Sunday, November 27, 2011

Which Came First, the Question or the Idea?

We must always have an idea before we can ask a meaningful question. For any question consists of ideas, and therefore the question cannot be posed before we have acquired the ideas out of which it is composed. For example, before I could formulate the question that I'm answering, I had to have the concept of a question, an idea and the notion of coming first.

Perhaps a more fundamental philosophical question is where do our ideas come from? Plato's famous Theory of the Forms is one attempt to answer this. He argued that we were acquainted with Forms, such as justice itself, beauty, and the good, prior to birth. The ontological status that Plato ascribed to the Forms is hotly disputed, but it is evident from his theory of recollection that the Forms are postulated as the source of the ideas that we have in this life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What If Everyone Were on Prozac?

Does pure pleasure have inherent value? Here are a couple of scenarios to consider: 1) We develop the ability to put an electrode into one's pleasure center, and indefinitely support them with IV drip, etc., while they do nothing, think nothing, and feel nothing but intense pleasure; 2) we turn the planet into a garden, with more than enough food growing everywhere, and no need to do anything to satisfy basic needs beyond picking it off the nearest bush... and the food is loaded with tranquilizers and euphoric drugs. Ok? You like these? Do you think one or the other of these is what humanity should aim for? If you leave the ability to think, you're going to have striving, at least by some... so you've got to turn it off, one way or another. But hey, why think, if you've got food, shelter, sex, and (minimal, since we don't think) entertainment? Bread and circuses, like the Romans, right?

You could ask what the difference is between humanity like that and no humanity at all, just blades of grass... I don't see one. I'm not going to present an ethical system with some other basis, although I easily could. I could say that in order to make the scenarios above, or something like them, work, you'd have to change the basic nature of humanity... and then the question becomes: to what do you think it should be changed, and why?

But to give a direct answer: yes. Here's one simple reason: we can't predict the future. If we have a world of contented cattle, they'll need keepers, right? Because something is bound to happen to the system, eventually. Well, who will be our keepers? Robots? Could you trust them a) to do a good job, in the long run... be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, to not rust away, etc., and b) to not just abandon humanity?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Is Democracy the ‘Least Worst’ Form of Government?

The question assumes that government is for some purpose or set of purposes, and that the only dimension of assessment of different forms of government is how well, or how badly they accomplish their objectives. However, if a political philosopher were to put forward the argument that democracy is the only acceptable form of government — for example, that our duty of obedience to the state can only hold if the state is ruled by a democratically elected government — then it would not matter if democracy was the worst of all possible arrangements for getting things done.

That is not the only principled argument for democracy. Another argument is that the fundamental assumption of human equality is inconsistent with any form of government other than a democratic one.

Are there limits on the duty of obedience to the state? — This is the classic question of political philosophy. Roughly, the reasons given fall into two main categories. Either we are morally obliged to obey the state, in which case the question is how far this obligation extends before it is overridden by other, conflicting moral obligations. Or it is in our own best long-term interest, all things considered, to obey the state, in which case the question is under what circumstances one might make the well founded judgment that disobedience was in one's best long-term interests. My own inclination is towards the first, rather than the second strategy.

On the view that our obligation to obey the state is a moral obligation, it would seem to be that there can be other moral obligations which override it. When a moral claim is overridden, that does not imply that the claim itself is invalid. However, the moral obligation to obey the state is itself conditional on certain requirements being fulfilled. Consider the case of the Israeli who gave away his country's atomic secrets. It is possible that he simply believed he was responding to an overriding moral imperative? An alternative explanation is that he believed that his government, in secretly stockpiling weapons without a democratic mandate had forfeited its moral claim on his obedience.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What is God?

There are a number of conceptions of 'God' each peculiar to a religion. A prevalent conception of 'God' is of a supreme being with a number of different properties like omnipotence, omniscience, infinite goodness, and a number of others. But that is the concept of God. So the concept of 'God' certainly exists. However, whether anything answers to that concept, or any other concept of 'God' is a very different matter. That is the matter of whether there is a God, or whether God exists. We should never confuse the concept of 'God' with God, and think that because the first exists, so does the second. That would be a mistake in logic.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What Does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave Intend to Teach Us?

In Plato's underground cave there are people chained and shackled so that they can only see one wall. Behind them is a fire casting its light upon the wall. Between the fire and the people is a roadway through which other people travel carrying all kinds of objects which cast shadows on the wall.

The chained people take these shadows to be realities. However if one of them were to be released and allowed to look around or even to leave the cave into the clear light of day he would realize that in fact the shadows were not reality.

I think the allegory of the cave is meant to be more than just a way of saying that if we rely on our sense perception we will never attain knowledge, but always be subject to the world of appearance. Rather there is a stronger message that through our intellectual capacities and philosophy in particular we can break the chains that "fetter us" we can aim for the light we can be enlightened. In other words by becoming philosophers we can be free!

There is as well a second part to the allegory. The freed person returns to the cave and is subject to ridicule and danger. Clearly he would not be happy with this situation. But one of the things we learn to see outside the cave, in fact the highest source of knowledge is that of Goodness. In the larger context of ‘The Republic’ (from which the allegory is taken) Plato wishes to describe the ideal state for mankind. Plato thinks that knowledge of Goodness is required in order to run such an ideal community. However those with such knowledge, like the man sent back to the cave are reluctant to go. Bizarre or brilliant depending on how one views Plato, it is those who least want power and responsibility that should have it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Is Eating People Wrong?

Yes. Kant had the answer to this one: it is immoral to treat a person as an object. If you eat someone, that's what you're doing. Now, there is an interesting variant on this, however. One could conceive of ritual cannibalism, where one eats the dead to show respect for them to symbolically join with them by taking them into oneself, as moral, because then you're treating them as people, not as food. The ritual cannibalism (yes, "communion") of the Catholic Church is something like this. Is that kind of cannibalism moral? I'm not sure, but it seems that it could be, with suitable respect for the dead. But aside from that kind of cannibalism, using a person as food is denying their humanity.

But, what if you're on a desert island, a ship lost at sea, or whatever, and you and some others are starving... and someone dies. Is it moral to eat them? I'd say yes, myself... I'd want to be eaten in those circumstances, anyway, if it was me that died first. What's the difference between that and, say, donating your organs after you die to medicine, to save lives?

Now there's another kind of cannibalism which I have not really thought through as to its morality, and that's where human beings might clone their own flesh to feed themselves, in some future where food is scarce. Is eating cloned human meat, grown in a vat a) cannibalism, b) immoral? After all, that's nearly what we do now with chickens, commercially. Does it make a difference what the meat is, genetically? My take on this is that it's only our cultural conditioning which makes us feel that this is repulsive and immoral, and that there's not any real immorality there; humans are not treated as objects or as food; there's just meat with human genes. On the other hand, taking human genes and employing them in this fashion, it might be argued, is using the human blueprint, at least, in a way that denigrates it and that opens the door to real abuses. That's certainly a reasonable response, and that's why I don't know the answer to this one... I don't have what I'd consider a decisive reply to it. Which isn't to say there isn't one... maybe there isn't; or perhaps I just haven't thought of it yet.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

If You Don’t Know You’re Unhappy are You?

It seems a paradox to say that a person could be unhappy, even though they didn't think that they were unhappy. Surely happiness is a feeling which you know you have, if you have it, and know you don't have if you don't have it.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would not agree with what I have just said. He had a conception of 'happiness' as more than simply a subjective feeling but rather a judgment that we make about the quality of a person's life. A man who is being cheated on by his wife is not 'happy' according to Aristotle's definition, even if he is blissfully unaware of the fact and thinks that he is the happiest man in the world.

You might reply that Aristotle is not talking about 'happiness' per se, but something else. The substantial question is what sort of happiness we should want.

There is another dimension to the problem, however. Since Freud, we have got used to the idea that we are not always aware of how we truly feel. You assert you are happy, and as you utter the words you seem to believe what you say. Yet deep inside there is a gnawing unhappiness which is causing you to 'act out' in various ways, spoiling relationships and hurting people. Freud said that his objective was to transform a person's neuroses into 'generalized unhappiness'. It sometimes seems as if he thought that everyone ought to be 'unhappy'.