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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Does Humanism exclude non-humans?

(CC) Chi King,
Some people hear the name 'Humanism' and wonder about animal rights. In this article we'll explore the meaning of the word 'Humanism' and what most Humanists think about animals...

In a previous article, an reader named Elisabeth brought this issue up with the following comment:

"...I am also concerned with the "arrogance" of humanism that focuses on human beings rather than all life on the planet. Because of this, I cannot count myself as a humanist. In order to restore balance and true peace on this planet, we need to consider ourselves as a part of *all* that is "the earth": animals, environment, earth, air, water, etc. We are not more special than anything else on the planet simply because we have bigger brains..."

Many thanks to Elisabeth for bringing up this important topic. As awareness and concern for the ethical treatment of other animals has increased, it has become more at the forefront of our thinking than it was when the term 'humanism' was first invented. This has resulted in a common misconception among those who come to hear about Humanism for the first time. When they hear the word 'human' in the term, they conceptualize this emphasis as: human - as opposed to - animals. However, this is a misunderstanding.

When the term 'humanist' first arose in the Renaissance, we were coming out of the Medieval period. During these 'dark ages', the focus of all academic concern and moral concern was on God. Everything was about how to serve God, what God wants of us, and so on. But in renaissance humanism the emphasis was shifted toward mankind. It was here that study of those things humans do became more central - the humanities (grammar, the arts, history, etc). The first humanists were theists, but wanted to focus on understanding ourselves and our world. This shift of focus brought our gaze from heaven, down to earth, and was an important step in abandoning dogma for the rebirth of learning: the enlightenment. So here, rather than being about our disposition toward animals, in the term 'humanist' the emphasis was: human - as opposed to - God. That was the comparison being made and the reason for the naming of the term as such. If we forget that, we might look at the term from the point of view of species and miss the point.

Today, modern Humanists (capital 'H') are naturalists in the sense that they have a naturalistic view of the universe. Therefore, the emphasis is still "Human as opposed to God" rather than "as opposed to animals". Humanists actually comprise a large bulk of the progressive movement when it comes to both animal rights and environmentalism. This is because of the unique perspective Humanism encourages.

Humanism is very supportive of a scientific perspective, including Evolution. Rather than the Christian notion that man has been given 'dominion' over the other animals, Evolution has shown us how closely related we are to other life on this planet; it has opened our eyes to the highly intelligent nature of some animals; and increased our awareness of an animal's ability to suffer. Humanists also do not believe in souls, so they do not hold that human beings have some special entity within them which animals lack. The scientific outlook that Humanists support has also increased our awareness of the effects we have on the habitat and well being of other species, and increased our knowledge of just how interconnected are our fates. As the Humanist Manifesto III states, "Humans are an integral part of nature..."

Surely, Humanists will differ on the interpretation of Humanist ideals when it comes to specifics on other species. In "Whence Animal Rights?" prominent Humanist biologist Massimo Pigliucci writes a somewhat uncommitted but evenhanded and thoughtful article, for the Council for Secular Humanism, about the important issues to explore in the ethics of animal treatment. Meanwhile Humanist David Koepsell writes for the Council in "Praise Dog!" giving us a loving overview of the lessons we can learn from animals as he's learned from his beloved dog, buttercup.

But variable as all individuals are, the shared Humanist ideals of being compassionate, humane, and being an integral part of the natural world are why so many prominent Humanists can be found in support of animal rights, and were even foundational to the movement. For example:

Peter Singer is a Humanist philosopher best known for his book, Animal Liberation, regarded as a major work in the animal liberation movement. [See his presentation in which he states that it is the animal's ability to suffer that is at issue].

Harry Rowsell was a Humanist veterinarian and animal welfare advocate who established the Canadian Council on Animal Care and was awarded for his outstanding achievements in the treatment of animals.

Howard Williams was an early humanist humanitarian and vegetarian. He published The Ethics of Diet no later than 1883.

Henry Stephens Salt was a Humanist writer and vegetarian. He was known as an influential humanitarian and supporter of the ethical treatment of animals.

Gandhi himself said that both Salt and Williams were influential in his commitment to vegetarianism. The British Humanist Association has a persistent campaign calling for consistent and humane law on the slaughter of animals. Each of these people have a wide variety of specific views, with which I have varying degrees of agreement. But these examples are only a tiny fraction of the important contributions and leadership roles Humanists have made in the animal rights movement. Their participation in ecological and environmental efforts is equally matched.

The Humanist Manifesto also says, "Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals". Of course, The Humane Society (which I myself, and I'm sure many other Humanists, support) is well known for its advocacy of animal well being, but it would be a mistake to hear the word 'humane' and think that it's root in the word 'human' suggests speciesism. Similarly, the word 'Humanism' means that we need to look to ourselves rather than gods for the answers to ethical questions. In personal life, although we are part of a community, we can't control what others do - but we can work on the person in the mirror. In a similar line of thought, although we are part of an ecosystem, we humans need to look within and work on ourselves ethically because we are the ones responsible for our behavior as a species. Among these ethical questions is how we are going to cultivate our compassion toward ourselves and our fellow creatures, or, how humane are we going to be - and nothing could be more human than working on that.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On retribution: how bad people lose (pt 2)

Jules Winnfield explains his struggle to be
a better person (the shepherd) while resisting
the urge to be "the tyranny of evil men"
  in Pulp Fiction. (c) Miramax Films.
In part 1, we talked about the human desire for retribution. But it is important to take a look at the many ways that bad do people suffer...

I will outline four types of suffering. The first few of these will be obvious, and you will be thinking to yourself, "but this doesn't always happen to all bad people!" That's ok. As I proceed, the ways in which bad people suffer will become more profound and subtle.

(1) Direct Reaction

The first and most obvious way that bad people tend to suffer is in the direct reactions others have to their most serious offenses. This takes the form of legal action, both criminal and civil. Surely, people sometimes get away with crimes. But on the whole, a life of crime is harsh and not a good path to happiness. You are very likely over time to be caught, and often being caught comes as a relief to living a life in fear of being caught. Punishments can include loss of property, wealth, liberty, and even life. It would be hard to argue that a life of crime is wise in any sense.

(2) Social Reactions

Of course, most of us aren't career criminals. Our misdeeds veer more toward lying, gossip, meanness, cowardice, betrayal, and so on. Bad people of this sort are likely to find (highly likely if they do this habitually) that their friendships will be sparse, and shallow where they do exist. We all live and swim in this 'soup' of human interactions, and it is impossible to live at odds with the nature of human beings and human social expectations, and have good relations with others. This loss of good relations can cost us in terms of material well-being (less people to look out for us and to trust), and it can also cost us emotionally. Humans have a need to be loved, to have deep relationships with family, friends, and others, and so on. Note that this doesn't require that others have vengeance or retribution in their hearts, so no circular reasoning exists here. It only requires that they will tend to notice misdeeds and be cautious about forming deep or trusting relationships with people who behave badly.

(3) Personal Psychological Impact

All of this (and most philosophy in general) apply to "normally operating human beings". That is, people who do not have some extreme psychotic malady or disorder, such as rampaging murderous lunatics and so on. Any normal human being, even those who may lead very bad lives and have suppressed senses of empathy and heightened senses of violence and greed, has some sense of empathy and self identification. In examining the lives of bad people, one will find that many of them have a sense of self hatred, conscious of it or not. This plays itself out sometimes in obvious ways, as in knowingly self destructive behavior. Other times it plays itself out in more subtle ways such as a lack of ambition, or more subtle self destructive behaviors. You'll notice them quite often in bitter feuds, back-stabbing relationships, and other situations worthy of a daytime talk show. In any case, these are certainly not happy people.

This happens because all human beings, good and bad, like goodness. They admire it in others and they see its lack or opposite in themselves. They can't help but lose self respect, be ashamed, and hate themselves - even though most would never admit it. In fact, the reason many go further into misdeeds is because they see themselves as unworthy to be redeemed. This is one area where Christianity gets it just right - and one reason for its appeal: everyone has the capacity to change. It is often the willingness of the good Christian to show love to those who have done wrong that shocks the wrong doer and convinces them that they do have worth after all, which is a beginning to their turning of a new leaf.

(4) Unfulfilled Potential

But direct reaction, social reactions, and psychological impact is not enough. Nearly everyone is aware of the first two, and to varying degrees the third. Yet, knowing these, you will no doubt wonder about the person who has no remorse. What about the person who lives an evil life, happens to get away with it, and laughs all the way to his grave? This fourth way in which bad people suffer is perhaps the most subtle, and yet very important to understand. It is my central point, and one of the main reasons I wrote this article.

Can a person be harmed without their knowledge? Suppose you have a stack of goods ready to go to market, and I steal some when you aren't looking. Then you go to market, you are told their value and paid for them. Now you have less than you would have, but never realize you were stolen from. Most people would agree that the person was still harmed. If I am a pregnant woman who does drugs, and the baby is born - not mentally disabled technically - but less intelligent than he would have been, have I harmed the baby even if he never finds out? Again, most people would agree you can be harmed even when you are unaware of it.*

Now consider the good life; the life of the good person lived in full agreement with his nature as a moral being. He will tend to enjoy the deep meaningful friendships and other material benefits of which I spoke, but even this is just a side effect. This person has the sense of self respect and contentment that will carry him throughout life, regardless of his circumstances or challenges. He will die with no regrets, having lived a life of contentment and peace. The bad person who dies in what he believes to be happiness, has fallen far from this mark. His "happiness" is mere pleasure. It has been a response to external things and cannot equate to the happiness that is unattached to such things, nor can it come close to that level. The bad person has harmed himself without even realizing it. He will die in a very different universe than the good person. For him, the world was a harsher place with much less to offer, and he is a poorer man for it. In a way, this unfulfilled potential is the saddest form of harm, because it offers no respite, no way for improvement, and no joy even to be imagined through other people's eyes. Truly, a wasted life.

The above are understandings about how bad people suffer that a lot of worldview perspectives in ancient philosophy have highlighted. But apart from this, we also need to appreciate what makes a person bad. Heraclitus spoke of nature and everything in it as a vast system of interrelated parts. Buddha spoke of a person as being a collection of aggregates and a part of the interdependent net of cause and effect. All things are in flux and and based on prior conditions. I'll refrain from talk of 'free will' and determinism for now - suffice it to say that different takes on this are compatible with these truths.

That being the case, even when we consider that human beings have a will, we must understand that their character is shaped by their experiences. I can choose between option A and option B. What I cannot choose is the perception I have of the benefits of option A versus option B. This understanding of the nature of options A and B has come about in my mind because of my prior experiences. Naturally, I will select the option that seems most beneficial to me; to do otherwise would be insanity. The difficulty then is in knowing which options are truly beneficial and which truly harmful. This is why Socrates said that the only true evil is ignorance.

We now have good reason to pity the bad person, and we have reason to see that, even with a will that is free, the kind of person he became and the lens through which he makes these free choices is not entirely the product of his will. We are neither victims of circumstance, nor are we completely sovereign islands.

Why have I written all this about bad people? It is important to know the many ways that bad people suffer in life - not so that we may gloat, but as a cautionary note to ourselves. We also see that no one really 'gets away' with anything. The world works in such a way that their behaviors yield their own fruits. We only begin to think otherwise to the degree to which we share their ignorance, and that is a sign we are limiting our own potential happiness.

Beyond sensible precautions, good choices on who to interact with, and a decent justice system, there is nothing more that we need to do - no special viciousness or extra retribution we need to apply - to make sure others 'get what's coming to them'. That leaves us free to be more compassionate, free of the burden of viciousness, and free to focus on our own improvement.

Which brings up my final point. Who is this "bad person"?

I am.

We are all bad people, for we all fall short of perfection. We are all bad in our own ways, and do bad nearly every day in some way. These ways that bad people suffer do not just apply to the extreme stereotypes, they apply to all of us. We are all harmed when we are bad, and helped when we are good in all of these ways. The good news is that we all have the potential for improvement, and when we do, we see the fruits thereof. Heaven or hell is made here, but it is not binary - it is an incremental state and we move along that spectrum as we work on ourselves day by day.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On retribution: how bad people lose (pt 1)

A closeup of the right panel of The Garden
of Earthly Delights
, depicting Hell as a place
of horrors for those who misbehave in life.
By Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).
When studying and practicing some ancient philosophies, you may notice over time you become less concerned with retribution. Not only retribution in your personal interactions, but retributive perspectives on social and moral issues.

Biologically, humans share social instincts with the rest of our primate cousins which include a deep seated sense of equity in relations. This gives many primates an innate sense of fairness. Part of that sense includes an instinctive desire to inflict retribution on those who have 'broken the rules' of behavior.

[Explore further: Researchers First to Recognize Sense of Fairness in Nonhuman Primates]

As we all know, these impulses can at times turn into obsessions, but even in mild cases it is possible to be consumed by these hateful desires. Certainly, the kind of retributions that might satisfy our emotions are not always possible, so being wrapped up in this sort of thing will impact our long term happiness and equanimity in life.

The Christian worldview, especially by the Medieval era, is almost entirely based around a grand cosmic architecture of sins, sacrifices, judgments, and punishments - the end result of a maddening intellectual gymnastic to satisfy that deep need to believe that evil doers will get their due, and good doers will get their rewards. This retributive cosmic code is so deeply woven into the Christian worldview that God himself seems unable to overcome it. All Christians know the story about God having to sacrifice his own Son to atone for the sins of humanity, but no one ever asks who made up these strange cosmic rules - rules where a certain subset of human behaviors have some effect on where souls can travel, and - even more strange - that the shedding of blood can somehow account for them? Turning these rules into supernatural physics and separating them from (and imposing them over) God's will has been a modern interpretation to make God seem less whimsical and unjust, but I digress.  Christianity can't be solely to blame for its bizarre cosmic mythos. Retribution-based cosmic architectures are found in all the Abrahamic religions, and can be traced back to Zoroatrian roots, which were big on picturing all of reality in terms of a grand struggle between good and evil, imagining these human notions to be burned into the workings of the cosmos.

But ancient philosophies, East and West, are pre-Abrahamic and don't quite share such a strong focus on comeuppance. It should be no surprise then, that as we move our perspective outside of that Medievalism, the importance of retribution begins to diminish in our value system. But what takes its place?

Even karma has been framed as a kind of magical scorecard which deals out punishments for misdeeds, but this is a mistaken view of the concept. This misperception exists among many Eastern practitioners themselves who don't know their own religion well, and the misunderstanding is even worse when seen through Zoroastrian-influenced Christian Western eyes. When many Westerners try to understand karma, they keep the cosmic judging thing, and simply replace God with 'the universe'. But karma is not a retributive, judging, or punishing phenomena - and it is not a cosmic Santa's list.

I will not get into a full explanation of karma here and now (for that, readers can see my longer essay A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth). Rather, in part 2, I'd like to take a naturalistic worldview, and outline the many ways that bad people do suffer.

[Read Part 2]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reader feedback: truth, Sandford, Buddhism

(CC) cindy47452,
It's time to answer reader comments again, this time more on Mark Sandford, the nature of Truth, Buddhism, and more...

I've been thankful for the comments here and from other websites where announcements of my posts are made. Again, please keep in mind that my choice to respond or not respond to a comment isn't based on how much I liked or appreciate the comment, but whether I feel I have anything valuable to add. So, some comments I'm not replying to specifically because they are so well said that nothing needs to be added! I especially enjoyed the robust commenting on "Does spiritual philosophy make us outcasts?"

Absolute truth: does it exist?

Rick B:
I was with you up until your statement about there being absolute truth in ethics. That's quite a stand. You are going beyond merely refuting Hume's assertion that we cannot derive an ought from an is. Indeed, you're saying that there actually ARE no oughts, and that only is's exist in ethics (if not in everything). I am afraid I am one of your Humanist friends who don't buy that.

But... You are one of the most intelligent, articulate and persuasive writers it has been my honor to encounter, so I look forward to hearing your arguments supporting this position. Perhaps you can change my mind, and those like me.

Thanks Rick. I expected my assertion near the end there would be the most contested. I wouldn't phrase it as, "there are no oughts", but rather, there are oughts and they are concrete - they are a subset of "is's". As you point out, convincingly arguing such a position is a tall order so I couldn't do it there, but I do plan to elaborate more on objective ethics in the future. In the meantime, anyone interested in a longer treatment can read my essay: Natural-Objective Ethics.

Mark Sanford: how do we react?

I think your sentiments are well-meant... but this guy is a narcissistic politician (if you'll forgive the redundancy in the phrase). Most likely the only thing he regrets about his infidelity is having been caught... The exception I am taking to your admonition is the result of the high probability that this person is a sociopath. Feeling compassion for him, hoping for his "recovery" (difficult, because in his mind he has nothing to recover from), and wishing him all the best does not make us better people. It makes us naive, gullible people, and ultimately it makes us victims of people like him.

Fortunately Sanford's regret (nor any other attitude internal to him) is not required for the things I wrote about to be the case. He could quite possibly not have a shred of regret for the rest of his life and it would not effect my position on our best response. Sanford may not be deserving of either compassion or pity, but my point is that unless someone is going to pay me to be this man's judge, I don't need to be so concerned with "what Mark deserves". What I'm concerned with is: what disposition toward Mark makes me a better person and benefits me as such? My thoughts and opinions have little effect on Mark. They have great effect on me, so 'deserve's got nothing to do with it' as Clint Eastwood said in "Unforgiven".

As for naivety, we are only naive if we truly think he won't do wrong again. We are only gullible if we believe him when he says he's sorry or that he's changed. We are only victimized again if we trust him to continue in office or 'let him off the hook'. I've advocated none of this. I put no stock in 'what kind of person he is' nor place any wagers or make any risks about who he is or what he will do.

New Stoicism meetup in Houston

Michel Daw:
I have been debating doing this very thing in Canada's Capital area. You have inspired me to reconsider...

That's great to hear Michel! I hope to hear from you about your progress :)

What can we learn from Buddhism?

Looking beyond stoicism and Buddhism to an examination of how humans really function, an essential component is 'will'. The entire thrust of Existentialism is the integration of this element into an understanding of humans... Compassion is 'hard-wired' into humans when and if they are not fearful. In the presence of fear, other mechanisms take over the human personality... so to understand what makes people compassionate one must study the structures of the brain, evolutionary psychology, how emotions arise in the human animal, etc...

I like what you've said about fear. Fear during developmental stages has a direct impact on the growth of neural material and connections in the frontal lobes and other areas responsible for higher reasoning. This literally makes the animalistic parts of the brain physically weigh more as a ratio to the 'higher' parts. Even as adults, capacity for compassion is diminished in those times when the brain is in a fearful state. This is why, both Stoicism and Buddhism are in large part about this: living life without fear.

I also concur on the need to study structures of the brain and such to understand what makes a person mroe or less compassionate. However, I would add that third-person external study is only one kind of observation. Let us not forget that we are not studying some alien species - we happen to have the advantage of being that species we are studying. Therefore, first-person observation is also helpful. This means we must do more than simply study the brain academically. We must even do more than simply study Buddhism and other philosophies academically. We must experiment by engaging in Buddist and other practices personally, exploring consciousness from within, to really understand compassion and its development from the inside. I can study maps of the world, but it will never equate to traveling :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What we can learn from Buddhism

(CC) Linda Lane aka Wonderlane,
This Saturday, July 18, 2009, I will be speaking before the Humanists of Houston (HOH) on the topic, "What Humanists Can Learn from Buddhism". I will present an overview of Buddhist philosophy. Specific focus will be given to the Humanist perspective and what those with a naturalistic and scientific worldview can take from Buddhism, as well as how the Humanist movement can benefit. Buddhist conception of the world will be compared to modern scientific understandings. Buddhist ethics will be considered, and the operation of Buddhist practices will be addressed.

I became interested in Buddhism a few years ago, after readings in complex systems theory lead me simultaneously to the Taoist philosophy Chuang-Tsu and the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. From there, I migrated to Buddhism and Stoicism respectively, and was suprised to see these two merge back together with complexity - hence my current fascination with all three.

[Explore further: Visit to a Buddhist Temple]

I commonly look for areas of overlap with Stoicism and other ideas. I want to know why two different systems (or more) can seem true in their own right - are they saying the same things in different ways? Where do the ideas overlap and where are they different. If they are different, are they really so or is it just a matter of emphasis? If not, which is correct? How can a thinking person simply interested in good ideas synthesize something consistent and useful from all of these?

[Explore further: The Nature of 'The Force']

Buddhism has so far held a special place for me. While it overlaps with Stoicism, it seems to address something more directly and fully than Stoicism does, and that thing is compassion. I have become convinced that compassion is a central component of 'the good life'. For this reason, I have been thinking and discussing recently with fellow Stoics just what 'Stoic compassion' would look like, framed in Stoic terms. This was also key to shifting the emphasis within Humanism in the 'Humanist Contemplative' concept I last wrote on here. It is thanks to the lessons of Buddhism that I now consider compassion to be the real foundational core to Humanism and begin all explanations of Humanism with that premise. In fact, absent the specific cultural influences, I consider a philosophic Buddhism to be nothing other than an Eastern version of Humanism.

I will explain why in greater detail this Saturday at the Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St., 77074 at 1:00pm and you are invited to join us!

Namaste :)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Houston-born Humanist Contemplatives spreading

Many Humanists are already aware (and proud of) the Humanist Chaplancy at Harvard University. Recently a regular Humanist Contemplative group has begun at Cambridge. What does 'Humanist Contemplative' mean?

On June 29, 2006, I started something called the Humanist Contemplative Club in my local Humanist organization, based around the concept of the 'Humanist Contemplative'. The Humanist Contemplative concept is designed, not to be a separate branch of Humanism, but rather to help contribute to the course Humanism takes in the future by working within current Humanist organizations and communities, while reaching out to new people who may have found Humanism wanting in the past, or who may not have even heard of Humanism.

It was born out of a concern that modern Humanism was becoming:
  1. Too focused on criticism of others' beliefs
  2. Too academic and debating
  3. Too blurred and lost within the atheist and secular agenda
  4. Too political in its activity and organizational nature
It also took to heart Sam Harris' call for our participation in the contemplative life.

[Explore further: The Humanist Contemplative]

The group operated for over a year and we had a lot of wonderful experiences. I know I grew from it. I later decided to move on to working on my own on the concept, as I didn't really have the time to run such a group. But this blog, as well as much of my other local work, is all geared toward practicing and talking about Humanism as a contemplative.

That's why I was pleased when Zach Alexander contacted me to inform me that he was starting a Humanist Contemplative group in the Boston area. He describes the group as follows:

Looking for something deeper than socializing and more personal than intellectual debate? Join the Humanist Contemplative Group for biweekly meditations, discussions, and sharing of insights. 
  We're as wary of words like "spiritual" as you are, yet we've found meditative practices to clear our minds, calm our emotions, and enhance our compassion – all good things that have nothing to do with supernaturalism. 

Meetings will be eclectic, with formats inspired by Quakerism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, and other sources; we encourage debate about what contemplative practices can (or can't) be appropriated by Humanists.
Their meetings take place at Harvard University. For those in the area who would like to attend, you can see their Facebook group page, or join their listserv.

Lately I've also been contacted by someone in Los Angeles interested in the concept and look forward to correspondence with them as well. For more on the Humanist Contemplative concept, please see my website: The Humanist Contemplative.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Houston Church of Freethought serves local Humanists, atheists, agnostics

The Houston Church of Freethought logo.
The Lightning Bolt has been used as a
symbol of Freethought.
For those who may not be aware, there is a church for those without supernatural beliefs, be they Humanists, atheists, agnostics, or any other freethinker - and one of those churches is right here in Houston.

The Houston Church of Freethought ( is a "fellowship of unbelievers". Yes, as it turns out, those with naturalistic views who may not be a part of mainstream, or even out of mainstream, religions still have a need and a desire to fellowship with others, share their life challenges, hear inspiring and wise presentations relevant to their lives, raise their children to be good people, and share in community. This is the sense in which HCOF uses the word "church".

[Explore further: What is a Freethinker?]

The HCOF has been around several years now, and holds its services on the second Sunday of each month, Coffee and dough-nut fellowship starts at 10:00am with the regular service from 10:30am to 11:30am. Many of the attendees normally goes for lunch together at a nearby restaurant afterwards. The Services are held at the Holiday Inn at 3131 West Loop South, Houston TX 77027.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does spiritual philosophy make us outcasts?

Lego Gandhi
(CC) Andrew Becraft.
Can you feel at home in society while practicing philosophy? If we choose to practice our philosophy fully, will that inevitably lead to some degree of isolation or loneliness as we find ourselves less and less like mainstream society? Last Sunday, a club called Socrates Cafe met at Borders Books & Music on Kirby Drive here in Houston, and this was the question examined. Many participated, and their ideas and input I've tried to include here.

Philosophy has always had a tendency to illuminate where we are going wrong, as individuals and as a society. It pokes and prods at the assumptions of society and can have an undermining effect on its norms. As such, it shouldn't be surprising if, as we learn more and think philosophically more, we will eventually begin to see that the 'best way to live' is pretty different from the way most people in our society behave.

So then we face a quandary. How far do we go in living our philosophy and in the process, become ever more alien and incompatible with our friends, family, and colleagues? Socrates, a "trouble-maker" who got himself sentenced to death, didn't exactly 'fit in' after all. There are many other examples of philosophers being imprisoned, excommunicated, banished, or put to death - and, more relevant, many times that number who simply lived lives feeling disconnected from others and lonely. Subtle and less extreme examples include the difficulty of fitting in with others at gatherings when practicing vegetarian or vegan diets.

But if we decide to forgo some practices, or modify them, are we hypocrites who know one thing but practice another just to fit in? Are we refraining from being ourselves just to seek the approval of others? On the other hand, if we decide to go our own way and that makes us into a hermit, how do we know the difference between enlightenment and being a wacko, without the ability to check our ideas against the insight of others? Or, worse, such an attitude may be the seed that opens the doorway to extremism.

No, surely a continued exchange - a true dialog which is one of equals who listen and not a one-way sermon - is essential to philosophic practice. But in this exchange there must be proper discernment. We cannot make ourselves into the 'follower of the crowd' simply seeking approval and giving up who we are at our core. But at the same time, we must be open to the possibility that others are wiser than ourselves, or have some nuggets we have yet to fully comprehend. That requires a trust in ourselves - a trust that we can take in the opinions of others, digest them carefully and thoughtfully, and then properly discern between the wise and the foolish (and the as-yet-unknown). Having an open mind means all ideas are welcome to come in for an audition - but not necessarily to end up in the play.

Another important measure in exchanges with others is not to pigeonhole others - not to hear one thing about them or their position and think we know everything they think and believe immediately. Sometimes our terms, definitions, and labels can be very misleading. We may think of ourselves as a capitalist, for example. Then after meeting one person who calls himself capitalist and another communist, that we actually agree more with the latter, simply because of different understandings and uses of these terms. Without careful and subtle appreciation of our varying use of the language, we run the risk of letting semantics be a tool to alienate ourselves and others.

We should also understand that we have the ability to communicate the very same messages and maintain the integrity of our position and who we are - but phrase our position in ways and present it in ways which will not cause conflict, keeping lines of communication open and productive.

But lastly, we must understand that some people are simply not interested or ready to discuss things philosophically. Some go about life without introspection and will never be interested in it. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, yet that is their right and if they are not willing, then it is best to accept that. Some may be open to introspection, but simply not at this time or on a certain topic. Use these times as a chance to engage them in other ways and learn something about yourself. We cannot control the actions of others; only ourselves. Eastern philosophies might use the analogy of cultivation: even with the best seed, we must wait for the right conditions to plant it.

If our philosophy takes us down a road of contrast to the prevailing culture, there seem to be different ways this can manifest. When we look at examples of people who have 'gone off on their own tangents' philosophically, we see two sides of one coin. On the one side, we have the hermit - sometimes respected but a mystery to others, sometimes hated, often unknown. On the other side, we have the beloved visionary - people like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and so on. What is the fundamental distinction between these two paths?

The hermit's philosophy is for himself. He hordes it and focuses on his own enlightenment and progress. To others, he might say they are a lost cause and society will never learn. Or, he might say that they too should focus on themselves, because we can only control what we do and should not be concerned with telling others what they ought to do. I have recently taken to heart the notion that if we want change, we must focus on the 'man in the mirror' (as the Michael Jackson song declares). It is not philosophy that heals, but the practice of it. That is something that is up to the individual.

But isolationism and extreme individualism cannot be the answer either. This denies that others are wiser than ourselves. It also shows a lack of concern for others. Surely, we don't want to be the 'preachy' holier-than-thou type. But unless we share with one another, not only can we not grow - but we cannot carry on the wisdom which we ourselves enjoy. I've read recently that one possible reason for the decline of Stoicism was that Epictetus held a high regard for practice and a lower regard for commentary and writing. Thus, it only took a few generations with that extreme focus to put a damper on the continued spread of Stoic thought. It behooves us not to focus exclusively on practice to the point of disregarding others or society, becoming self-made outcasts.

The examples of visionaries I've mentioned were not 'preachy', but were respected for their distinction from the norms of society. One way they accomplished this was by doing over saying. Showing in our life deeds over words will always be more respected, and something many of us (this author included) need to work at more. Another way they took a different path without isolationism was that they had a compassionate nature. They had ideas that stood in contrast to the prevailing winds, but they shared them with others out of love. They understood that, as they focused on their own actions and personal practice, it was important to exchange with others in respect (both sharing and learning) and with a caring purpose. Their philosophy was not only for themselves, but to be shared for the benefit of all - even while understanding that it is up to each person to decide for themselves to accept or act on that.

When our discussion began I was unclear about these questions. While there is still much more to think about here, I was fortunate to gain some clarity on some of this. The above are not solely my thoughts, but an amalgamation of ideas shared by all of the participants of the gathering. I thank everyone who attended with me for this. I'm sorry I don't have all of their names, but invite them to comment below, tell us who you are, and what thoughts you contributed!

[main Socrates Cafe website].

Until next time :)