Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Disclaimer Concerning the Work Here

It struck me that I should make a couple of comments concerning the work you find here. I write these things for myself and for people that find them worth reading. I make no claims of originality but I will say that what I write is based on my own thinking. That is, others may have written these things before me but I am not concerned about that.

My purpose in writing the philosophical essays and aphorisms is to help the progress of my philosophical investigations by casting them in words. Where I know the source of an idea that's influenced me, you'll note that I refer to its author. I may be following the same line of thinking as others but frankly I'd rather do my own exploration just now than read what someone else has concluded. I am willing to risk the embarrassment of repeating, poorly, some other person's efforts for the potential reward of contributing some novelty.

Finally, I want to point out that I work without a proofreader or copy editor. When I wrote professionally I was always very grateful to my editors for making my writing better. I can't afford that luxury for my hobby so you are likely to find errors here and there, and occasionally an unparseable passage due to an editing accident. Please excuse these and, if you are so inclined, report them using the email address in the sidebar. I would certainly be grateful.

Thanks for reading my work. I hope you enjoy it. If you'd like to discuss any of these ideas I welcome email!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Man in the State of Anonymity

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes imagines what life would be like "in the state of nature". He famously concludes that life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" on account of the natural state of man being war. Hobbes writes, "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man"

Anoymity is False Freedom

Hobbes falls victim, I believe, to an error common to all such gendankenexperiments. He ignores that the current state of affairs is the result of a complex evolution. He takes a system with effectively infinite influences and arbitrarily removes some things and retains others.

Does this make his thought experiment useless? I don't think so, but I do think it wasn't useful for the purpose he intended. It wasn't "man in a state of nature" but "man removed from civil society". What Hobbes characterized, it would seem with great accuracy, is what happens when you take a person out of the constraints of western civil society.

Hobbes saw that people in our society are dependent upon the constraints placed on them by custom and law. These provide a buffer against bad action. They are something to push against when pursuing self-interest, which, in our society is held to be not only acceptable but even meritorious.

So, when you remove the barriers people use as ethical dams, what happens? The pushing changes to motion, and they cross the line. Perhaps timidly at first but more boldly as they grow used to the lack of enforced restraint. After all, custom and law are so intimately conflated with ethical responsibility, if they are not there, concern over ethics also vanishes.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Philosophy Bites

I have, in various essays you will find here, referred to a favorite podcast of mine called Philosophy Bites. I felt it was time to point it out separately in order to draw more attention to it.

Like Being Pecked to Death by Ducks?

The podcast, which is in an interview format, features Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, both accomplished philosophers in their own right. The podcasts run about 15 minutes and cover topics ranging from classics of philosophy to current issues.

I particularly enjoy Warburton's special ability to be sympathetic to the position advocated by the guest while still asking incisive questions which raise cogent objections. In observing his method, one can learn something of the true philosopher's art of first comprehending a position and then deconstructing it to find the flaws.

I am pleased to say that since the time I began listening to Philosophy Bites it's popularity has grown tremendously. This is a good thing, it means people are interested in the questions the podcast addresses. I believe this is very important. Most people never bother to consider anything that isn't of first-order importance, and, on the occasions when they might, they are ill-equipped and don't manage to actually work out anything they didn't already hold as true.

So, I encourage you to take a few minutes and look at the very large library of interviews available at the Philosophy Bites website. Perhaps you will enjoy it as much as I do and make it a habit.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Life You Can Save

Imagine you come across a child drowning in a shallow ornamental pool. Saving him is just a matter of walking in and carrying him out. The trouble is you are wearing your favorite, expensive shoes. Do you sacrifice your shoes to save the child's life?

Reflecting Pond
Two Worlds

There is almost no one who would not ignore their shoes and rescue the child. It's obvious to anyone in western society what is the morally correct choice in this case. Peter Singer devised this gedankexperiment to make a point. He wants to draw your attention to the moral equivalency of donating the cost of those shoes to effective charities that focus on children in the third world.

Children there are dying from preventable causes, as surely as the imaginary child in the pool. UNICEF reports that about 24,000 die every day from preventable causes related to poverty. Your donation of the cost of a nice pair of shoes would save lives.

Singer is a troublemaker. Philosophers are supposed to be aloof, he is not. He believes in activism. He's developed a website intended to help you find an effective charity for your donation and provide more information on the problem an his proposed solution.

He's not asking you to impoverish yourself. Instead he's suggesting that we can all forego some luxury if it means doing the equivalent of pulling the child from the pool.

You can hear an excellent interview with Singer here. Please give him a chance to convince you. He's got a very good argument.

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