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Sunday, June 14, 2009

More on intentions, friendships, & compassion: reader feedback

(CC) cindy47452,
I plan to get back to the previous subject soon, but for now it's time to respond to reader feedback! Thanks so much for reading everyone :)

From "Being good: Spock, Obama, Jesus style"

Roderick T. Long - Thanks for the citation -- but I found your critique rather ironic, since I'm an [Aristotelian] virtue ethicist with a slight Kantian spin, much closer to the Stoics than to utilitarianism, and I've long argued that the primary focus of ethics should be on character rather than consequences. The particular paper you cite focuses on consequences, because, well, it's about a specific moral problem having to do with contributing to consequences. I also think a consistent Stoic would have to be an anarchist, thus ruling out Obama, but that's another topic.

Thanks for your response Dr. Long. Gene Mayes has also mentioned this to me, so I should clarify. My main intent was to mention your paper (which I enjoyed, by the way), and then to note how it's subject matter reminded me of the very common approach of consequentialism, which I then moved on to. I did not mean to imply this was the overall philosophy of the author of that paper, but I probably should have mentioned that specifically. My apologies if I've conveyed that impression to anyone. I'm glad you've had the opportunity to make this clear yourself.

As for consistent Stoics being anarchists, I'm not sure. I think they'd agree that in a world full of Sages (the perfect-practitioner of Stoicism) government would be unnecessary, but Stoics are likely practical-minded enough to know that we are not all Sages. That being the case, I would suspect a person could be a consistent Stoic and yet advocate various forms of government. This is not even to mention the iconic Stoic Marcus Aurelius who, as a Roman Emperor, is perhaps about as far from anarchist as one can get. I should also mention that my use of Obama on one point does not necessarily imply agreement with him on all points. Thanks again for reading. I hope you may feel like visiting again! :)

smijer - How are intentions to be judged? I think so much reason that outcomes are a part of ethical thinking is that we cannot judge an intention without evaluating whether the intention is to produce a proper result.

That depends on why this judging is taking place, and who is doing the judging. The only person we can really control is ourselves and, if we are reflective and self-honest, we know what our intentions are. As for judging the intentions of others, in many ways this isn't as necessary as some may imagine in our daily pursuit of living well. The Stoics disregard the need to cast praise and blame on others, and don't seek such for themselves. Rather, because we cannot control what others do, we can view them as a 'force of nature'. We will encounter bad people and good people - and should not be surprised at either. Since knowledge of their intentions, much less the intentions themselves, is not within our power, judgment of them is irrelevant. Of course, when it comes to law enforcement and dealing out punishments and whatnot, well it would only be just to take note of intentions in many cases. But then, we face difficulty in that no matter what philosophy we select. Point being, the endeavor to help the person in the mirror live well is a separate endeavor from dealing out punishments in a court of law. I'm more concerned with the former.

From "When friends attack"

Kathleen - Thanks for another insightful post. The behavior you describe is very common (in a more extreme form) at about 5 years old, when the child, if thwarted in some way, will yell, "I hate you," to a parent or other caregiver. The best response to that is, "I'm sorry to hear that, because I love you." Seems like what you're saying is that in some cases adults need that same reassurance that they are loved even when they are not "being good". I never thought of that applying to adults...

Other readers also noted the behavior described in that post is 'child-like'. I don't know if there is as sharp of a distinction between children and adults as we commonly think. For instance, much of what gets classified as 'teen angst' is nothing more that how any 35 year old adult would act if they found themselves in similarly limiting conditions with regard to where they live, where they can go, what they can do, and so on. I'm not suggesting teens not have those limits, but recognizing they can be frustrating for someone of any age would be helpful I think.

Back to the point, in many ways we are all still those children we were. We're just a little more hardened, and we've just gotten a little better at controlling our tantrums and acting out our frustrations in more creative/disguised ways. Children are reasonable examples of what most adults are, but which haven't learned yet how to cocoon their natures in an outward shell of appearances. Recognizing that 'child' in us is important to self knowledge, and recognizing it in the adults around us is important to understanding others. One of our tasks with philosophy is to bring that inner child a little more wisdom; which we could all use (myself included). The benefits of true wisdom do not come from wrapping our inner child in a social cocoon of 'adultness' (the more common practice), but rather trying to mature the child itself - something which is an internal that can only be accurately known to one's self. In the meantime, it helps to understand struggling with that is a challenge we all face to some degree.

From "Thoughts on compassion"

Nick - I find it interesting that there's this tie-in between humanism and compassion. I just don't see it from a non-theistic perspective. Why should I view compassion as good, especially if I can do otherwise and get away with it? Why not be Machiavelli if it's possible?

When you say, "...if I can do otherwise and get away with it", this underscores a common misconception about ethics and virtue in general (more general than just the virtue of compassion). It is this misconception that is the source of a lot of unhappiness, and also happens to be a big reason why people get suckered into thinking of ethics in authoritarian terms. In their minds, it's all about who deserves what and the dealing out of these just deserts. In this court-like system of rewards and punishments, the authoritarian will suspect that were they removed, people would begin acting in all sorts of terrible ways.

But true ethics and true virtue is not about any of that. Here is the misconception: that ethical behavior is some sort of sacrifice we make, which normally would not be to our benefit, but which we must make in order to avoid some secondary punishment or get some secondary reward. It would be as if I held a gun to your head and told you, "you better not ever wear blue or I'll kill you". This is a poor understanding of ethics.

In the analogy above the wearing of blue, in itself, is not helpful or harmful, outside the threat of being shot. This illustrates that authoritarians do not recognize the very important point that ethical behavior and virtuous character are beneficial to oneself in their own right, and for their own sake. People who think secondary rewards and punishments are necessary do not understand that when we behave virtuously we naturally help ourselves, and when we behave viciously we naturally harm ourselves. No other secondary system or rewards and punishments is necessary because they are already built into the way the world works.

Many are probably now recalling all of the various instances where someone 'got away' with something evil. This is merely short sightedness - not true benefit. In future posts I will explain how there is no such thing as a situation where a person can benefit themselves by being evil, and likewise no such thing as a situation where a person can harm themselves by being good. In fact, when benefit is deeply and accurately understood, it becomes clear that the smart thing and the right thing are not only consistent most of the time, but all of the time - without exception. So much so that, as Seneca said, virtue is nothing more than right reason.

From "Humanism and being Humanist"

Sam - It's interesting that you list Communism and Socialism under your examples of religions. I'm assuming this was a bit of a slip, but it made me remember something. I had a conversation before the elections with a good friend of mine. He's both a staunch Democrat and an atheist. (though not a particularly deep-thinking member of either group) He said something to the effect of... "It's scary to think that religion can play a part in deciding political issues. That's dangerous." I thought to myself... These days, political ideologies might as well BE religions. It's scary to think that a political party can drum up support for one issue simply because 60% of the nation agrees with some OTHER stance on some OTHER issue. I think, in general, people will identify with a group based on a small number of issues and then when they say "We", your left to wonder which sub-set of the group they're really talking about.

Good catch! It was a slip in the sense that I might have written that better, but in grouping those in the list I was making an implication of your very point. Other forms of self identification can easily become like a religion. In Stalinist Russia you had essentially the state serving as the religion. In this country today, I've seen religious-like behavior surrounding various political and economic identities. This is why I don't usually care to criticize 'religion'. Instead, what I criticize are the specific features like: intolerance, superstition, dogmatic thinking, authoritarianism, and so on. These may be found in many religions, but should be criticized as heavily wherever they exist. And, incidentally, religion devoid of these things may be a very healthy thing. It depends on how broad one's definition of 'religion' is.

Thanks much to the readers! Please check back soon :)

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