Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Monotony of Work

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 8, 2016.)

I corresponded with an old friend yesterday who was communicating the tedium of his work as a software engineer. He is thankful that he earns a six-figure salary, and he understands that most people in the world would happily trade places with him, but that doesn’t change the fact that a future filled with a lifetime of coding doesn’t excite his probing and restless mind. Minds like his need stimulation, and they could contribute so much to the rest of us if they were freed to follow their interests . Moreover, while technology companies pay some of the best wages in the United States, they expect more than 40 hours of work in return, which leaves my friend with less time with his children than he would like.

It is just so hard to know how to balance the responsibility we have for taking care of our kids with our desire to elaborate or express ourselves through our labors—that is to have more meaningful work. Hopefully we can do both, but the fact is that most of us will have to do things we don’t like in order to survive. I wish it were different.

There is a lot to say about all this and I have written many posts about work on this blog. Rather than rewriting that material, I provide these links in the hope that they might provide my friend some comfort. I’d say that the post “Fulfilling Work,” best expresses my views on the topic.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work

A Summary of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”

Karl Marx for Dummies

Rethinking Work

Friendship is Another Reason to Work

Fulfilling Work

Should you “Do What You Love?”

The Problem of Work-family Conflict in the US

Overworked

Kant: Should We Develop Our Talents?

And I’ll have more on the topic in my next post.

Review of Bryan Magee’s, “Ultimate Questions”

magee

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 9, 2016.)

Bryan Magee (1930 – ) has had a multifaceted career as a professor of philosophy, music and theater critic, BBC broadcaster, public intellectual and member of Parliament. He has starred in two acclaimed television series about philosophy: Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). He is best known as a popularizer of philosophy. His easy-to-read books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages, include:

Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper;
The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy;
Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers;
Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper;
The Story of Philosophy: 2,500 Years of Great Thinkers from Socrates to the Existentialists and Beyond;
and Men of Ideas.

Now, at age 86, he has written Ultimate Questions, a summary of a lifetime of thinking about “the fundamentals of the human condition.” Its basic theme is that we know little about the human condition, since reality comes to us filtered through the senses and the limitations of our intellect and language. And, according to Magee, the most honest response to this predicament is agnosticism.

Magee begins considering that “What we call civilization has existed for something like six thousand years.” If you remember that there have always been some individuals who have lived a hundred years this means that “the whole of civilization has occurred with the successive lifetimes of sixty people …” Furthermore, “most people are as provincial in time as they are in space: they huddle down into their time and regard it as their total environment…” They don’t think about the little sliver of time and space that they occupy. Thus begins this meditation on agnosticism.

Furthermore, we are ignorant of knowledge of our ultimate nature: “We, who do not know what we are, have to fashion lives for ourselves in a universe of which we know little and understand less.” Yet this situation doesn’t lead Magee to despair. Instead he calls for “an active agnosticism,” which is “a positive principle of procedure, an openness to the fact that we do not know, followed by intellectually honest enquiry in full receptivity of mind.” If he had to choose a tag he says, it would be “the agnostic.”

However most people can’t live with uncertainty, with pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle as Magee puts it, and they replace the unknown with religion. But religion “is a form of unjustified evasion, a failure to face up to the reality of ignorance as our natural and inevitable starting-point.” The challenge of life is to live and die in a world that we don’t understand “without either … denying the mysteriousness of it or … grasping at supernatural explanations.”

Yet he takes comfort in what he calls the “us-dependent,” rather than the independent or isolated: “One essential aspect of our situation is that we are social creatures, indeed social creations: each one of us is created by two other people. If we are not cared for by them or someone taking their place, we die. Our existence and our survival both require active involvement by others.”(What a beautiful rejoined to all those supposedly self-made men. Those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.)

In the broadest light, the book attempts to reply to the assertion: “I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am.” But Magee, after decades of searching, replies that none of us know the answers to the big questions. As for faith, Magee answers firmly: “I can think of no other context in which people are commended for the firmness of beliefs for which there is little or no evidence.” Magee accepts that some need the comfort of religion because, for example, they can’t accept their own death, and he leaves such people undisturbed. “But I do regard such people as no longer committed to the pursuit of truth.”

Magee believes contra Hume that he has a self “but I am unable to fathom its inner nature, and I have no idea what happens to it when I die.” But he rejects the view that being unable to answer ultimate questions implies that asking them is worthless, inasmuch as some understanding of our selves and the world can still be attained. “We may not know where we are, but there is a world of difference between being lost in daylight and being lost in the dark.” Still none of this implies relativism, as reason and evidence support some ideas  and theories over others. Some things are more likely to be true and rational people proportion their assent to evidence.

As for death, “the prospect of permanent oblivion” is painful. In death the magic of the world and our consciousness of it vanishes. Nonetheless, the brave face this truth without comforting themselves with false narratives. Magee says that at the moment of death “I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch blackness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.” These are the words of a brave and fearless intellect. What a wonderful book.

The Injustice of Sexism

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 27, 2016.)

I read an interesting article this morning titled, “Late-breaking sexism”: why younger women aren’t excited about electing a woman president.” Its main theme is that while women have made great strides, there is still a lot of sexism in the USA, especially the kind that manifests itself in a woman’s late twenties and early thirties when the demands of career and family intersect.

I agree with the article completely, and I believe any woman who tells me the article speaks to their concerns. But it did get me to thinking about how to respond to this injustice or to any injustice. In the simplest language I’d say something like: we should try to make the world more just while remembering at the same time that there is a lot of good in life too. I know this is trite, but the point is to maintain a creative tension between being dissatisfied with injustice enough to want to remedy it, but not so dissatisfied that you sour on life and miss its beauty.

Of course this is easy for a white male who has never been discriminated against to say. Moreover I have sufficient food, clothing, and shelter—as well as time to blog. For those who are starving, imprisoned, enslaved, etc. there is nothing one can say except that such injustices should be eradicated. So I address my concerns mostly to first world people who nonetheless face grave injustice. But again I admit that I can’t understand how difficult it is to be black or gay or a woman in this world either.

The only thing I might say is that we should all be sympathetic with each other. Consider that racism is about understanding the unique obstacles blacks face; xenophobia about understanding the unique obstacles that immigrants face, and sexism is about understanding the unique obstacles that women face. All these groups face obstacles that white men do not. But teaching existentialism always reminded me how hard life is for everyone. Still being discriminated against makes things much harder.

There is something amiss about the reality we live in, and I’d guess it has something to do both with ourselves and the stars. But if we change ourselves then we might change the stars too.

William James: Once Born and Twice Born People

A black and white photograph of James

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 28, 2016.)

William James, in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience,  draws a contrast between what he calls “once born” and the “twice born” people.  Once born people appear biologically predisposed to happiness. They are relatively untroubled by their own setbacks as well as by the suffering the world; they rarely speak ill of others; they don’t complain much; they tend not to be fearful or angry. Today we might call them happy-go-lucky, easy-going or upbeat.

By contrast twice borns feel there is something wrong with reality that must be rectified. They have a pessimistic view of the world; they experience more ups and downs in life; they wish the world could be different from it is. Today we might call them neurotic, anxious, or unstable. James describes them like this:

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes. (p.169)

However this doesn’t mean that twice borns are unhappy. The reason is that their attitude often leads to a crisis, experienced as clinical depression, in a desire to understand the meaning of life. But the incompatibility of their desire for making sense of things and their pessimism demands a resolution if life is to be loved again. And it is this demand that can lead to rebirth. As an example, James considers the crisis of meaning experienced by Leo Tolstoy. (I have written about his crisis here.) James describes Tolstoy’s transformation like this: “The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before. ” (p.157)

While the sense of being “born again” often describes so-called religious or mystical experiences, James uses the term to describe any experience where there is a strong sense of renewal after a tragic event. The point is that challenges and tragedies can be seen as a means to a happier and more meaningful life.

As for the happy life, James said it consists of four main ingredients. First we must choose to view the world as positive even though life contains sorrow and pain. Second we must take risks by acting from the demands of our hearts. Third we must act as if we are free and life is meaningful even though we can’t be sure that any of this is true. Finally we should remember that a crisis of meaning often leads to the happiest life. Thus a crisis for twice borns presents the possibility of renewal.

Postscript – William James knew a lot about all this, as he suffered from depression for much of his life. A number of other people of historic importance suffered from major depression as well including: Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Franz Kafka, and the Buddha.

I really think there is a lot to this. Given the reality we live in and the ubiquity of suffering, we do best by trying to learn from it and thereby reduce its power over us as much as possible. Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, Gift Edition that enduring suffering nobly was one of the ways we find meaning in life. Perhaps we all must endure our own self-made purgatories in order to experience true happiness. (On the other hand I don’t believe that twice-borns are necessarily led to clinical depression. Perhaps, for example, they are led to a philosophical search for meaning instead.)

Still I don’t believe that pain and suffering are intrinsically good no matter what good outcome they might lead to. Like my colleague David Pierce, who first articulated the hedonistic imperative, I too believe that all pain and suffering in life should be eliminated. The meaning of life is to create a heaven on earth.

As for the contrary view, that suffering is somehow necessary for redemption, it was best captured in these lines by Shelley from his “Ode To A Skylark,”

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

___________________________________________________________________________

Quotes are from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Penguin Books, 1902, 1982)

(This entry borrows from this article on the website The Pursuit of Happiness.)

Reply to Ms. Aurora Griffin on Abortion

While writing my last post on abortion I came across an anti-abortion piece written a few years ago by a Harvard undergraduate, Ms. Aurora Griffin. Having taught philosophical ethics to undergraduates for 30 years, I’m always happy to see an undergrad bold enough to wade into the philosophical waters. However, knowing the ins and outs of the argument in great detail, it is easy to see where Ms. Griffin’s argument goes awry.

Ms. Griffin argues that there are arguments from both philosophy and science that support her pro-life position. She says the philosophical argument “is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human,” and the scientific argument is “[human] life … begins at conception” because then “it has human DNA …”

Ms. Griffin does seems to recognize that these arguments don’t work because there is a difference between being biologically human, or having human DNA, and being a person who is a member of the moral community. Perhaps she has read Mary Anne Warren’s devastating critique of John Noonan’s notoriously weak argument, where Warren points out that being biologically human doesn’t mean you are a person, nor does the lack of a human DNA mean that you aren’t a person. There may be things that are biologically human but not persons—like zygotes, the recently deceased, and people in persistent vegetative states—and there may be things that aren’t biologically human but are persons—like intelligent aliens, cyborgs or robots. So having human DNA doesn’t mean that you are a person or a member of the moral community. After all, a swab of human saliva has human DNA but it not a person.

Sensing that personhood rather than biologically humanity is the key point, Griffin offers this argument. “If the human is a person only when neurologically functioning as a human, then by that same argument it would be permissible to kill people while they are in deep sleep, in comas, or mentally handicapped.” This argument is especially fatuous.

First, neurological functioning may be one of the necessary conditions for personhood, and one which the zygote without a brain clearly does not satisfy. It is hard to see how any entity that completely lacks consciousness is a person in any usual sense of the word. And, as is well-known in the literature, fetuses satisfy none of the criteria for personhood till well along in their development.

Second, the argument is a disguised version of a well-known informal logical fallacy known as the slippery slope. Ms. Griffin appears to believe that if we allow abortion in the early stages then sleeping and mentally handicapped people will be killed. Of course this doesn’t follow, since the sleeping and mentally challenged clearly have neurological activity—it is not as if they completely lack consciousness like early trimester fetuses.

All of this leads to Ms. Griffin’s conclusion that only “if the fetus is not a person and we know it definitively, is abortion morally permissible.” Of course we do know that the early fetus does not satisfy any of the criteria of personhood by any reasonable philosophical definition of the word, and we also know this beyond any reasonable doubt based on the science of embryological development.

Finally we might note that the majority view among ethicists by a large margin is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.