…on ethical relativism

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For the Lachs worksheet with Skowronski’s criticism that Lachs’s relativism is actually not very relative, most students got this right and a few did not. Essentially, this was an easy exercise because Lachs kept making claims that sounded remarkably universal and generally objectivist. For example:

“Values vary with the individual’s nature. The good, therefore is not a question of what we think or how we feel but of who we are.”

Here Lachs seem to be making an appeal to a universal good that is attached to human nature, “who we are.” This would be a violation of relativism, since it is suggesting that human-nature leans toward the good, rather than the bad.

“The greatest beneficiary of the universal acceptance of moral relativism would, without a doubt, be human liberty.”

Here again Lachs is explicitly using objectivist language with the key word “universal” in connection to “human liberty” which is yet another objectivist standard. If he were truly relativist, any universal claims would be contradictory to his relativist claim that there are no universal standards, or that there is not a universal human nature. This last claim is something Lachs tried to argue for in the opening arguments of the essay.

Then to the homework on how relativism relates to objectivity. First we must discern the distinction between ethical relativism and what we were calling epistemological relativism. The first type, ethical relativism is what is of interest to us here. The two are related in that epistemological relativism is calling into question objective truth, whereas, ethical relativism is calling into question objective morality. When we speak of objectivity in ethics class, we are usually referring to a standard of truth and/or a standard of morality that we can all agree on.

When we speak of objective morality, we are referring to morality that has normative features of correctness (and incorrectness), propriety (and impropriety), goodness (and not goodness) that can be widely agreed upon from person to person and from culture to culture. We cross-culturally agree, for instance, that people deserve common respect, or that we should not take what is not ours, or that we should be honest with one another. Often, moral objectivity is compared to scientific and mathematical objectivity. The melting point of silver is 1,763°F, there is no dispute over this objectivity, and we might compare this to moral objectivity, whereby we can for instance, safely say that shouting and confrontational behavior toward strangers is typically wrong. Yet, as we learned from Hume, morality does not come from something that “is”. Often such a similarity rests on intuition. In other words, the intuition that the melting point of silver is 1,763°F is assured by way of rational intuition. Similarly, the wrongness of shouting at random strangers is also something felt by conscientious intuition. The question is, are they the same intuition? I would be inclined to say no, they are not the same, given that conscientious intuition has variations of possibility that the melting point of silver does not. Imagine the context of a rock band who yells (shouts and sings) their songs to fans. Here we have an exception to the objective rule, therefore we can provisionally suggest that yelling at strangers does not have the same objectivity as the melting point of silver. So to compare the science/math to the moral is somewhat tricky. The rock band’s yelling could be warmly familiar to their fans who can also be strangers.

This is part of the problem with ethics. We often misunderstand that we are enacting our ethics by reason alone and as we have seen, ethics sometimes has an emotional component that becomes tough to ignore. It becomes tough to pin point at times and it is for this reason that the relativist seizes as a justification for the position that given that we cannot all agree on morality 100% of the time, morality must therefore be relative, or without objectivity.

This gets back to objectivity, we roughly define it as moral objectivity covering the idea that there are standards by which we all (for the most part) agree on as standards by which we can live and cooperate with one another. Sometimes these look like laws, sometimes these look like unsaid codes of behavior. As we noticed, every student walks into class, sits down, cooperates, thinks about, verbalizes questions, writes down and listens to the professor’s lesson. This is an unsaid rule that is also ethical, to not do it would be problematic from the vantage that erratic behavior would be potentially threatening and invasive. It also is problematic for the student who wishes to be absent, and so on. We cannot say that such things are 100% objective, but we can at least say that it’s best to stay close to keeping such things objective.

All this leads to part of the problem and counter arguments against relativism. In your essays, be sure that when you are writing about the problems and counter arguments with relativism that you are not merely ‘describing’ relativism. When a student writes that a problem for relativism is that we cannot agree about what is right and what is wrong. Yes, this is a problem, but it is simply describing relativism and not showing “how” it is a problem. When you place the words onto the page, be sure to show how relativism has counter arguments that expose its problems and how it works.

For example, when we wrote about Pojman threatening to give his students an F, most students immediately recognized that this was problematic because it is morally suspect to randomly give students an F regardless of their performance. In this case Pojman was hypothetically acting on relativism, so as to demonstrate to the students that they also adhere to the ethical standards of the classroom, even if they mistakenly thought they were relativists to begin with. We attend class under the presupposition that we will be treated fairly and that our work will be grading honestly and according to our earnest scholarship. If relativism were true, we would not think of Pojman’s arbitrary grading as morally suspect. This is a relativist position because it challenges the convention that we all objectively agree upon when we sign up to classes. The objective rules of the classroom are accepted ways in which we as students agree to be evaluated, so Pojman’s sudden challenge to this with the threat to award students with an F, and their flat refusal to accept this is a pretty good counter to relativism. It also shows us the intricate way in which we follow objective rules without ever examining the inter-workings of such seemingly straightforward ethical issues of the classroom we all agree to.

So the key is to avoid a description of moral relativism as the position that rejects objectivity, and stick to a way of writing about the counterarguments with the aim of showing “how” relativism is problematic.

…aurelio madrid

…on the stoic attitude toward death

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After reading through the homework I did get, I see good answers to the problem of death for the Stoics. My emphasis for the class will often air on the side of philosophy rather than just description. In other words, it is one thing to describe the Stoic as one who is somewhat indifferent to death, and it is another thing to suggest that the Stoic does not care about death. Both of these statements are observations and a description of a Stoic attitude toward death. What I am looking for has more to do with the philosophy behind the description. That a Stoic is not afraid or does not care about death is only a description.

Why is the Stoic not afraid of death? Why does the Stoic appear to not care about death? Let’s take the last question first. We have to assume that to not care about death would be problematic for the Stoic, because to not care would mean that one would not be careful about death. So we have to ask ourselves if the Stoic is careless or non-caring about death. Probably not, given that a Stoic would have to take a deep consideration for death in order to have a better understanding of his/her life.

Asking again, why is the Stoic unafraid of death? How do we move beyond just a descriptive account? The Stoic is rational, and a rational goal of life is to be virtuous, then this life must also be understood as finite. Therefore, we need to face our own death to lead a virtuous life. So with this step, a Stoic reasons about the relationship between life and death and sees it rationally as a matter of assent rather than just fearing death.

As we see, to reason that death is inevitable is one part of the idea. The other part has to do with the notion of assent, or better said control. Once the Stoic acknowledges mortality, the Stoic has to also make the choice, to give assent to how to feel about the inevitability of death. The Stoic is rational, the Stoic knows that they will die someday, therefore it does not make sense to be fearful of something that is inevitable. To not be fearful requires that the Stoic make a conscious choice to no longer be fearful. To be fearful would be unvirtuous, given that the fear of death is uncourageous.

When we look to the philosophy of Stoicism and the attitude toward death, be sure to not just describe that they had a Stoical attitude toward death, rather work to explain how this works philosophically for the Stoic in terms of choice (&/or assent).

–aurelio madrid

…notes on tolstoy’s death of ivan ilyich

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…notes on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

If a confrontation of our personal existence is said to be existential, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych from the 1880s is a poignant account of a confrontation with Ivan’s life by way of his impending death.[1] Although this is a fictional account, it serves as an allegory for our confrontation with mortality. Perhaps the existential allegory is to urge us into recognizing that the life we face & look back on when we are about to die, should be of concern for us now, today as we read it. Tolstoy’s story becomes a moral lesson since it teaches us that the thought of one’s quickly approaching death enforces an evaluation of the life we’ve led up until then. One unfortunate feature of this confrontation is that life runs out faster than we can do anything to revise our actions up till then.  Life can be wasted away.

More than ¾ through Tolstoy’s recounting of Ivan’s steady decline, Ivan recalls a familiar example of deductive logic:

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Caius is a man

Conclusion: Caius is mortal

As philosophy students we usually introduced to this with  Socrates’ name in the place of Caius (a.k.a. Julius Ceasar).

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Socrates is a man

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

So the logical argument is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true in all cases. A deductive argument is generally said to argue from the general to the specific. When we examine the premises of the argument as true, the conclusion is sound (not merely valid). In other words, the premise all men are mortal is true. Albeit sexist in its antiquity, such statements are better thought of nowadays as: all humans are mortal. Nevertheless arguing that men and women are mortal does not invalidate the logic—no doubt, men are mortal as much as women, children, &c. (these points are for another paper). Nevertheless, we cannot deny this argument. This is one thing we can take for-granted: we all must die one day. This is irrefutable, yet in health we often feel we have some distance to its cold logic. This distance is what Ivan Ilych suddenly has the existential proximity to with the fresh threat of his own death in sharp focus. As Ivan thinks of this in revelatory horror, “And it cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too awful.”[2] Caius is mortal, Socrates is mortal, everyone is mortal & the simple cold logic is that we are mortal too. Today we update the argument like so:

Premise: All humans are mortal

Premise: I am human

Conclusion: I am mortal

When we think of this logic we are introducing ourselves to basic logic in philosophy class. Logically, we know it’s is a sound argument, there’s no argument against it. We do not live forever, but death seems to always come for someone else, not ours, or at least not now in the classroom, or while we’re reading this. We often feel that death will not come for some time in the far distant future.

Ivan’s looming death puts his life up till then into sharp focus causing him to look helplessly forward to his inescapable decline. His existential crisis is our existential crisis only if we are keen to its significance before it’s too late. His life was for the most part unhappy save a game of bridge here & there in the name of enjoying friendships. He had an upstanding job as a judge which brought him negligible fulfillment. His marriage was clouded with petty discord. The beginning of his decline happens when he falls off a ladder decorating his home as an aspiration of popular bourgeoisie taste.

Tolstoy’s moral lesson is an exhortation for us to live authentic lives. To be authentic is to take ownership of one’s life instead of obliging our behavior around the expectation of others. Death sharpens our focus on life. It is up to us to face mortality as a way to inspire us to lead a life we can value when we face death authentically, soundly & honestly.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, edited by George Strade (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).

[2] Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilych, 122.

…on unamuno’s tragic sense of life

library unamunoNotes on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

Unamuno’s 1912 book Tragic Sense of Life is an early expression of Spanish & European existentialism. Why do we propose Unamuno is an existentialist?—because he was concerned with existence, our corporeal existence. To conclude that a thinker is existentialist, we make the claim that their philosophy bases itself in the concerns of existence. If we are to come to an understanding of our lives as an existentialist, we must come to that understanding within the context of our own living & breathing existence.

In Unamuno’s 2nd chapter, he clearly defines what he means by the term a ‘tragic sense of life,’ “For living is one thing and knowing is another; and, as we shall see, perhaps there is such an opposition between the two that we may say that everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational, and that everything rational is anti-vital.”[1] This diagram separates Unamuno’s opposition with notes on what this must imply [my additions]:

unamuno tragic sense of life opposition

Now let’s unfold this seemingly simple proposition. On one hand we have that which is vital & anti-rational, life-force (indeed the life force named by Spinoza, a.k.a. conatus), existence, & the like. On the other hand, we have that which is rational which is not corporeal, it is objective, universal & timeless. Given these two polarities, we must not forget that they are opposed, they are in contradiction. If these two elements are in opposition, this opposition is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life.’

The ever-present well-worn philosophical opposition between the mind & the body is where we should center our attention. This is Descartes’ dualism. The mind is separate from the body. As Unamuno demonstrates, Descartes “cogito ergo sum” is not so much a direction toward the ego, rather “I am thinking” first & foremost. I am thinking beyond the body when I am engaged in rational thought. Descartes’ certainty rests in rational thought, not in the body (since for Descartes, the two were distinctly separate, notwithstanding the complexity of trying to justify how the two intermix, that’s somewhere in another paper).

For Unamuno, we reason through an understanding of our existence something like this:

unamuno death Rational thought sets up a way of thinking about death whereby we find ourselves in a “tragic” bind between “irredeemable despair” or the redemption of dying otherwise. Perhaps this is the promise of an eternal afterlife? We cannot know either way & hence our mortal despair. Rational thought pulls us away from the body by way of such philosophical thinking, objective, mathematical & scientific ways of thinking.

Another way of thinking about this would be to posit that the thinking person wishes to sees her mind as beyond the body & at the time of death if that mind moves on through the soul into eternity then she should aspire to this aim throughout her life until her death. This is found in religious practice & also by way of philosophical thinking. Why wouldn’t we aspire for eternity? Nevertheless, our fallible bodies are flesh & blood & not eternal. Reason posits eternity & we want eternity with our corporeal bodies & cannot have it. This is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ a problem of our embodied existence with this strange admixture of conatus + the body vs. reason + eternity, without resolution, a contradiction, a problem of our existential finitude.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (Sophia Omni, 2014), 47.

…on trigg’s absence of reason

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In Dylan Trigg’s 2006 book The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason, we are shown an idea that rationality has a claim to permanency & order. Reason in the shadow of decay is transient. Rationality doesn’t always neatly allow for the un-pure ruin, entropy & eventual decline. That reason ‘should’ flourish is what the ruin contradicts, a ruin stands as a testament for the irrational & the soon to be post-rational. “Unable to rationalize decline, the aim of reason has been to shadow the mutable by affirming the permanent, the illusion is not dead.”[54] The assumed supremacy of reason is not easily dislodged with the corrupting power of architectural failure. “At the end of its present narrative, history’s morbid nostalgia toward reason has prevented us from ascribing virtue to decline & vice to formal abstraction.”[55] The ruin is in silent certification of the fallibility & insufficiency of reason to hold itself as sovereign & as the only answer. Can we cling to reason in the face of destruction, if destruction itself is irrational?

Trigg seeks to challenge the presupposition of reason’s progress as ‘homogenizing.’ Reason’s homogenizing demands adherence to a predetermined set of rules & guidelines. If reason is normalizing it is also rule & lawmaking set of stricture by which it imposes onto our experience of ruins, buildings, & daily-living. This critique is overlaid with a sense of nostalgia. In other words, a common way to understand things is to suggest that way things were in the past is a good indication for how they should be in the present & future. This type of problem is related to the ‘is/ought’ problem. With the ‘is/ought’ problem the confusion is between how something is described and the way things should be. Because something is a certain way today, need not be prescription for how it ought to be in the future. Nostalgia becomes the best example of this rationalism. When we are nostalgic, we are tacitly suggesting that the past was somehow better than things are now. Reason makes such demands onto things, ruins, & people. According to this logic, things should be a certain way because they worked better in the past.

A so-called homecoming that is linked to nostalgia is the yearning for a past that was better than now. The impossibility of rectifying a glorified past becomes a glaring revenant of the ruin, because the ruin’s past could also be idealized to a revivified fault of never matching the present. With nostalgia, the present is deficiently reflected in the ruin—reasonably & temporally.

Reason has the infiltrated our thinking as an emblem of progress. Reason’s progress often manifests as authoritarianism, a unified, unbiased truth that regulates & enforces by virtue of its logic. Whatever falls outside of this is deemed unreasonable & irrational. A ruined building is an instance of such a falling away of reason’s imposing sovereignty.

–aurelio madrid

…on hume’s problem with causation

How is Hume’s Skepticism Related to Reason & Causality?

hume billiard example II

Rationalism: Recall that an inductive argument is one where if the premises are true the conclusion probably will be true. With an inductive argument, we reason from specific examples to general claims about all things. Inductive reasoning has built into it the idea of causation: one effect causes another event. Within this very simple reasonable connection we typically make a demonstrative connection.

If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket that typically is demonstrative that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection (above & beyond whether or not the ⑦ ball makes it into the corner pocket). In other words, we might think inductively that the event of striking the   ⃝  cue ball with a cue stick will have a necessary connection between the effect of hitting the cue ball   ⃝  to cause the striking of the ⑦  ball.

As rationalists we think that the two events are necessarily connected. This connection is supplied by reason & it is part of the way we do science. If one effect is necessarily connected to its cause then we can make a basic inference that events in the past will be a good indication of future events. Okay, there’s a quick gloss on a typical way we understand causation (as a rationalist).

hume billiard example

David Hume: With consideration for Hume’s (1711-1776) Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, we must acknowledge his epistemological affinities as unmistakably empiricist. That is to say, everything we have knowledge of we have by way of the senses. This philosophical position usually stands in conflict with rationalism (the way we know of the world is primarily rational—based on a priori reason, not by necessarily sense experience).

Enter Hume’s problem of causation. Given that philosophically Hume was an empiricist he needed to explain the way we have knowledge of the world strictly by way of the five senses. Instead of inferring a way that we acquire knowledge rationally (in an a priori way). With Hume we have a way to account for all knowledge as deriving from impressions, these are sensorial and lead to our more abstract ideas of the impressions. What is of significance here is that as a good empiricist, Hume needs to account for the way we know things by way of experience and only by way of experience. Therefore the connection between our sensorial impressions and the ideas is based solely on experience. We must have a sensorial impression of one event in order to see (hear, touch, taste, or smell) that it causes another event.

Hume’s problem with causation is such that, in a rationalistic way we typically supply the necessary connection between cause & effect without the necessary connection ever being present in the experience. Sometimes students confuse what Hume is having a problem with & often misunderstand that Hume is calling physics into question. He is not suggesting that there is an absence of force between the billiard balls striking one another, or that the force is something we make-up or illusory. He is pointing out that the force is not necessary. Because this force is not necessary for Hume, this means that the typical way in which we supply this necessity is by way of habit and not reason.

In Hume’s empirical context, when we observe two billiard balls striking one another we cannot find something, no matter how hard we look (hear, smell, touch, or taste) that looks like necessity within the action of one event causing the other. That is to say, Hume was skeptical of the necessary connection we typically make in the way we understand causation. He was skeptical of the reasoning we typically use to understand causality.

We make this type of inductive inference on a daily basis: If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket, I habitually infer that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection. This necessary connection is typically supplied by reason.

To repeat, Hume is an empiricist so he has to account for the way we know the world strictly by experience. In this way, reason for Hume is called into question because causation does not have a necessary connection found with experience alone and for Hume is demoted to habit. We are in the habit of supplying the necessary connection from one event to the other. Yet another way of saying this would be to say that when we make an inductive inference, from the specific case of something causing another event to happen, we tend to habitually infer that one event will probably be effected by the same cause time & time again. Hume’s critique is that we cannot rely on this probability as necessary. Part of the way out of Hume’s problem is to have a larger sample by which to base the probability of something happening. If we base our conclusions on a wider sample then our conclusions will likely be stronger.

–aurelio madrid

…marcuse’s hegel

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Marcuse’s Hegel
In Herbert Marcuse’s book Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Marcuse wants to dispel the notion that the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel as “hostile to the tendencies that have led into Fascist theory and practice.” I will focus only on the first introductory sub-chapter in this synopsis, where Marcuse sets up the philosophical & historical context of Hegel’s thought.
In the first sub-chapter of the introduction, “The Socio-Historical Setting,” Marcuse places Hegel within the context of German idealism. This is typically thought of as a type of German philosophy progressing chronologically from the inspiration of Kant (1724-1804), to Fichte (1762-1814), to Schelling (1775-1854), & culminating with Hegel (1770-1831), roughly, the last quarter of the 18th century through to the early quarter of the 19th century. Hegel’s brand of German idealism is known as Absolute idealism because it seeks to bring all of being into one absolute, specifically an absolute spirit (the totality of all being as it progresses throughout history).
As Marcuse describes it Hegel’s philosophy was largely influenced by the French Revolution & the leading Enlightenment ideal that rational thought leads people to freedom (apart from the authority of the church & apart from the authority of a monarchy). The French Revolution idealistically completes the job by the Reformation to allow people to become masters of their own lives. Hegel wanted us to realize the power of our own rational will & authority.
In France, capitalism became a necessary force & expression brought about by the rationalistic ideals of the French Revolution, while Germany’s development was a bit slower to fully embrace the radical new ways of thinking taking shape in France, Europe, & even in the ideological founding of the United States. Even if this fresh idea freedom was in the air, most German intellectuals were embracing this as an idea, an ideal—not necessarily as a material & practical exercise of freedom. Let me put it this way, it’s one thing to embrace an idea & it’s another thing to take that idea & put it into practice.
Reason is center & paramount in Hegel’s philosophy & for Hegel history is the progression of reason, as much as the state is also an embodiment of reason. If most of Hegel’s philosophy is concerned with the progression of reason, it must be understood that reason is threaded through Hegel’s ideas on freedom, substance becoming substance & what we would call idea (begriff in German, often translated by Hegel scholars as “notion”). For Hegel reason working through these concepts is what governs consciousness, reality, the state, the course of human history, &c. The progression of reason is not static is active. People no longer needed to accept things as they are—since reason needs to be taken as sovereign. Our reality is only real by way of reason. Anything outside of that which falls outside of reason needs to be harnessed, transformed, & worked through with reason to be made conscious & to be real. As Marcuse summarizes of Hegel, “[rational] thought ought to govern reality.” Whatever cannot be worked through with reasoned consciousness is rendered unreal & unreasonable. In Kant & Hegel’s context, reason must be firmly established as universal & objective. Objectivity keeps us from relativity, thus a good defense of objectivity in the name of critiquing the relativistic perils of empirical skepticism. The authority of reason needs to be consciously brought about in this world by way of conscious action. Reason does not appear of its own accord.
The concept of “substance becoming subject” is central to the way consciousness brings about reason from the chaotic morass of reality for Hegel. Substance in this case, represents a contradictory force for the consciousness. It is only when we make inert substance into something that is real does it become rational consciousness. Raw substance becomes the subject of rational thought. By way of conceptualizing the ways in which we work (in thought & with our hands) through ideas, physical substances & forces, wood, metal, velocity, horse-power, &c. When we make these things rational, they become the way we think about substance in a rational way.
When we think about something that is contradictory, negative, antagonistic, &c. for Hegel this is the driving element in the dialectic. The dialectic is rational & it is logical, but it is Hegel’s logic. Herein we have the so-called dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, & synthesis. When we recognize that substance becoming substance is dialectical. Substance is not consciousness so it is contradictory to consciousness because it is not consciousness. Consciousness must recognize this in order to make substance known & understood as something reasonable. Reason has to be brought about by the resolution of the contradiction. The negative becomes a necessary way in which reason is considered. The confrontation with negative bring us to a place where it draws the synthesis up to where it would not otherwise be without it. Consciousness, for Hegel, is dialectical, reason is dialectal, freedom is dialectical & history is dialectical. All of these things need & rely the negative to be what they are.

–aurelio madrid