…notes on Igor Primoratz’s Ethics and Sex

primoratz books

Notes on Ethics and Sex, Igor Primoratz[1]

Between semesters it becomes important to field readings that I do not have the chance to read while in the thick of staying abreast of the readings for classes (notwithstanding the rigors of grading classwork & homework which demand a level of commitment. Additional readings are often a reach for the obvious possibility of adding extraneous philosophy above and beyond the requisite workload). I have yet to decide whether or not what I have read in the opening chapters of the 1999 book Ethics and Sex by Igor Primoratz are assignable as reading for upcoming classes.


In Primoratz’s “Introduction” to Ethics and Sex, he immediately sets the stage for a discussion of the philosophy of sex that is indeed quite rare in the ascetic and arid confines of traditional philosophic discourse.[2] This sexual occlusion is noted by Schopenhauer in his influential book of 1819, The World as Will and Representation. The dearth of sexual content in the antecedent work of Classical and Enlightenment philosophy should have a clear connection to this type of intellectualized sexual constraint. Philosophy is usually understood as helping us attain an understanding of the life of the mind, the intellect, our reason. The life of philosophy is to know and have control over the passions. To be dominated by the passions, namely: sexual passion, is typically thought of as antithetical to an exploration of a quest for philosophical truth and a life of contemplation.

Primoratz quotes the legendary Roman slave turned Stoic, Epictetus, whereby he demonstrates Stoical virtue as a refusal in the face of sexual hunger. Epictetus reminds us that it is best to not be controlled and dominated by such passions, as inspired by Socrates’ libidinal restraint. Even Nietzsche weighs in on the “rancor” of sexual interest on the part of the world’s philosophers with the example that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer were all single, unmarried. In short, philosophy and sexual discourse are historically strange-bedfellows.

Then of course, there is the undeniable influence of Christianity on our attitude of the body, of which is strongly reliant on an ascetic-denying of the sexualized body, while at the same time advocating the institution of marriage. Christian marriage, a concept whereby human sexuality can be relegated and managed within natural-law—a.k.a. sex is to procreate and it needs to be within the context of a monogamous relationship with the opposite sex.

Primoratz’s foregoing carefully indicates that the turning point in the philosophical interest with sexuality is marked by Schopenhauer in the early 19th century (ironically we cannot ignore his own glaring misogyny, including the not-so-well-known radical advocacy of polygamy). Along with Nietzsche’s “naturalism” and his championing of the body, away from the strictures of Christianity and tradition, Primoratz reminds us that the importance Nietzsche places on the body as the locus of will is directly attributable to Nietzsche’s early reading of Schopenhauer.[3] Also, nevermind the now dubious legend that Nietzsche’s downfall into dementia was allegedly caused by syphilis contracted from a prostitute in Leipzig.[4]

We could challenge Primoratz’s idea that Schopenhauer demarcates a discussion of sex and philosophy, to do so is to evoke D.A.F. de Sade, the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 work Philosophy in the Bedroom, less a work of philosophy and more a scathing critique of social convention in the name of sexual libertinage. The 18th century sexual libertine feeds his hunger by way of reading de Sade (‘single-handed’), fueling a fantasy quest with an aggressive search for libidinal freedom from sexual convention. Perhaps this reference distracts from the fact that de Sade has been largely considered a pornographer and not taken seriously as a ‘philosopher of sex.’

Historically, Primoratz nods to the once cutting-edge philosophy of phenomenological existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness from 1943, Simon de Beauvoir in her oft-cited feminist work The Second Sex from 1949, and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s eloquent placement of the experiential immanence of sexuality in his landmark Phenomenology of Perception from 1945. In the Anglo-analytic tradition we also have contribution of Bertrand Russell’s work from 1929 Marriage and Morals.

As we know, the 20th Century witnessed great advances in demystifying the stigma of sexual conduct. We don’t have to reach far to recall the psycho-sexual ‘pleasure principle of Sigmund Freud in his 1930 work Civilization and its Discontents, while also acknowledging the culturally destabilizing effects of Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Reports from 1948. The previously mentioned French phenomenologists were also becoming translated into English in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s as cultural decades were emblematic of realizing newfound sexual freedom and expression largely affected by Second-Wave feminism and other concomitant social issues, Gay rights et al.

Primoratz does narrow down the work form the 1960s and 1970s with three works: Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion” from 1968, Robert Solomon’s “Sexual Paradigms” from 1974, on to Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex” from 1977. Now in the 21st Century, apart from Primoratz, we look to the plurality of gender issues philosophically anticipated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from the 1990s (among countless others).

“Sex and Procreation”

This is usually where the conversation gets going in terms of a so-called conservative position concerning sexual conduct as captured within the sphere of accepted heterosexual marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine easily represent the two Christian Medieval views on the institution of marriage and religious life. Basically sexual intercourse is strictly aimed at bringing children into the world, and subsequently to raise and care for the children as a part of committing to the family.

We cannot forget the Biblical implications stemming from the so-called ‘Fall from Grace,’ known more simply as ‘The Fall.’ To account for sex in a Christian context is to do so negatively, it is a carnal compromise away from God’s perfection. Sexual pleasure outside of a procreative context is considered sinful, base, and selfish. As Primoratz notes for St. Augustine, perhaps the connection with human sexuality is bound to the irrational nature of sexual desire and impulse. The poignantly irrational nature of sexual desire could be an interesting point of departure for another study, given that the irrational aspects of sexual activity continue to cause problems even for those of us not immersed in a Medieval Christian view of traditional sex. Add this restrictive view on sex to the traditionally philosophic view that sex represents a preoccupation with the body, and it should go without saying that sexual activity outside of marriage and outside of the context of procreation is essentially thought of as baneful, immoral, and/or evil.

The effort is to envision all the other reasons people have sex that are not procreative—at least to call into question the notion that sex is wrong unless it is procreative. We can see that a restriction of pleasure in the name of religion is to follow an ascetic tradition that is no longer entirely practicable or sensibly realistic. Away from a few of Primoratz’s conclusions at the end of this chapter, people have sex for countless other reasons, and not all those reasons are nefarious, unethical or depraved.

I think where we struggle these days is finding a middle ground between total sexual lust (characterized and fueled by the omnipresence of online pornography) and a not-so-sexy life of moderation and restraint. It is naive to imagine that simply because one lets go of the praise and blame of religious law, does not automatically set up a life of sexual freedom and libidinal satisfaction. Nevermind Henry Sidgwick’s ‘hedonist’s paradox,’ or the ‘pleasure paradox.’ That is to say, pleasure as a goal is often (but not always) elusive. Simply seeking sexual pleasure does little to promise consistent pleasure. And the question is open as to what is experienced if the result is not pleasure—I’m tempted to surmise such sexualized pursuits can result in an increase of suffering and pain.

Meanwhile, Primortz’s books remain open.

–Aurelio Madrid

[1] Igor Primoratz, Ethics and Sex (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999).

[2] This book appears to be the result of the work responding to a much larger volume of essays on sexuality edited by Igor Primoratz from 1997, titled: Human Sexuality (Dartmouth Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997). His work Ethics and Sex seems to serve as an ethical reader’s guide to the two dozen or so essays included in Human Sexuality.

[3] See Richard Arthur Spinello’s 1981 dissertation: “Nietzsche’s Conception of the Body.”

[4] See Leonard Sax’s 2003 essay on this, “What was the Cause of Nietzsche’s Dementia?”


…locke, voltaire, hume, & reid on the self

daniel rozen, self-centered mirror.

Locke gets the conversation going with the notion that the self is constituted with memory and consciousness. If we accept that memory is consciousness, this brings in the philosophical point that cognitive thinking is closely linked to memory. To be a conscious person is also to remember.

With Voltaire’s comments on identity, we mostly find a question of retributive punishment, and how we are held accountable for things we remember or forget. Surely his idea that the self is like an ever-changing river is something to consider given the changes we undergo in a lifetime are significant. As we mentioned, this is a problem of personal identity because if we cannot remember a crime, can you be punished for that crime (in this lifetime or the next)? Voltaire offers the slightly confusing example of a father who blames the Euphrates for drowning his son Xerxes. The river would reply that the waves responsible are far away and no longer to be blamed. Here we have the problem of responsibility that is similar to the problem we have today with people who commit crimes. People continue to pay the price for their past crimes long after the penalty has been met.

Yet once I write this down, I see the difference. With Voltaire, he’s seems to be critiquing Locke’s claim that personal identity is closely linked to memory, while simultaneously refuting the notion that a immaterial soul should be responsible for the sins of its body. With our example above, people have a hard time getting away from their past because they are required to ‘remember’ their past when filling out job applications and the like. Our problem is different than Voltaire’s in respect to memory. Voltaire wants to detach from this idea that we are our memories, and how does an immaterial soul hold responsibility for the sins of its former body? His two difficulties stay unresolved in this excerpt. It is implied that these notions are problematic and deserve adequate scrutiny. In light of our contemporary problem of responsibility, we do not want people to forget their past as an extension of their public identity.

Then going back to Hume, we must be clear to see that he was denying an identifiable self. For Hume the way we think is due to impressions of things as they appear to us via our perceptions—he is an empiricist. His empiricism is far more stringent than Locke’s with a heavy dose of skepticism. If the impressions we have of the world are looked at in any given moment, we cannot pull a self out of those impressions. For Hume there is not a self that coheres through each impression. This does not feel right for us though, we do have a sense of ourselves as cohering through all of the impressions we have from day to day. We, at the very least, have to account for the ‘bundle of impressions’ with have that persist through space and time are what constitute something we call a self.

Then we have to have some account of the body which is where Reid comes in indirectly. He doesn’t exactly state that the body is what constitutes the self—Reid places the self on existence. If it is not memory as Locke proposed, it must be based on a continued existence through time for Reid. Reid is also critical of Hume with regard to the self as not determinable from the ‘bundle of impressions’, whereby we can see that at the very least the self must be an accumulation of these impressions as moving somewhat beyond the impression themselves. There are other mechanisms of thought involved in the thinking of an individual person—namely reason, the appetites, space and time. No, we might not be a ‘bundle of impressions’ according to Hume, Reid expands the self to include more.

–aurelio madrid

…on deontology


Fellow philosophers, thank you for the good thoughts on Kant’s deontology as it relates to Mill’s utilitarianism.

One problem that emerged has to do with the issue of happiness as it relates to Kant’s deontology. Always remember that Kant’s deontology is non-consequentialist, in other words, it is not promoting actions in favor of a happy consequence. As we talked about in class, if I decided to help the homeless in downtown Denver on my day off as a way to demonstrate a good action, which is rationally affirmed by asking myself if this action can be universal (according to the categorical imperative). I then quickly realize that the job of helping the homeless is not something that brings me happiness, this happiness (and its lacking) should not be a feature of my decision to do it to begin with. The good action to help others in need outweighs whether doing so will give me the consequence of happiness.

Another issue of note is in light of the problems with deontology highlighted by students. A few students proposed that a problem with Kant’s deontology is that it would be hard to determine what duties we should pursue. This is answered by way of a person deciding to do her duty as a rationally autonomous agent. That is to say, we decide how and when to do our duty in a rational way. And the duties we are deciding on are those which meet the standard of the categorical imperative—if the action can be universally applied, then the action is something to do. If it cannot be universal, then do not do it. It is our duty, according to Kant to rationally consider this while considering our moral actions in all cases.

And yet another issue to highlight also had to do with potential problems with deontology. This is the classic problem raised in the textbook (and by Kant) concerning lying. This is the scenario of a killer who comes to your house looking for a person you have hiding in your house. The point is that you should not lie and if you cannot lie you must reveal the person you have hiding to the killer. I say that we can easily think of a universal rule something like: ‘whenever a killer comes to your house looking for a potential victim you have hiding, it is alright to lie.’ I think most people would agree that it would be alright to deceive the killer in all cases like this.

…aurelio madrid

…traditional & negative utilitarianism

trolley-dtoFirst I want to thank everyone for the critical examination of (traditional, classical) utilitarianism and negative utilitarianism and all the interesting points made thereof.

Be sure that whenever you are describing utilitarianism, that you present it as moral, &/or ethical. Classical, traditional utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory that is concerning with maximizing the happiness and pleasure for the most amount of people. The actions that produce the consequences are not moral in-and-of-themselves, therefore the happiness of the consequences are where the morality is empirically determined. That is not to suggest that the actions or the consequences are im/moral in-and-of-themselves. Although outside of the theory this might appear to be the case. For example, the “trolley problem” is meant to illustrate this point. If we let the trolley hit one person to save five people, then our action is still morally sound on utilitarian grounds. Yet we are inclined to think that the action is not morally sound, given that you still have to decide to let the trolley kill one person and this does not seem to be moral—hence it is a problem with utilitarianism.

Concerning the notion that the two moral theories are contradictory, or opposites, or something like that. Let’s see how the two are not contradictory. Right away we see that both theories are moral. The two theories are consequential. The two theories are also aimed at helping the most amount of people. As we noticed the two theories seem to complement each other. Whereby we posited that to increase happiness appears to be the same as reducing pain. Yet, we have to ask if it is the same to promote happiness over reducing pain. If I insist that the consequences of an action to increase the happiness of others rests on their pleasure, the pleasure of the majority might un/intentionally bring about the pain of the minority. We cannot make everyone happy, but we can try to make the most happy and making the most happy possibly decreases the happiness of others. For example, racism might want to appeal to the idea that one racial group is a majority, and to appease the majority is best while at the same time having the consequence of making others increasingly unhappy.

Another difference, of course rests on how each theory “helps”. With traditional utilitarianism we seek to help by increasing the happiness (or pleasure) for the most amount of people (to determine the rightness or wrongness of a specific consequence). Then with Popper’s negative utilitarianism we seek to help by reducing suffering (or pain) for the most amount of people (to determine the rightness or wrongness of a specific consequence).

Although I am tempted to agree that the two appear to extend into each other with the notion that to increase happiness implies the reduction of pain. I think the way to distinguish the two theories has to rest on the notion that one demands pleasure and happiness while the other does not. If on the battlefield a medic insists that she wants to bring happiness to the injured seems to be a misdirection of bringing no harm (her Hippocratic Oath) and seeking to relieve pain. Pain management does not necessarily bring happiness or even pleasure, but it does help to palliate pain as soon as possible, over and beyond a concern for happiness on the battlefield.

Perhaps the recent “Black Lives Matter” issue is another example of how negative utilitarianism is a useful position. In other words, the movement started in 2013 with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, extending into the protest and national discussion on the wrongful killing of black people (usually black men) by white law enforcement. Here we can easily see that the objective of the movement is not necessarily happiness, rather the objective is to call into question racial profiling and the killing of innocent black men. Both of these objectives are aimed at the reduction of suffering and the reduction of pain. In other words, happiness and pleasure are only potential byproducts of the aims. Yes, we will be happy if this type of racist killing is done away with. However, I argue that we attack the problem negatively, we wish to do away with the racist killings and profiling to begin with. We attack the problem on negative utilitarian grounds, we aim to reduce the suffering of black men at the hands of white police officers.

Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to suggest that classical utilitarianism is inherently flawed. No, that is not the message, rather I wish to bring in an alternative view to demonstrate that to insist on happiness is not always as beneficial or as realistic as we might imagine.

–aurelio madrid

…from myth to philosophy


Domenico Beccafumi, The Foundryman (Figure of Vulcan in the Metal Foundry), third plate from a series of ten scenes from the Practice of Alchemy, woodcut, 16th century.

The three questions were explained with good philosophical insight. I found problems with Archie & Archie’s so-called “criterion of potatoness.” The easiest way to think of this is by way of basic classification. Be careful to remember that our inclination to classify things is metaphysical, it is not forthcoming in nature in-and-of-itself that we need to classify thing into large, medium, and small. Yet this is not the only way in which we classify things. We might, just as well, classify the potatoes into bad potatoes and good potatoes. We might also classify the potatoes into clean and dirty, and so on. Recall that one characterization of metaphysics is that it is relational. Metaphysics works with the ways in which we see relationships between things, items, and ideas. So all this is to suggest that we often classify items by size, and our sizing might not include the category of medium, or extra-large, or too small, &c.

As for the transition from myth to philosophy, I want to encourage students to steer away from mere descriptions of the transition, and to focus more onto the philosophy at work within the transition. For example, it is a straightforward description to suggest that philosophy questioned accepted myth in a way that myth went unquestioned. This is true, philosophy is looking at the way we know the world in a far more inquisitive way them myth does. Both aim to know the world and both seek to explain the world. One framework questions, where the other framework does not.

The question remains as to how this happened, and what were the philosophical elements that are at play in the transition (metaphysical and/or epistemological)? When we take the epistemological sense of the transition we see an easy way to write of this. When we look to the myths for answers, we find stories of the gods that work to explain ways that things have happened or will happen. To say I am in love has a strong connection to the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus). To say the seasons are changing from summer to autumn, is to remember that Demeter’s daughter Persephone is taken back to the underworld by Hades and the transition from summer to fall is easily explained by the abduction of Persephone into the underworld.

Then to the philosophical outlook starting with Thales, for example, and the notion that everything can be traced back to water. This is similar to myth-making in that it seeks an explanation for something, so it is epistemological. It is epistemological because it is showing us a way to know and to understand the world as the myths do. Yet, as Nietzsche indicated, it was distinguished by its impulse to unify everything into one empirical explanation—that all things are one.

Here we easily see a crossover between epistemology and metaphysics, given that when we want to know about the world, we offer explanations, whether by myth or empirical evidence. Metaphysically, we are also working to see a broad-general way of understanding the world from the one to the many. In order to understand this transition from one to many, we have to make empirical leaps, say, when we seek to find a connection between a rock and its aquatic ancestry. When we take such leaps we must go beyond empirical evidence to fill in the blanks, &c. such steps of thinking are metaphysical. These are ways that reality is made up. On one hand, it is readily apparent, and on the other hand, we cannot tell where the connection is to be found.

Additionally, we see the direct ways in which Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle worked to dispel blind acceptance of mythic thinking in their philosophical methodologies. For Plato and Socrates this was accomplished dialectically. Through the art of dialogue, experts were questioned and made to feel uneasy with their alleged knowledge, their supposed expertise. Sure, Socrates was impelled to clarify the Oracle of Delphi’s claim that he was the wisest. But how was he wise, if he did not know anything? This matter had to be investigated in a rational way, by dialogue with those who, on the surface, claim to be wise. The Socratic grilling, the Socratic Method, is rational, it accepts no commonly held belief to get to the bottom of things—a.k.a. higher knowledge.

This rational methodology is different from the reason Hamilton writes of in relation to myth. Yes, the myths are rational, but they do not use rational thought to examine themselves. The myths do not cross examine their own reasoning, whereby Socrates does question the reasoning of the experts like Euthyphro, who claimed to know what holiness is, without realizing that he actually did not have a working definition of the very thing he was charging his own father with.

Then to take another example with metaphysics and Aristotle when we look at causation and his four causes. We see similarity to myth in that myths metaphysically deal with causation, i.e. what’s the cause of volcanos, perhaps Hephaestus (Vulcan) is somehow responsible, Vulcan is the cause. On the other hand, Aristotle is not just seeking the cause from one event to another, he is instead looking at causation itself. What’s the difference between someone making something, what the item is made of, what is the item’s use, what is the item’s ultimate use, and what is its goal, its telos?

Another interesting corollary is between the transition from Plato to Aristotle concerning Plato’s formalism, whereby the difference between Form and form is easily resolved with Aristotle’s rejection of Platonic formalism into the metaphysics of form and substance, which are both ways to think of items, yet Aristotle’s metaphysics is grounded in the objects rather the other-worldly Forms of Plato.

Keep in mind the best option is to work away from mere description and to focus on explaining the philosophical “how” of the transition.

–aurelio madrid

…on ethical relativism


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

…notes on tolstoy’s death of ivan ilyich


…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.