Monday, April 30, 2012

The Semantics of Same-Sex Marriage

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
      Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
      What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
      Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
      Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
      What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet;

Excuse the cliche in using such an overused quote. I've been working quite a bit on Romeo and Juliette at work lately. Shakespeare's plays really are beautifully written. I now realise how little I appreciated being made to study them back at school. The language is so fluid and vibrant and conjures to mind emotions that there don't even exist words for. Amazing.

Anyway, the reason that I mention this passage from Romeo and Juliette is because I've been thinking about the semantics of the Gay Marriage/Civil Union/Marriage debate recently and have found some relevant sentiments in the passage above. It seems to me that a large proportion of the religious community don't necessarily dislike or not accept gays but simply can't come to grips with them being 'married'. To non-religious types it might seem petty (it definitely seemed that way to me) however for the devout 'marriage' is a clearly defined term and doesn't recognise same-sex couples. This sort of objection is somewhat understandable I think, even if it is, perhaps, a little misguided.

On the other hand the queer community are not too concerned with definitions - they just want equal recognition (a fair and reasonable request). I doubt that same-sex couples would mind if they were claimed to be 'hoojamasmacked' instead of married as long as everybody else (including the straight community) were given the same label. The problem is that it is too late to simply CHANGE the word from 'marriage' to 'civil union' or anything else because 'marriage' already carries with it centuries of connotations. When people announce that they are 'married' they are referring to a ceremonial public legitimization of their love and often that is the extent of the definition. Whether wrongly or rightly the social use of the word 'marriage' has changed over time and has become less about religion and heterosexuality and more about social recognition. The change has already occurred and no amount of etymological fact-stating is likely to revert our use of the word to a previous definition.  So how do we live with this evolved (those opposed might prefer 'mutated') definition of marriage so that same-sex couples can enjoy the legitimization of their love without stepping on the toes of the religious?

Well firstly we must accept that if it is equality and legitimacy that we are after 'marriage' is the word to use; but we also want to distinguish between the marriage that is god-approved and the marriage that is not. (Notice that I'm using the word 'marriage' as it is used socially, not by definition: Given a narrow and traditional definition 'gay-marriage' could be considered an oxymoron.)  I suggest that a prefix be added to the beginning of the word 'marriage' when the ceremony is religious in nature. This prefix should be uniform within faith groups but be used primarily as a formality. For example Christians might choose to have a 'holy-marriage'. This type of marriage would be conducted in the presence of a religious figure and would be restricted to those that are willing to obey certain religious rules (e.g. Only heterosexual marriages, no polygamy, etc). Those who want to get married but are not religious simply get 'married'. This type of marriage is open to all as a primarily legal and social process. It entitles the married-couple to legal and social benefits but is secular instead of religious. 

Thus, everyone can get 'married'; it's just that some marriages are religious and others are not. It is my hope that under such a system the prefix would become a formality that is stated only rarely. In general public discourse a homo-sexual couple could proudly proclaim to be 'married' without contradiction in the same way that a religious couple could claim to be 'married' - the prefix would be either irrelevant (let's hope), or implied.

I think that this would mark a step in the right direction for equality. I doubt the non-religious would mind having 'holy' (or some other accepted prefix) absent from their title, and likewise the religious probably wouldn't mind having an expression of their faith ('holy' or otherwise) included in their marriage title. 

The main problem would be found in religious homosexual couples. There are certainly religious homosexuals that would prefer to have a 'holy marriage' than a regular marriage. . . what happens here? This is a problem for priests and religious figures to sort out. Perhaps certain priests will perform holy marriages between same-sex couples, perhaps not.  If not, however, I do not think that it is right to force religious figures to perform 'holy-marriages'. Subjectively speaking I don't see a problem with a same-sex religious couple having a regular marriage but still being active participants in their faith. If same-sex religious couples are denied 'holy marriage' in a religious institution it might be rather sad, however they could still have a religious-style ceremony at a regular marriage - there just wouldn't be the official prefix attached to their union. 

So what do you think? Is this idea plausible at all? Can you think of a better prefix than 'holy'? What other problems do you think that this idea might face if put into practice?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Some thougths about Utilitarianism and the Felicific Calculus.

CENTRAL TENET OF HEDONISTIC UTILITARIANISM: Morally right acts increase aggregate happiness. Happiness is measured as a subjective experience of pleasure.  
Assuming that we are trying to be perfect Utilitarians:

P1 - We should aim to perform perfect felicific calculus's. (see here)
P2 - Perfect felicific calculus's are conducted with a complete knowledge of all the 'relevant facts' involved.
P3 - We are ignorant about what the 'relevant facts' in a scenario will be until we encounter the scenario in which the felicific calculus is required.
C1 - Therefore ANY fact should be considered valuable because it is a potentially 'relevant fact'. (And the possession of 'relevant facts' is a necessary condition for conducting a reliable felicific calculus)
C2 - Therefore we should aim to gather as many facts about the world as possible.
P4 - We gather facts about the world through our direct and indirect experiences.
C3 - Therefore we should maximise our direct and indirect experiences.

We can reach C2 and C3 through the uncontroversial P1. I am concerned, however, with the implications of C3 and whether or not it is compatible with the central tenets of Utilitarianism.

I am defining 'direct experiences' as being something that we intimately experience and interpret into knowledge ourselves, i.e. learning about Japanese culture through going to Japan. Indirect experiences are equally important when the direct experience is not available; an example of an indirect experience might be reading a book about Japanese culture. In the second example the reader gains a direct experience of 'book-reading' and an indirect experience of Japanese culture. I cannot perceive of any other way that we might come to gain knowledge other than through direct and indirect experiences. I admit that just because someone has an experience it doesn't mean that it necessarily translates to knowledge. There are often examples of experience without knowledge (caused through a failure to observe or synthesize information). But there are never cases of knowledge without experience (excepting perhaps ingrained biological 'knowledge'). 

In order for experiences to be effectively turned into knowledge one must possess what I'd like to call 'philosophical virtues', or in other words one must be inclined to understand the world in a certain way. This idea falls broadly under the umbrella of Virtue Epistemology. Virtue Epistemology is a relatively new strand of philosophy that looks at the way that we understand the world and turn our observations into knowledge. Virtue Epistemologists follow in the Aristotelian tradition of looking at the quality of the reasons behind the judgement rather than the consequences of the judgement itself. It might seem bizarre to introduce something like virtues into a consequentialist theory however I believe it is entirely appropriate. Instead of defining virtues as things like courage, honesty, integrity, etc, I would like to define virtues as being 'tendencies to view the world such that sufficient data is obtained in order to conduct a felicific calculus'. Valued qualities in making a judgement might include things such as conscientiousness or open-mindedness. Another virtue might include the capacity to recognize unreliable evidence, e.g. testimony. It is these 'epistemological virtues' that mark the difference between those that can effectively conduct a felicific calculus and those that cannot. 

Provided that one possesses these aforementioned virtues there is no reason why every new experience couldn't provide the agent with a greater knowledge-bank to be used in future decision making. In fact, if one accepts the central tenet of hedonistic utilitarianism and the links between the premises above, one is obliged to have as many of these new experiences as possible. This is, I guess, the crux of my argument.

What happens, however, when one is faced with a choice between an option that will definitively increase pleasure and another option that will definitively increase knowledge?  The essence of utilitarianism is to increase total pleasure, however, as we have seen, this entails that knowledge be maximised too. How, given our ignorance of future states, should we decide on a course of action in such circumstances? 

For example imagine that you are at a Chinese restaurant and are offered either ice cream (your current favourite desert) or a traditional Chinese desert in which you know nothing about whatsoever. As far as you know the pleasure that you will receive from eating the traditional Chinese desert is a mystery - It might be horrible, or it might replace ice-cream as your favourite. In trying to be the best Utilitarian that you can be, what should you do?

I would argue that one should try the mystery Chinese desert even though there is a risk of discovering that it gives less pleasure than the ice-cream. The reason is that the world contains an admittedly large, but still finite, amount of experiences that can be had. This means that it is very likely than many experiences will be had more than once. If utilitarianism is adopted as a life-long system of morality acting in accordance with C3 (and hence maximising new experiences) this makes it more likely that felicific calculus's will be accurately conducted in the future.  Every new experience gives knowledge about a previously mysterious variable. This is how I propose that the alleged epistemological deficiencies of the utilitarian can be countered. One should only be deficient in knowledge of the pleasure potential of a particular course of action once per each unique action. This is because after acknowledging that they do not know whether the action beings about pleasure or not they will choose above all other options it in order to gain knowledge about it. 

There is one important exception that I make to this rule. This exception applies to choices between courses of action that have already been experienced and are known to be pleasurable and courses of action that have not been directly experienced but that one has reason to believe (through indirect knowledge) that the experience would be unpleasant. To return to the Chinese Restaurant example this would be a scenario in which your choice is still between the ice-cream and the traditional Chinese desert except that this time you are not in complete ignorance in regards to the Chinese dish. Your friend who is accompanying you says that he once had it and found it unpleasant. Here you are in a very difficult position. Whilst you know that things like 'taste' are quite subjective you also acknowledge that hitherto your food preferences have been very similar to this person. You do not like the idea of subjecting yourself to easily avoidable (and perhaps likely) displeasure, yet at the same time you recognise this moment as an opportunity to increase your knowledge about the world.

In these circumstances I would argue that it doesn't matter which option is chosen - the formula's can step aside here.There are merits to trying new things, however it is rash to deny pleasure for the sake of new experiences in all situations. There will be times in which one simply wants the pleasure of a comforting and familiar taste and doesn't like the potential risk for having an unpleasant experience. The decision to settle for such a thing is understandable and justifiable.
The decision making apparatus I would suggest in conjunction with the felicific calculus would look something like this:

Decision making matrix with 2 variables.
Have directly experienced and is pleasant.
Have directly experienced and is unpleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be pleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be unpleasant.
Have not experienced in any way.
Have directly experienced and is pleasant.
Apply Felicific calculus.

Choose the pleasant option.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.

Choose either option. Both are valuable.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have directly experienced and is unpleasant.
Choose the pleasant option.
Apply Felicific calculus.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be unpleasant.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.

Apply Felicific calculus.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Have indirectly experienced and is thought to be unpleasant.
Choose either option. Both are valuable.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be unpleasant.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.

Apply Felicific calculus.

Choose the unexperienced option.
Have not experienced in any way.
Choose the unexperienced option.
Choose the unexperienced option.
Choose the option that you know indirectly to be pleasant.
Choose the unexperienced option.
Choose at random.

 Squares 1, 6, 10, 13 and 15 are straight-forward decisions and can be made fairly easily provided tha tone possesses the epistemological virtues required to conduct an accurate felicific calculus.
Square 15 is similarly straight-forward - when choosing in absolute ignorance it really doesn't matter which path is chosen.
Decisions made in squares 2 and 11 show that, all other factors being equal, pleasure is chosen over displeasure.  
Decisions made in squares 3 and 7 show that paths that are indirectly known to be pleasurable should always be chosen. This is because it turns indirect knowledge into direct knowledge and because pleasure is, of course, a worthy goal.
The proposed decision to be made in square 8 shows that direct knowledge is taken to be more trustworthy than indirect knowledge. For this reason indirect displeasure is chosen for there is a chance that the knowledge received is faulty and, in fact, the path may prove to be pleasurable.
In square 5 I suggest that one should choose the unknown experience. This is because going from no knowledge whatsoever to direct knowledge represents a very valuable move.  
Square 9 is a rather intuitive decision - if you know that one of the options is certainly unpleasant you might as well try your luck with absolute chance.
In square 12 I advocate that that the indirectly experienced pleasurable experience be chosen over the unknown experience. This is because it I consider direct experiences to be the most valuable type. Although taking a risk on the unknown option may pay pleasurable dividends there is the risk that it may not. Conversely there is a good chance that the indirectly pleasurable experience may turn out to be directly pleasurable. And a move from indirect to direct knowledge is valuable in itself.
Square 14 is again rather intuitive. Whatever option is chosen there will be the benefit of gaining direct knowledge. It makes sense to take a risk on the mystery choice rather than accepting what will probably be an unpleasant experience.
Square 4 is the most interesting square on the matrix. It is what might be called the 'freedom square'. When one is faced with this type of decision I do not think that there is any more merit in either option than the other. It is certainly a noble move to choose the indirectly unpleasant experience in order to fully understand whether it is unpleasant it actually is (and how unpleasant it is), however when faced with the competing choice of definitive pleasure it is entirely acceptable to forgo such a choice.

I imagine that a person who chooses to live this way for an entire lifetime would have an immense range of pleasant and unpleasant experiences; she would be vastly knowledgeable and quite different to the typical portrayal of the shallow, pleasure seeking utilitarian stuck on an endless hedonic treadmill. I believe that the move I have just made from P1 to C3 is a necessary, albeit not revolutionary, move that needs to made to increase the legitimacy of utilitarianism. Ascertaining how widespread pleasure is best achieved is a vast empirical challenge and requires a great deal of inter-disciplinary knowledge from biology to psychology to cultural studies and beyond. Whatever criticisms that you may have towards utilitarianism any claim that it is overly simple is simply false.  

I believe that something along the lines of the argument I have just presented must be adopted if one is seriously considering adopting utilitarianism as a long term morality. I have begun opening myself up to a range of new experiences recently as part or my moral and personal development. It's incredible how often something that something you have avoided because of mere heresy turns out to be quite pleasurable. Recent examples include going vegetarian - I suspected it would be awful and difficult when really it just forced me to make more creative (and still delicious) meals. Another beneficial example of actively pursuing new experiences has been forcing myself to read things that I'd heard negative reviews about. I read 'The Moral Landscape' by Sam Harris recently and actually quite enjoyed it despite all the negative reviews I'd read. Sure, it wasn't perfect but it wasn't horrible any where near as horrible as some of the reviews I'd read. The same goes for Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. . . sort of. . . well actually as it turned out the hearsay I heard was partly true - I got a little overwhelmed and bored by the sheer size of the thing; BUT, nevertheless I can now actively participate in conversations about Rand and Harris without merely regurgitating common-places. Maximising experiences not only helps you be a better utilitarian it also helps fight the spread of dogmatic belief!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Aristotle and Epicurus.

Here is an essay that I wrote in the Summer Semester. It was very difficult to keep to the word count because I found the topic really interesting.

The Fulfilled Life - Ataraxia and Eudaimonia
By Andrew Bloyce.

Few questions are as poignant and timeless as 'What does living well consist of?' So central is this question to human life that many people will passionately defend one or another conception of the good. Despite this passionate debate, however, modern philosophers have come no closer to a consensus on what defines a good life any more than the great Greek thinkers did several millennia ago.

Two enduring theories of the good come from Aristotle and Epicurus. For Aristotle the best life is the fulfilled life and is found in those who practice virtuous deeds. Aristotle uses the word eudaimonia to describe the fulfilled life. Epicurus's conception of the good life is hedonistic; he supports the idea that pleasure is intrinsically good and that pain is intrinsically bad. For Epicurus the good life consists in a state in which there is an absence of pain in the body and an absence of trouble in the soul.[1]  This state of tranquility and freedom from anxiety Epicurus calls ataraxia. [2]  The purpose of this essay is to conduct a comparative philosophical analysis of both eudaimonia and ataraxia as conceptions of the good life in modern times. The structure of this essay will be to accurately define eudaimonia and ataraxia, discuss the affordances and constraints of both conceptions of the good life and to finally determine which theory (on balance) provides a better conception of the good life for the modern age.

Aristotle reaches his idea that fulfillment comes through virtue by methodologically rejecting the competing conceptions of the good; these being the pursuit of pleasure, fame and money.[3]  Money is quickly dismissed as a candidate for the good because it is desired instrumentally - for what it can purchase. Fame is equally easily dismissed because the fulfillment achieved through being well thought of is rather shallow. What people really want is not just to be well thought of, but to actually be good. Pleasure is given a rather superficial account in Chapters 4-6 in the Nicomachean ethics where it is dismissed as a life only fit for animals. It has been stated before[4] that Aristotle may have had in mind something similar to John Stuart Mill's "lower pleasures" when he argues that experiencing pleasures cannot be what makes life fulfilling.  Aristotle explicitly supports this conjecture when he states:

                Concerning the bodily pleasures, one must examine the arguments to the effect that some          pleasures, such as the beautiful ones, are most certainly worthy of choice, but not the bodily            pleasures with which a dissipated person is concerned.[5]

Aristotle's so-called beautiful pleasures can safely be assumed to be the pleasures that one experiences when fulfilling one's ergon. Ergon translates to 'function' in english and it is the satisfying of one's ergon that leads to fulfillment (and as a byproduct pleasure) according to Aristotle. Aristotle decided that the function of a human must be to fully realize our characteristically human capabilities.[6] Whilst there are many capabilities that uniquely characterize us as human beings the most important of these to Aristotle is our capacity for rational thought (or 'theoria') .

Once one has embraced that their ergon is to foster the development of their reason it follows that through that reason they will also realise that the best courses of action lie in a mean between deficiency and excess.[7] This theory of the mean provides the basic skeleton on which Aristotle's virtue ethics is based, however there is one final attribute that the virtuous person must possess.  To be able to put the theory of the mean into practice one must also possess a certain amount of practical wisdom (phronesis) and have had a satisfactory upbringing. Practical wisdom is described far more cryptically than theoria in the Nichomacean ethics but can be colloquially understood as 'street smarts' or the ability to correctly judge which virtue is appropriate in each situation.

From the writings of Epicurus it is hard to assume that Epicurus had any interest in virtues like courage or justice; he was, however, very interested in moderation and temperance. Epicurus embraced an unusual hedonistic stance that is sometimes referred to as 'negative hedonism'. Negative hedonism (like regular hedonism) promotes pleasure as the only intrinsic good however instead of advocating the pursuit of  this pleasure proponents of negative hedonism argue that we should instead aim at eliminating pain. Once all pain is eliminated one will be in a state of tranquility that Epicurus calls ataraxia. 

Epicurus realised that many of the pains that we experience come from unfulfilled desires. In order to alleviate this type of pain there are two obvious solutions: 1) To attain the object of desire, OR 2) To eliminate the desire itself. Epicurus chose the latter solution and justified his choice by distinguishing between desires that are 'natural and necessary', 'natural and not necessary', and 'neither natural nor necessary'.[8] It is best if one can learn to be satisfied with the fulfilment of only the natural and necessary desires because 'what is good is easy to get'[9] says Epicurus. In practise Epicurus advocates a simple life in of moderation, a life that involves friendship, simple foods, and not much more. 

Both Aristotle and Epicurus agree that the pursuit of money will not bring one any closer to the fulfilled life. They also both agree that fame is not important to achieving fulfilment. These claims, however, run in opposition to the data found in the WDH that shows a correlation between subjective ratings of happiness with social rank and income.[10]  Epicurus would probably rebut the importance of such data by saying that the people who gave themselves lower subjective ratings because of comparative status or income deficiencies only did so because they had unnecessary desires for such things in the first place. Aristotle could probably also recover from this data by pointing out that the virtuous person would likely not be troubled by a lack of fame or wealth, so what the data points out is not a problem with his theory but an excess of virtue-lacking citizens. In fact both Aristotle and Epicurus provide solutions to the stresses one may feel in an life devoid of fame or wealth.
Perhaps a large benefit of Aristotle's ethics is that it focuses on an active life, rather than the arguably passive existence expounded in Epicurus' writings.[11] It is part of Aristotle's moral training that we engage in actions that may not necessarily be at once pleasurable in order to become more rational or virtuous.[12] [13] In contrast Epicurus' conception of fulfillment as ataraxia naturally leads to a life secluded from society whereby unnecessary desires can be more easily avoided.[14] If we return to the empirical facts (a move that Aristotle and Epicurus would probably both approve of) it can be observed that an active life consisting of a variety of activities results in increased health and longevity, sociability, effective conflict resolution skills, original thinking, and altruism.[15] These aforementioned perks can (on my interpretation of the texts) only be secured through the active life that Aristotle describes. Nevertheless there are points of convergence between the two thinkers in regards to the importance of friendship in securing a fulfilled life.

In conclusion both conceptions of the fulfilled life have significant merit, however Aristotle's ethics provides a far more comprehensive framework of how to live than Epicurus.[16] Aristotle teaches us how to live, what to feel and what to do - Epicurus instead focuses on fixing potentially harmful thought patterns. What Epicurus' theory lacks in breadth, however, it compensates for in its accessibility[17] and  it's poignant and relevant advice for dealing with hardships.  If there is a time in one's life to ponder Epicurus it is when one is suffering from the symptoms of our postmodern age. Anxiety about wealth, status and possessions can be alleviated through a perusal of Epicurus' writings and this achievement cannot be overstated.  


Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.

Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008):  Print.

Boylan, Michael. "Aristotle: Biology [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 02 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <>.

Epicurus. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus." The Information Philosopher - Dedicated to the New Information Philosophy. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <>.
Hughes, Gerard J. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 72. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. "The Epicureans." A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972. 244-45. Print.

Striker, Gisela. "Ataraxia: Happiness as tranquillity" Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. England: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print. 

Veenhoven, R. (2006). World Database of Happiness: Continuous register of research on subjective appreciation of life.

[1] Epicurus. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus." The Information Philosopher - Dedicated to the New Information Philosophy. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <>.
[2] Striker, Gisela. "Ataraxia: Happiness as tranquillity" Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. England: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
[3] Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. "Book One. Chapters 4,5, and 6." Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.
[4] Hughes, Gerard J. "The Fulfilled Life." Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 25. Print.
[5] Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. (VII, 14, 1154a 8-11)." Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.
[6] Boylan, Michael. "Aristotle: Biology [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 02 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <>.
[7] For example it is virtuous to have courage because it lies in the mean between being cowardly and acting rashly.
[8] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 402. Print.
[9] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 401. Print.
[10] Veenhoven, R. (2006). World Database of Happiness: Continuous register of research on subjective appreciation of life.
[11] It it easy to imagine that the state of ataraxia is closer to that of sleep than fulfilment.
[12] Hughes, Gerard J. "Moral Virtues and Moral Training." Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 72. Print.
[13] For example one might go bungee jumping despite their initial fears because they realise that such a time calls for the virtue of courage (use of phronesis) and that the risks of harm are low (use of theoria).
[14] Russell, Bertrand. "The Epicureans." A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972. 244-45. Print.
[15] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 412. Print.
[16] To be fair perhaps Epicurus' ethical ideas were comprehensive too, however very little remains of his (reportedly extensive) writings.
[17]  One does not have to be inclined towards the pursuit of theoretical knowledge (theoria), or even have had the suitable moral upbringing that is a prerequisite for Aristotle's students in order to practise Epicurean philosophy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

#45 - Screaming at the Moon.

I've just come back from visiting some friends and family on the Sunshine Coast. The highlight of my trip was yelling at the moon with a close friend. I'll explain:

I've always had a curious sort of nature. I get an immense satisfaction from experiencing new things, new ideas, and new people. It feels like the best type of self development - Every time I have a new experience I become a more rich and interesting person, even if the experience isn't pleasant. Experiences can also be the most direct path to knowledge provided that you manage to have a 'pure' experience uninhibited by expectations or prejudice. I plan to eventually write extensively about how 'experience seeking' is an essential brick on the road to happiness because while other (perhaps more novel ideas) have come and gone my intuition that experiences are inherently valuable has been one of the most enduring sentiments I've ever had. 

Anyway. My close friend that I was visiting shares my passion for experiencing new things so we always seem to have memorable times together. This time was no exception. I remember realizing about 6 months ago that I couldn't remember the last time that I had yelled as loud as I possibly could. . . It occurred to me that I'd probably never tried to do this at all. For some reason this fact thoroughly irritated me. Why hadn't I done this before? Probably because I'd never been brave enough to do it (people might come running to investigate the noise), or maybe because I'd never been given a reason to yell like that. Both excuses, however, seem equally pitiful. 

So why did I want to yell like this so badly? To me the desire seems obvious, but not everyone understands so I'll try to explain. If I am going to be spending a lot of time on this earth (which I plan to do) I want to know as much about myself as I can. The more I know about myself the more informed my choices will be about how to best live my life. And the only way to know more about myself is to ask more questions. When asking more questions about myself there is no question too small that I will try and answer. And today's question was simply:

What does it feel like to yell as loud as your body will allow?

I posed this question to my friend and he didn't know either. But he wanted to find out as passionately as I did so we set out to find a memorable spot to try it. We were walking along the beach at the time and we found a large circle of sandcastles. Within that circle of sandcastles was another circle of sandcastles and then a smaller circle again. It looked like a miniature arena - Perfect. 

The moon was almost full and brilliantly bright and I was filled with anticipation and adrenaline. And I yelled. I forced out the loudest yell I could manage and felt my throat burn with the effort.
My friend did the same. It was supremely satisfying and. . . .  not nearly as loud as I'd hoped. I'd expected a sort of 'DRAGON-SHOUT' style, 120 Decibel plus, gargantuan bellow but maybe I'd expected too much. Nevertheless I'm so glad I tried it and I encourage you all to go and do it for yourself.

( ^^ It was like this. But better)
I plan to continue my search for new experiences; things that I can do that will teach me things about myself that maybe I haven't done simply because people might think that it's strange or pointless. Have you got any ideas?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Current Philosophy Interests + Harry Frankfurt book review.

Consider this blog post an unordered summary of philosophy-type things that I've been interested in lately.

I'm only doing 2 subjects at university this semester so I've got a lot of time of to read stuff that I've always wanted to read and explore bits of philosophy that hasn't been covered in lectures.

At the moment my interests are:

Harry Frankfurt:

I've always rather liked Frankfurt's clear but engaging writing style. When I write essays I always try to emulate the style of writers like Frankfurt and Peter Singer; they both explain themselves in a way that is neither too colloquial nor too esoteric. Their claims, despite often being controversial, always come across as being blindingly obvious; it's like these writers aren't actually telling you anything new, instead they are opening your minds to what you already know.

Anyway, I've revived my interest in Frankfurt and recently finished reading 'The reasons of Love'. I enjoyed it. Frankfurt starts of by making the valid observation that before one can start making decisions about what they do with their life they should first establish what it is that they value; what is is that they care about. An illuminating quote from the first chapter vividly paints the picture:

If we are to resolve out difficulties and hesitations in settling upon a way to live, what we need most is fundamentally is not reasons or proofs. It is clarity and confidence. Coping with our troubled and restless uncertainty about how to live does not require us to discover what way of living can be justified by definitive argument. Rather, it requires us simply to understand what it is that we ourselves really care about, and to be decisively and robustly confident in caring about it.

Frankfurt puts forth the claim that there are certain things that are almost universally cared about; these are things like one's own survival, and the well-being of one's children. Frankfurt argues that there is no need for a philosophical justification behind these motivating forces. These type of drives are innate and irrational. They are 'commands of love'. 

The definition of love is formulated that it ignores the qualities of the beloved (or at least makes them irrelevant). Objects of our love are valuable because we love them, not the other way around. Frankfurt makes it clear that we cannot choose what to love. It is here that Frankfurt's seminal ideas on freedom are re-introduced. Recognizing what it is that we love is the first difficult step towards fulfillment and freedom. It is common that we may have conflicting loves also. These are part of the difficulties we face when trying to understand ourselves.

Ultimately, Frankfurt claims that these difficulties are worth it because of the intrinsic importance in having something that we love (even if that something is ourselves). Having something to love provides us with a 'final end' for our actions and allows us to escape the curses of hedonic treadmills or adaptive preferences. Love is unique in that it can free us from uncertainness and hesitation. Frankfurt tells a story about Bertrand Russell who once alluded to the "restfulness of mathematical certainty". This restfulness; the sensation of finality, that feeling of illumination, that moment of clarity that occurs when you solve a maths problem or confidently make an important decision; these sensations are linked to an acceptance of a something that is believed to be 'so true' that the search for further meaning is put to rest. Love instills this same feeling in the lover. When one is in love certain decisions often become easier than before. Indecision is often left behind when one finds themselves in love with something - the fact that they love it is enough reason to pursue it. What we love acquires value for us because we love it. 

Frankfurt spends a lot of time (perhaps just a little too much time) in the middle of the book defending his views against imaginary criticisms. It gets a little bit repetitive.

Towards the end it becomes quite interesting and unique (although it's perhaps the shakiest section in terms of philosophical rigor) when Frankfurt discusses self-love. Frankfurt rejects the cultural taboo against loving oneself and instead re-frames it as a necessary component of a fulfilling life. 'Fulfilling' isn't actually word used in 'The reasons of love'. Frankfurt instead refers to a sort of 'inner harmony' that is experienced when one loves him/herself. 

Insofar as a person loves himself - in other words, to the extent that he is volitionally wholehearted - he does not resist any movements of his own will. He is not at odds with himself; he does not oppose, or seek to impede, the expression of practical reasoning and in conduct of whatever his self-love entails. He is free in loving what he loves, at least in the sense that his loving is not obstructed or interfered with by himself.

This whole passage just feels so distinctively Frankfur-ian to me. When I read Frankfurt his writing style is so honest and matter-of-fact that it feels as if he is writing based on extensive introspection rather than a steady session trying to balance out truth trees. This is probably the reason for which my interest in him isn't shared by many of my peers. I, however, consider the introspective style of writing to be highly engaging and aim for the same sort of style in my own work.  

Next up is his work 'Necessity, Volition, and Love'. I'll probably review it here too.

David Foster Wallace's 'Fate, Time, and Language'.

I've heard a LOT about David Foster Wallace but have never really been motivated to read any of his books. Infinite Jest just seemed overwhelming and most of his other works (from my limited research on him) seemed to be collections of short stories - something that I'm not really into. Nevertheless I found a book by Wallace released posthumously entitled 'Fate, Time, and Language' at the uni library and thought I'd have a look. Essentially it's Wallace's honors thesis (or maybe it's his PHD - I can't remember) that he wrote at university based on Richard Taylor's writings about Fatalism.

I'm not sure how I'll go with this one. Whilst I desperately want to say that I'll love every moment of the obscure metaphysics and modal logic the chances are that I'll probably find it a grind (if I even finish it). That being said so far it's been pretty engaging stuff and the actual thesis is only a small part of the book. The rest is notes about fatalism, it's critics, and it's supporters. So far, so good, if I finish it the review will be here.

The 'Abolitionist Project'.

I found this audio track whilst stumbling blindly through the interwebs:
I found it very thought provoking and interesting. As a bonus it's also somewhat related to Bio-ethics, which I'm currently studying. The abolitionist project is the aim to eliminate the suffering of all sentient creatures through the use of science: Essentially it's just taking utilitarianism to it's ultimate conclusion. Just reading up on it feels like I'm reading science fiction literature and it would be all too easy to dismiss it as grandiose ideas without real thought. This, however, would be far from the truth. It seems more likely that societal barriers will prevent the abolitionist project taking off rather than a lack of scientific innovation. We've already discovered drugs that can make mice 10 times more effective at processing energy (see 'Supermouse' below) and it is speculated that the same drug could be effective on humans.



It's certainly interesting stuff that's worth giving a serious thought. As the 'abolitionist project' website proudly quotes:

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.  - Arthur Shopenhauer.

What a great quote.

The intrinsic value of Life.

This has been of much interest to me since starting bioethics. Is human life intrinsically valuable? When I asked my classmates the answer has intuitively positive, but I'm not so convinced. It's not that I don't enjoy life - I do. It's just that I can't deny the fact that if I were to painlessly die in my sleep I wouldn't suffer from it. Those close to me would, but I wouldn't.

I've also always found it hard to accept calculations of aggregate happiness that lead to things like the Parfit's repugnant conclusion. Adding more people with 'live's worth living' to the world doesn't seem to me like it's doing any good. If anything it's just adding a drain on the earth's resources. It's a whole different matter once we're here - As soon as we exist we begin making commitments to the earth that make it hard to leave. We establish relationships, responsibilities, and the capacity to understand and feel both physical and emotional pain. BUT, if we were all to decide that we didn't want children and life on earth were to simply end I don't see it as a particular loss. I see it as a decidedly 'neutral' event.

I also see existence as fairly neutral. That's not to say that my average state of mind is neutral - it's not. But just that the 'value' of existence can't be calculated as a positive figure. it's just something that 'is'. Intuitively it seems like trying to ascribe a value to life is like trying to establish value to a fact about the world, like, say, the weight of a feather. Is the weight of a feather valuable? Is life valuable? Both seem like equally meaningless questions to me.

Anyway, this is an entirely new part of philosophy for me, so who knows where my position might be after reading up on the stuff. I'm going to start with David Benatar's controversial book entitled "Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence". I'm very keen to read it.




Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Nepal - Day 25 - Holi Festival

Today marked the first day of the end of my trip. No more work on the classroom would be done and all that remained was 2 days of festival and 2 days in Kathmandu.

The Holi festival was described to me simply as 'the festival of colour'. I don't know the answers to any 'why?' questions but I presume that the Nepali way would be to instead ask 'why not?'. One of the teachers, Ramu, told us that with all the public holidays in Nepal (92 public holidays a year) and all the strikes Nepalese people only work about half of the year!

In the morning I played non-stop table tennis and after a special 'festival edition' daal baht (it came with an omelet!) we wandered into town. Barely halfway into town we were covered in paint and water. Children and adults alike were running around the streets smearing paint on each others' faces and throwing water bombs. Guy and I, looking obviously foreign and unarmed, were perfect targets. It was great fun and a good taste of what was to come with the children the next day.

We walked home feeling as bright and cheery as the kaleidoscope of colour that covered us and anticipating that we would have a whole another day of fun to come. On the way back I vowed that before I left Nepal I would pet a goat. I think goats are great animals. They are great climbers, they can defend themselves, and they produce cashmere, milk and even eventually (*sob*) meat. Plus they look all gangly (something I can relate to) and have great beards (something that I envy). What other creature can boast such an array of pleasing qualities? None? Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyway, long story short is that I like goats and am willing to risk a goat-related ailment (NOTE: The height of an average goats head - and horns - aligns perfectly with my groin) for the pleasure of patting one. Soon..... soon.

After dinner Ramu and Ramesh were keen to show us the cultural dances in celebration of the holi festival. Being a male-only event the dances were predictably fueled on testosterone. The men (myself included) danced and stomped while rotating in a circular motion. most men were also hitting a plastic bottle in one hand with a stick held in the other hand. I was told that this particular dance was a celebration of Newari culture. I'm not a macho type of guy; I don't enjoy going to the gym, don't follow sports, and have little to no interest in typically manly activivies like hunting. It's not that I consciously reject these things, it's just that they tend not to arouse in me any passion. - Tonight was different. The vibe was infectious, contagious, tribal. All that mattered at that time was complete immersion in the dancing, stomping, and chanting. I could have run into battle with these men to slay a wilderbeest - I kid you not. I felt like I'd been taken into a tribe. It was a unique experience.

The rest of the evening was enjoyable but mundane in comparison to the Newari cultural dance. We went to a small Nepalese house-party (sat on the floor, ate dry noodles, drank beer) and then went home.