pregnancy, well after the overwhelming majority of abortions happen.
This is a big question, so we can’t survey all the options, but three common answers are relevant here:
First, people sometimes appeal to a cluster of sophisticated mental capacities – things like being able to talk, to reason, to think about yourself as yourself, to consider things from other people’s perspectives, etc. These capacities all seem to be distinctively human: no …
For those of us who are curious about philosophy and keep studying it, we are often part of events that put us to the test. A common scenario can be described more or less as follows.
Imagine you are at a dinner table, having fun with some friends on a Saturday night, and the topic of violence in human beings is brought up. Maybe you are discussing a crime that came up in the news recently, when one of your buddies makes the following pronouncement:
“Last week I watched ‘March of the Penguins’ and, to my utter surprise (spoiler ahead!), these animals are very violent! To the point that, when an infant penguin loses her parents, who are in charge of nourishing her, other adult penguins will come along and kill her simply because there’s nobody left to do the journey to get food for her. Isn’t that unfair? There’s a good amount of violence in the animal kingdom. I watch documentaries all the time and this is a common theme. Then… since we humans are animals, we are bound to be violent, as well.”
You reason with yourself for a while and come to the conclusion that something must have gone wrong in your friend’s last statement. You search for clarification in the wealthy mass of philosophical knowledge that you have patiently acquired throughout the years, to realize that it may be worth pointing out that your friend’s conclusion may not be the case depending on how you look at it.
You wait until dessert time to bring up the topic again, you turn around to your dinner friend and say:
“Kant would disagree with your statement about violence in human beings!”
Now all eyes are on you and you have no choice but to perform your philosophical mission to the best of your abilities. You start explaining that treating humans as animals means for Kant to take away their humanity, which is their dignity since it is based on rationality.
“We humans are endowed with a gift from nature that gives us the freedom to act rightly. Penguins may not be able to decide what’s best from an ethical standpoint, but we have this freedom that is underlying all of our actions.
We wouldn’t be able to talk about ethics at all if we couldn’t see us as free beings who are capable of deciding. Think about how Aristotle classified our actions as voluntary and involuntary. You can only be held accountable for something that you’ve done because you are expected to have performed it in a voluntary way. You can pick up the information that surrounds a given affair, weigh all the facts and make a decision, which will lead to your action.
For Kant, penguins are not built like that. They belong exclusively to the world of nature, since they are not rational beings, for which all of their actions are done involuntarily because they are subject to predetermined laws. A penguin cannot decide if it’s right or wrong to kill the baby: they are programmed to do it! There is, for Kant, no freedom …
I love philosophy, all kinds. When I think about some of the “great works” in the discipline, they remain accessible. I do my best to embrace this quality. I think I get it right sometimes while failing in other instances. Progress, not perfection, as my friends say.
Getting more to your point, I don’t want to tell anyone else how to do philosophy or think. I have a penchant for works that cut from the abstract to the concrete. I recently argued that the academy needs a new kind of philosophy that participates in interdisciplinary conversations. Several contemporary philosophers' works are inherently philosophical while remaining connected to the academy. Grant Silva’s article “Racism as Self-love” is an excellent example. Such papers offer insights into real-world situations, revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary. One way to usher in an age of new philosophy is to encourage people to be their own philosophers. I’m not saying to ignore the canon or relevant works. Dare to use your understanding of philosophy to reflect your personality and genuine interests.
For instance, when working on my Ph.D., my vehicle went kaput. I walked over a mile and rode two buses and a train to get to my university. During my first academic job, I waited in the blistering Mojave Desert sun to catch a bus enough times to burn the experience into my memory for life. These lessons guide my research. While I cannot (and do not) speak for others with harsher conditions compounded by racism, classism, sexism, and ableism, I’ve positioned my work to speak against the conditions that perpetuate such harm in general (among other kinds). These points are evident in my first book, The Morality of Urban Mobility: Technology and Philosophy of the City.
The great German theologian Adolf von Harnack was satirised by a contemporary, George Tyrrell, who famously remarked that ‘The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.’1
In this eloquent and provocative critique of the ‘Engaged Buddhism’ movement, Ian Kidd offers a similar satirical thought about Buddhists who look down the well of the centuries and find just what they were looking for reflected back at them: the Buddha as social activist, liberal, feminist, egalitarian. Kidd’s view, by contrast, is that if we study the early suttas we shall find that this picture not only has no purchase but, if anything, is contradicted by the evidence. He writes:
I suspect what most people think of as ‘Buddhism’ is really shaped by some kind of engaged Buddhist image. I think that’s a problem: the fidelity of those images to the teachings of the Buddha is very questionable.
By ‘the teachings’, I mean the suttas or discourses that are taken to be the earliest statement of the Buddha’s teachings.
The question for Kidd is whether engaged Buddhism distorts those teachings, whether it is faithful to or consistent with those teachings, and he remarks
I only want to provoke doubts about whether the ethos of engaged Buddhism is consistent with what the Buddha taught. We can find perfectly good reasons to want to address racism, economic inequality, and unsustainable abuse of the environment. But few, if any of these will be drawn from the teachings of the Buddha.
Now, when Kidd talks of ‘consistency with’ or ‘fidelity to’ the earliest statements of the Buddha’s teaching it may look to some as though he endorses a traditionalism which resists the critical developments which define a living tradition, which can both correct and be corrected by the past. I think such a reading would be a mistake. Kidd is asking whether or not the engaged Buddhism movement distorts the past in order to justify its own position.
Nevertheless, the questions crowd in. Is this what engaged Buddhists are doing? Aren’t those conclusions of Nineteenth Century European scholars and philosophers more accurate? – that Buddhism is essentially quietist, and pessimistic about the human condition? Does an ‘engaged’ Buddhist really have to draw on this picture of the Buddha as a ‘social activist’ to find support for their own activism? Should they be looking for this kind of support anyway? If the Dalai Lama tells me that the Buddha would have been …
A very enjoyable book that presents classic arguments from philosophy by discussing examples of superhero comics. If you are interested in comics, then this book will give you a good, solid introduction to many interesting problems in philosophy, while also teaching you to see superhero comics from a more sophisticated point of view.
What if an evil genius is tricking you into believing that the world around you is real when it really isn’t? What if on an alternate Earth everything is identical but for one almost undetectable detail? What if trying to travel to the past transported you to a different universe instead? What if a mad scientist removed your brain and is keeping it alive in a vat of nutrients? What if lightning struck a dead tree in a swamp and transformed it into The Swampman?
Any of these fantastical plots could be the premise of a superhero comic book. … Except none of those scenarios comes from comics. They’re all thought experiments written by highly regarded philosophers.
So begins the fascinating journey on which Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg take us in their marvellous 2019 book Superhero Thought Experiments.
This book is part of a wider trend to bring the philosophy treatment to popular culture. As far as I know, the most prominent and long-living example of this is the “… and Philosophy” series from Open Court Publishing. From The Simpsons and Philosophy to Lord of the Rings and Philosophy this long-running series (some of the titles were published in the early 2000s), covers all the usual suspects: Dungeons and Dragons, The Matrix, Buffy, Harry Potter, all the way to Stephen Colbert and Philosophy. I was therefore surprised to see that the Superhero book was not in that series but published by University of Iowa Press. This might be one of the reasons why the book has fewer than 10 reviews on Goodreads, when, for example, The Simpsons and Philosophy have over 3,000. The unusual venue may have made it harder for the right audience to find the book.
But the relative obscurity of the work is certainly not deserved – quite the opposite. I am myself not a superhero audience; my knowledge of the matter is limited to what I’d heard of Superman, Batman and Spiderman as a child, and then, at a later age, reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Still, I found Superhero Thought Experiments fascinating and easy to read, even without the background in superhero lore.
One reason is that the authors seem to be very well aware that there are two distinct audiences for their book: philosophy readers who are interested in superheroes, and superhero audiences who are interested in exploring their favourite …
This is the third part of a series of articles by Ian James Kidd on Buddhism and social activism. Find the first two articles in the series here:
Engaged Buddhists understand the Dhamma to endorse kinds of social activism. Compassion and ‘overcoming suffering’ means an earnest collective effort to radically change the social and political conditions of human life. Justice, fairness, equality, and rights are all pursued by engaged Buddhists. ‘Climate action’ and rhetoric of ‘saving the planet’ fill Buddhist blogs and pamphlets. Thích Nhất Hạnh came to fame for his anti-war advocacy. My city has a ‘Buddhists for Extinction Rebellion’ group. All this is proof of a ‘sea-change’ in the global Buddhist tradition. For one distinguished scholar, ‘Buddhists have gotten up off their cushions, recognizing that collective sources of suffering in the world must be addressed by collective action’.
In the first and second parts of this series, I tried to cast doubt on the actual fidelity of engaged Buddhism to the teachings of the Buddha. My aim isn’t ‘to do’ down Buddhism, nor impugn the moral seriousness of many of those causes. I only want to provoke doubts about whether the ethos of engaged Buddhism is consistent with what the Buddha taught. We can find perfectly good reasons to want to address racism, economic inequality, and unsustainable abuse of the environment. But few, if any of these will be drawn from the teachings of the Buddha.
I focus in this final piece on a neglected aspect of the teachings: the condemnation of social activism and political engagement.
The Buddha did not say much about political and social issues. A handful of suttas discuss issues like rulership and the origins of the state. Generally, though, the Buddha was reluctant to say very much. Most of what he did say about politics was in response to the requests of the rulers who would occasionally consult him. As a general rule, the Buddha’s advice is straightforward – reward the capable, punish criminals but not too harshly, tax people but not too much, and so on. One scholar calls the Buddha’s political views a sort of ‘limited citizenship’. Insofar as we live in extended social communities, someone needs to be in charge, and so they should have a good moral character and a limited range of duties.
The great Buddhist king, Asoka, is often presented as the ideal – a wise ruler who abandoned warfare, made provisions for care of ill and aged people, instituted protections for animals, and so on. As rulers go, Asoka was admirable but also rare. An engaged Buddhist may point to his example as an argument for political participation and engagement. Should we not work to create a fairer and more …
There was a young woman from Anglesea
Who took quite a shine to philosophy.
She pondered a lot
Upon “ought” and “ought not”,
Which stopped when she noticed a bee.
The bee’s name was Elsie, the woman’s Marie,
Marie was disgusted, while Elsie sipped tea,
She searched for a weapon to
Teach Elsie a lesson
And send off that bee, straight to eternity.
The weapon was found in just a few seconds,
‘Twas Kant’s noble work on the law and the heavens.
She grabbed it real tight,
And whacked with some might –
Poor Elsie was dead and deprived of all presence.
Marie was relieved she got rid of the beast,
Returned to her books and forgot the deceased,
And pondered again
The essence of man,
The good and the bad, what counts most and what least.
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Michael Hauskeller is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool, UK. He specializes in moral and existential philosophy, but has also done work in various other areas, most notably phenomenology (the theory of atmospheres), the philosophy of art and beauty, and the philosophy of human enhancement.
His publications include Biotechnology and the Integrity of Life (Routledge 2007), Better Humans? Understanding the Enhancement Project (Routledge 2013), Sex and the Posthuman Condition (Palgrave Macmillan 2014), The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television (ed. with T. Philbeck and C. Carbonell, Palgrave 2015), Mythologies of Transhumanism (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), Moral Enhancement. Critical Perspectives (ed. with L. Coyne, Cambridge University Press 2018), and The Meaning of Life and Death (Bloomsbury 2019). His most recent book is The Things that Really Matter. Philosophical Conversations on the Cornerstones of Life (UCL Press, 2022).
More from Michael Hauskeller:
Cover image by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash.
Christopher Tricker (2022). The Cicada and the Bird. The usefulness of a useless philosophy. Chuang Tzu's ancient wisdom translated for modern life.
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The following excerpt presents us with Chuang Tzu’s vision of the Tao (the path), and how to walk it. Now, the Tao (the path) means different things to different people. For example, for Confucians it was the path of aristocratic culture and ritual. But for Chuang Tzu, it’s the surface isness (the presenting phenomenology) of things: the shape, colour, texture, and feel of things that we experience directly when we put our brain’s labels aside. His best metaphor for how to walk this path is a story about a cook carving up an ox.
The cook is unravelling an ox for Cultured Benevolent Lord.
His hand, a subtle turn –
The shoulder leaning just so.
His foot: poised, placed –
The knee bending in flow.
Knife suspended –
Not a sound not in tune.
In time with the Mulberry-Grove Dance.
In step with the Sacred-Chiefs Corroboree.
Cultured Benevolent Lord says:
How does skill arrive at this?
The cook, putting the knife down, replies:
What your subject cares about is the path.
He’s moved on from skill.
When your subject first began unravelling oxen, he had eyes only for oxen.
After three years, he never attempted to see a whole ox.
And now, your subject meets the parts with his daemon and doesn’t scrutinise them with his eyes.
His administrative thinking stops and his daemon’s longing goes forth,
yielding to the natural grain,
striking at large gaps,
guiding through large openings,
going by the given structure.
To skilfully pass through a joint – that’s something he never attempts, much less a large bone!
Good cooks replace their knife every year, because they cut.
Common cooks replace their knife every month, because they hack.
Well, your subject’s knife is nineteen years old. It has unravelled several thousand oxen and its edge is as if freshly issued from the grindstone.
The sections have space between them, and the knife-edge lacks thickness.
Using something that lacks thickness to enter where there’s space – one’s scope in which to wander is vast. Indeed, the knife has room to spare.
That’s why after nineteen years the knife-edge is as if freshly issued from the grindstone.
Still, when I come across a knot, I see the difficulty it presents.
Warily, cautioned – my gaze stilled; my action slowed – I move the knife ever so subtly.
And poof! The knot unravels itself like a clod of soil crumbling to the ground.
Lowering the knife and …
This is the second part in a three-part series by Ian James Kidd on Buddhism and social activism. Find the first article in the series here:
In an earlier piece for Daily Philosophy, I challenged the idea that the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and the overcoming of suffering provide support for social activism. ‘Changing the world’, challenging patriarchy, revolution, and the whole ethos of radical reformism is nothing like what the Buddha taught. Karuna – ‘compassion’ – really means smaller, modest acts of caring responsiveness. It doesn’t involve structural changes or collective actions. Dukkha – ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’ – is a cosmic fact to be accepted, not a removable aspect of our world we could ever ‘tackle’ through collective action. I ended that piece by noting questions a critic might ask. Can the Buddha not endorse our concerns with injustice? Wouldn’t he largely share in our sense of what is wrong with our world? Isn’t large-scale activism a natural extension of the Buddha’s teachings?
In this piece and the next one, I suggest the answer to all these questions is ‘No’.
A student of mine once remarked that Buddhism seemed to her a ‘suspiciously good fit’ for modern progressive moral outlooks. An Iron Age Indian spiritual teacher born into a richly religious culture turns out to share almost the same values and concerns as late modern advocates of ‘liberal morality’. Like us, the Buddha condemns injustice and social discrimination. Like us, the Buddha takes moral practice to be continuous with radical political goals. Like us, the Buddha is anti-sexist and a champion of equality and climate action. ‘How remarkable!’, said my student. Their suspicions were well-founded. A careful look at the suttas reveals a rather more complicated picture.
It is tempting to assume that historical moral figures should share our own values and outlooks. Sometimes, of course, they do – Jesus condemned greediness, Confucius praises honesty, and Native American traditions urged appreciative attention to the lives of non-human animals. Care should be taken, though, not to allow our expectations take the place of evidence. Pleasing agreements are often accompanied by uncomfortable differences. Confronted with moral visions from different times and cultures, we should not assume they are basically identical to us.
We should not presuppose – or invidiously pretend – that the Buddha did or would share our particular moral concerns. Nor should we assume he used or would recognise or endorse our moral concepts – ‘human rights’, ‘equality’, ‘climate crisis’, and so on. This sense for likely differences was at the root of my students’ sense that the fit between the Buddha’s teachings and modern liberal tastes was too good to be true.
Consider some of the Buddha’s condemnations. …
In this article, Thomas O. Scarborough, author of Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy (2022), ex UK top ten philosophy website editor, and a Congregational minister, presents us with a new take on Descartes’ legacy and the mind/body problem.
Daily Philosophy readers are entitled to 50% off the price of the book. This offer is valid until the end of December 2022. To claim your discount, go to Wipf & Stock, click on ‘Buy’, ‘Add coupon’ and enter DP50 (all capitals, no space) as a coupon code.
Ever since René Descartes wrote, in 1641, ‘The mind is really distinct from the body,’ we have struggled with the mind-body problem. Not that the problem didn’t exist before – however, Descartes brought it to the fore.
While Descartes' ideas on mind have long since been jettisoned, I argue that we have not moved very far beyond him. The simple problem of Descartes has morphed into another, which keeps us all spell-bound today – and frankly, in a rut.
The purpose of this article is to jump us out of the rut, so that we may think new thoughts and explore new directions.
Descartes famously wrote, ‘I think, therefore I am.’
His first word, unfortunately, was a mistake – a classic example of a suppressed inference. He assumed that the ‘I’ was an immaterial soul, which interacted with a material body. And the rest is history.
Descartes' view was certainly common-sensical.
I tap my finger on a tabletop. I drink a glass of milk. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Such experiences seem perfectly real to me. Which means that, on the surface of it, my life seems real to me, through and through.
It seems, therefore, that I am living in a real world. It is not imagined or illusory. Further, it seems to me that I am an observer of this world, not merely a robotic presence there. On this basis, it would seem to me that I have a mind that observes reality: mind here, reality there, which separates my mind from the things that it observes – and separates my mind from my body.
Yet common sense does not always make good philosophy.
If we separate the mind from the things it observes, it is difficult to explain how a mind exists separately in a world where, apparently, only matter exists. And if we propose that something else exists, of which the mind is made, we face the daunting prospect of proving it.
Let us try to formulate Descartes' position simply. We shall strip it down to conceptual basics – its bare essentials. The original position of Descartes, I shall argue, is this. I shall call it Descartes 1.0:
An immaterial soul A causes a material body B to move.
Let us simplify this further:
A causes B.
Yet we have …
Buddhism is widely admired in the West for its commitments to progressive social activism. Saffron-clad monks march to promote peace or condemn repressive governments. The Dalai Lama lauds human rights and assures packed audiences that ‘the Buddha would be green’. When the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, died this January, he was mourned by high-profile political activists as well as members of the Buddhist monastic community. Buddhists are common sights at marches, protests, sit-ins, and occupations. Magazines like Tricycle and The Lion’s Roar regularly feature articles on capitalism and social injustice as well as mindfulness and meditation. In my local bookstore, the Buddhism section has many books with titles like The Dharma of Social Justice.
The perception of alliances between the teachings of the Buddha and modern social and environmental activism is one of the main reasons for the positive perception of Buddhism in many Western countries. The Buddha’s teachings on suffering and compassion turn out to be allied to the concerns of many feminist and environmental movements. Equality, tolerance, and social justice get confidently related to the discourses that the Buddha preached one and a half thousand years ago. From his criticisms of the caste system to the emphasis on liberating beings from suffering, the Buddha – a man born a prince only to abandon his inherited wealth and power – thus emerges as an acceptable and attractive spiritual teacher.
Is this image of the Buddha as a social activist ahead of his time accurate? It wasn’t always the case that perceptions were so favourable. Late-nineteenth century American, French and English writers saw Buddhism as a pessimistic doctrine encouraging passivity and retreat from life. Life, love, and hope – it was thought – are absent from the life of the monk. For one poetic critic, Buddhists are ‘living under a sky from which no sunlight ever streams’, their world all ‘sadness and hopelessness’. Many of the critics were Christians contrasting the good works, hope, and energy of their own faith with what an early scholar called the ’deep and miserable melancholy’ of Buddhism. Not all, though. Nietzsche was a harsh critic of Christianity but also condemned Buddhism as a ‘life-denying’ creed. There were also admirers of Buddhism – like the Indophile English Theosophists or the enthusiastic readers of Edwin Arnold’s epic poem The Light of Asia (which sold a million copies and was later made into a Broadway play).
What changed to change the image of Buddhism from one passivity and pessimism to one of energetic social activism? It is a long story. Historians and Buddhist scholars all emphasise that ‘Buddhism’ is many things, not a single tradition, and that politics, culture, trade, colonialism all played their parts. I will not …
The main idea of this essay is not the uninteresting autobiographical one of telling people what led me to philosophy, but rather to pass on what it was so that it might just lead others. There might have been one or two other seminal books I could have chosen.1 At the early stages of getting to know anything where one starts is likely to be happenchance and based on the accident of circumstance. (In this case it just happened to be one of the very few philosophy books in the local public library.) For it is only after one starts that one’s investigations become more directed. You have to be somewhere before you can start finding your way around, wherever that somewhere is.
The book in question is Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, first published in 1945.
I shall not go through the details of the discussions of the central protagonists, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx, but rather try to convey what lies at the heart of book, the thrust of its argument, and how this opens out into the wider world of philosophy, not so much in the sense of other philosophical subjects, but rather what is at the core of philosophy overall.
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Buy it right here!
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Central to The Open Society and Its Enemies is the advocation of free open critical thought, and an attack on closed finished outlooks that purport to deliver definitive even final answers, both in itself, but also because it is the only that way things can be tried out and errors be corrected. Always keep the door ajar on other views. Keep the running thread of fallibilism in your thoughts – that always you might be wrong, that evidence or arguments may appear that can and should change your mind. The book opposes what it calls tribalism, the closed society. That is, the huddling together behind closed-wall unassailable beliefs, and thereby often setting them up in opposition and conflict to other tribes. This applies to social doctrines on how society should be organised, and the avoiding of all-time right answers.
If one has to intervene as a state in the lives of people, do it in a small-scale piecemeal way, for only then will one have the chance to correct a theoretical idea by trial and error when confronted, as it certainly will be, by the reality of application. Theory always falls short of practice. Eschew grand plans, the radical ripping up from the foundations, the sweeping away and starting again. The results will be a litany of fanning out unintended consequences that are not only harmful or disastrous, but also may be irreversible. We simply do not have and never will have the knowledge for …
Dr Andreas Matthias teaches philosophy at an Asian university. Before becoming a philosopher, he worked for twenty years as a programmer at a German university. He is the publisher and editor of Daily Philosophy, author of multiple books, and one half of the Accented Philosophy podcast.
This interview was first published in Spanish on Filosofia En La Red and conducted by its founder, philosopher Miguel Angel.
I grew up in Greece; my mother was German, originally from a Czech family, and my father Greek. As soon as I finished school, I moved to Germany and, twenty years later, to Hong Kong. Now my family is also Chinese, so we are a Greek/German/Chinese mixture.
But I find that I tend to see Greece as my cultural home. It’s the country I identify most with. It’s an easy country to love, with its beaches, long summers, and that wonderful food. I sometimes feel that, to me, only Greek food feels like real food. Everything else is eating for survival. It works, but I rarely enjoy it. In the future, I hope to end my life as a small-time farmer on a piece of land in Greece.
I’m not good at earliest memories, or any memories at all. I sometimes forget what I did this morning, so it’s pointless for me to try and remember what happened fifty years ago. And, frankly, I don’t care. I’m always looking into the future, wondering what’s going to happen to us in a year, or five, or ten. It’s not anxiety – it’s a feeling of expectation. As if the best is yet to come. I know, it’s silly to think this way when you’re over fifty, but there you have it. One has to be silly to take a career in philosophy seriously.
That’s actually one of the bits I do remember. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, like he was. So he sent me off to Germany to study law. There I got into a class that was about the philosophy of law, and I was hooked. I didn’t care a bit about the actual laws. It was much more interesting to think about how the laws should be, or to learn how they turned out to be as they were. So I ditched law and studied philosophy instead. But I was never a good student. I was too restless to stick to one thing. In parallel with philosophy, I also studied chemistry, one semester of physics, German literature and, finally, a whole master’s degree in biology. So now I am (in theory) a biologist and philosopher. But I’ve forgotten most of my biology over the past thirty years, so it’s only on paper. It comes in handy when my kids ask me questions about science, though. I still remember enough to impress a ten-year old.
My father never really warmed to the idea, but that’s okay. I guess it will be the same when my son tells me he wants to be a lawyer or …
“In these days of crisis in the humanities, as well as in the social sciences, it is crucial to distinguish valid from ill-founded criticism of any academic effort.”
This article was first published on January 25, 2018, on the Blog of the APA and is reprinted here with permission.
Science is unquestionably the most powerful approach humanity has developed so far to the understanding of the natural world. There is little point in arguing about the spectacular successes of fundamental physics, evolutionary and molecular biology, and countless other fields of scientific inquiry. Indeed, if you do, you risk to quickly slide into self-contradictory epistemic relativism or even downright pseudoscience.
Massimo Pigliucci: Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.
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That said, there is a pernicious and increasingly influential strand of thought these days — normally referred to as “scientism” — which is not only a threat to every other discipline, including philosophy, but risks undermining the credibility of science itself. In these days of crisis in the humanities, as well as in the social sciences, it is crucial to distinguish valid from ill-founded criticism of any academic effort, revisiting once more what C.P. Snow famously referred to as the divide between “the two cultures.”
First off, what is scientism, exactly? Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics, in this case to the Merriam-Webster concise definition: “An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” But surely this is a straw man. Who really fits that description? Plenty of prominent and influential people, as it turns out.
Let me give you a few examples: Author Sam Harris, when he argues that science can by itself provide answers to moral questions and that philosophy is not needed (e.g., “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ [etc.] … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”)
Science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson (and physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, science educator Bill Nye, among others), when he declares philosophy useless to science (or “dead,” in the case of Hawking) (e.g., “My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?” — N. deGrasse Tyson; also: “I think …
If you prefer, you can listen to an audio version of this article right here or in your podcast player. Look for the “Accented Philosophy Podcast”.
“Philosophy” sounds like a daunting topic to many, something incredibly complex and boring. But, in its most basic form, it is very close to what we all did as children: ask questions about the world.
Philosophy is a field of study that attempts to answer questions that cannot be answered by providing some fact, but that require a deeper understanding of the question itself. For example:
Ethics is the study of how we ought to behave, and why. There are many different theories of ethics, which we briefly discuss in this article.
Because of this focus that philosophy puts on asking the right questions, it has sometimes been labelled “the study of asking the right questions.” This is particularly important because we sometimes tend to ask questions that cannot be answered because the question itself is asked in the wrong way. For example:
“Does God exist?” This question cannot be answered like that. We first would have to clarify what “existing” means for a being like God. We can see and touch physical, material things, but not everything exists in the same way as a bottle or a table. For example, numbers. The number 42 certainly exists, but where is it? I cannot point at anything in the material world that is the number 42.
Or that idea for a poem that I had yesterday. Certainly, in some way, my idea exists. I can remember it, I can recite the poem. But where is it? Is my idea lying on the table over there? No. Numbers, ideas and many other things exist in a different way from material objects, but they certainly do “exist” in a real way. Christianity exists too, but I cannot locate it.
Or, say, the government of Germany. Even this very real thing I …
Here is a short excerpt from a Guardian article, discussing a new TV show:
Backlash against C4 show that may destroy works by Hitler and Picasso
Channel 4 has come under fire over plans for a new show that will allow a studio audience to decide whether Jimmy Carr should destroy a painting by Adolf Hitler.
… The TV channel has bought artworks by a range of “problematic” artists including Hitler, Pablo Picasso, the convicted paedophile Rolf Harris and the sexual abuser Eric Gill.
A televised debate called Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, will question whether one can truly separate a work of art from its creator – before deciding which pieces to destroy with a variety of tools. …
But the idea has provoked criticism, with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust saying the show is “making Hitler a topic of light entertainment”. … Some likened the content of the show – which was filmed on Wednesday night – to Nazi book burnings. … And some have asked if it is ever right to destroy a historical artefact, no matter who the creator is.
So, who is right? Are we allowed to destroy Hitler’s art? Are we allowed to make entertainment out of it? Read on to find out!
The first, most obvious question, would be: What exactly are we allowed to destroy and why would anyone want to interfere with our choices?
In the course of a lecture, a teacher might draw stick figures onto a blackboard in order to illustrate something for her students. At the end of the class, the blackboard will be erased. Is this a crime against art? Obviously not.
One way of looking at this would be to consider the work’s market value, which should be (in theory) determined by supply and demand. Although that teacher’s drawing is in short supply (only she can draw stick figures in precisely this way), the demand for the work is non-existent. As a consequence, the work has no value and needs not be preserved, one might argue.
But this cannot be the full answer. For example, think of a parent who destroys a child’s picture in front of the child’s eyes. Although the picture likely has no market value at all, destroying it in front of its creator would seem cruel and morally wrong – not because of the destruction of market value, but because of the damage to the feelings of the artist.
On the other hand, a real-estate developer destroying a very valuable high-rise building that they own in order to build a theme park on the same spot might be seen as a stupid and ill-advised business decision. But we wouldn’t see it as a morally bad choice. What one does with one’s own things should …
I’m happy to announce that, after a break, we have kicked off the second season of the Accented Philosophy Podcast!
The first episode is Ezechiel and me discussing the trend of “Quiet Quitting,” where employees will do their work as instructed, but resist exploitation and unpaid overtime. For many, this seems like a way out of the pressures of a job that is meaningless yet takes up most of one’s life.
But is Quiet Quitting really a good thing? Come and listen to find out!
Now you can also directly join the discussion on the podcast! We have created a new email address specifically for you to send in your questions, comments and opinions. Just send us your remarks and replies by email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk about them in the next episode!
Isn’t happiness unanimously desired by every human being on Earth? Humans have strived for happiness from the very beginning. However, ‘happiness’ is one of the most variable emotions known to mankind as its meaning and the way of achieving it varies from person to person. Still, in every era philosophers have attempted to define happiness and ways to attain it. The philosophical understanding of ‘happiness’ changed through the passage of time. In the ancient world, Aristotle held virtues as the way of attaining happiness. With the commencement of the Middle Ages, philosophers like Al Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas identified the love of God as the only path to achieve happiness. In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham introduced the hedonistic approach to happiness. Furthermore, in the contemporary world, as happiness is also being promoted as a political objective, it has gained a new dimension.
In the ancient period, Aristotle defined happiness as the chief human good in his book ‘Nicomachean Ethics’. His understanding of happiness is different from the regular connotation of the word ‘happiness’. He introduced the concept of happiness known as ‘Eudaimonia’. Eudaimonia is not concerned with the momentary happiness caused by a particular event. Instead, it implies that the person is admirable and lives life to its best. Aristotle held virtues like courage, temperance, justice, etc. to be the fundamental guides for a well-lived life. He held that a happy man is “one who exercises his faculties in accordance with perfect excellence, being duly furnished with external goods, not for any chance of time, but for a full term of years … and who shall continue to live so, and shall die as he lived.”1
Moreover, Aristotle described that every ethical virtue is the intermediate state between the two extremes of that virtue. The two extremes consist of excess and deficiency of a particular virtue. For instance, the virtue of ‘courage’ is the mean between two extremes, one being ‘cowardice’ and the other being ‘foolhardiness’.
Aristotle’s theory of happiness rests on three concepts: (1) the virtues; (2) phronesis or practical wisdom; and (3) eudaimonia or flourishing.
Like Aristotle, Plato also maintained a virtue based eudaemonistic approach towards happiness. In The Republic, Plato poses two questions: “what is justice?” and “what is the relation between justice and happiness?” In the …
There are multiple systems currently on the market that are able to generate art, and you have probably heard some of the names: generative adversarial networks (GANs), Dall-E, or Stable Diffusion. The details of how they work can be hard to understand for the non-AI-engineer; but the basic idea is that these programs are trained on millions of images, so that they learn to associate a particular string of words (“hamster on a beach”) with a particular image content: in this case, a collection of images of hamsters and beaches. When the user enters a prompt to generate an image, the program will then compose an image that contains the partial images that the program has associated with the different parts of the prompt. So, for example, “a camel on a boat, in the style of Dali” will produce an image containing a camel, a boat, and stylistic elements that can be found across the works of Dali. Here’s what this looks like using Dreamstudio.ai, a service using Stable Diffusion to generate the images:
One thing that soon becomes apparent is that these systems don’t analyse or understand the grammar of the prompts. They just see that they have some image elements for the words “camel,” “boat” and “Dali” and put these together into a new picture. Whether the camel is “on” or “under” the boat is (mostly?) left to chance. So, for example, the same prompt generates this image, which fits the intent of the query much less:
The best-looking images are those where the mind of the observer has no reliable way to critically judge the success of the image generation process. Abstract images and painting styles that obscure the details work best and can create truly stunning output:
Giving the same prompt again does not repeat the image. Instead, a new, unique picture is generated:
A T-Rex in Dali style (my childrens’ idea) also looks great and undoubtedly has the typical “Dali” look to it:
This Hong Kong skyline in watercolour is striking:
And here is another one, specifically asking for a “moody blue” version:
I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy to have this somewhere …
October 2nd is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whom they called the Mahatma, the Great Soul. For all of us who don’t know much about him, the 1982 movie does a good job of filling in the holes. Sometimes portraying him as a bit too holy (and I guess he would agree to that), it still gives a great impression of the man he was in the public imagination. A friend of Tolstoy’s, often viewed as a saint by western Christians, although he himself disliked Christianity and its missionary zeal.
He was no saint, and he would have been the first to say so. In his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments With Truth,” he recounts many failures of his own life, beginning with his early marriage, at 13, to the woman whom he stayed with until the end, although he wasn’t always faithful to her. For all his revolutionary zeal, he was very much a child of his time and society, and he expected obedience from his wife and his family, not allowing his son to study law as he himself had done. He was also, in practice, much less ecumenical than he preached, and many see him as responsible for Hindu nationalism and the partition of India, which might have been avoided with a more moderate leader.
Gandhi’s autobiography provides an extraordinary view on the thoughts and the life of this exceptional man.
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But all this seems less important today when we look back at the life of Gandhi. What we see, as seekers of wisdom (for that is what philosophy is supposed to be), is a man who stood by his principles and who fought for them until the end. Like many revolutionaries and great leaders, he wasn’t an easy man to get along with. A softer, more likeable man would have tried to avoid spending much of his life in prison, fasting, hunger striking, organising walks and marches, and facing off the wrath of the British empire, while still finding the strength to fight. In this, he is similar to many other great revolutionaries and saints, Che Guevara, Leo Tolstoy, or Mother Teresa, who were all heavily criticised for flaws in their personalities. But they all had the lives and the success that they had, not in spite, but because of these flaws.
When we look around today, we see a world that is ruled and dominated by amoral men, seeking only to enrich themselves at the cost of everyone else, at the cost of the world as a whole: the Trumps, Bolsonaros, Berlusconis, Putins and Orbans (and the list doesn’t stop there, of course). In this environment, it is particularly important to remind ourselves that we are not stuck with the likes of them, that there is no law of nature that decrees that we have to be content with them and accept their rule.
There is better. And Gandhi, the great soul, the Mahatma, was one of those who came to show us that despite all the flaws of …
Thanks very much for inviting me. I started writing and performing songs when I was in high school, with the lyrics written by my younger brother Richard. This continued into our time as undergraduates when we were contemporaries at Oxford. However, after moving to New Jersey in 1992 to study for my PhD at Rutgers University, I found myself without a lyricist. It was at this point that Cantat Ergo Sumus was initially born – though the title came much later.
The idea of philosophy entered my consciousness as a teenager primarily through references that I came across in popular culture. I don’t remember there being a point at which I self-consciously attempted to mimic this approach, but in early 1994 I found myself turning to the idea of taking the words of philosophers themselves and setting them to music. And I had the vague thought that at some point in the future I might to try to do something more public with them. However, only three of the songs that make up Cantat Ergo Sumus come from that time. It wasn’t until 2019, when performing other music on a bill with Oxford band Flights of Helios that it took off again. They liked some of the material they heard and were particularly enthused by the idea of philosophy and music coming together. We decided to collaborate and that point I wrote the rest of the songs. Then, with the help of a grant from The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH), we started to work on the album that should be released in the next few months.
I had toyed with Canto Ergo Sum as a straight play on Descartes, and then Cantamus Ergo Sumus (we sing therefore we are) to reflect the collaborative element. But, ultimately, I went for the impersonal ‘cantat’, intending as you say ‘It sings therefore we are’. Here I took the lead from Heidegger and his attempts to capture the way in which our sense of existing in a world with other beings should be taken to emerge as one aspect of a more fundamental impersonal event of ‘worlding’. I hope people may find their experience …