Category Archives: Philosophy

The One Minute Case For Philosophy

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is the field that looks at the most basic, universal questions about existence. While other sciences study certain aspects of things, or certain types of things, philosophy is concerned with the most abstract questions about existence and man’s role in it. Philosophy asks questions such as: How can we know what is true? What is our purpose in life? How should we act? How should we organize society?

Philosophy is inescapable

Why are you reading this? Do you want to learn something? Why value learning? Is it because you value knowledge or because you want to have a successful career? Why should those things matter to you? Is it because your parents said so, because you enjoy something, or because society needs it? Is your own happiness or obligation to others more important to you? How should you decide? If I tell you that something is good for me, does that also mean that it is good for you? Is the good the same for everyone or different because of culture or nationality or personality? Is something is true, is it true forever, or only for today? Are people good or bad? Are you? Why are some people more successful than others? Is happiness a matter of luck? What is a good life? How should you pick your friends? Can anyone know any of these things, with certainty, in the same way that we know that 1+1=2?

All these questions are answered by philosophy. You may never have thought about philosophy until today, but all conscious human action depends on a certain view of existence. All actions assume a certain view of existence, causality, and values. We have no choice about whether we have a philosophy. We can only choose what philosophy to adopt. We can subconsciously, passively, and uncritically accept the philosophy we are exposed to or, we can consciously, actively, critically, examine the ideas around us and accept them because they are true, not because we happened to live in a particular time and place.

Philosophy is the science of universal principles

Philosophy asks: what can we know and how can we know it? We re-examine the world as if discovering it for the first time and accept only that which we can prove to be true.

Why is this important? You might say that you know what is real because I can see and touch it. But not all knowledge is perceptual. If I tell you about an abstract idea, such as justice, how do you know if it is true? Because you feel it is true? Because others tell you it is true? Because you see it is true? But what can you point at to show what justice is? And can you be sure that something that is true to you is also true for everyone else and at all times?

The point of treating thinking as a science is to arrive at firm principles. You can live without an explicit philosophy if you live a primitive life and hunt animals in the jungle. But if you want to build an airplane to fly you across the world, you need a formal science of physics and engineering. And to live a successful life as a civilized human being and create a better future than the past, you need an integrated, scientific view of existence provided by philosophy. Philosophy has the power to make abstract concepts such as justice as clear as the things we can see and touch.

History is philosophy in action

The politics, culture, and economy of any society are formed by the ideas of the people who live in it. If most people believe that it is impossible for them to live without using violence against each other, than their society will be poor and violent. If people believe that whatever their ancestors practiced and believed is good enough for them, then they will continue to live just like their ancestors.

A few hundred years ago, most of the world believed that history was just an account of one ruling regime being replaced with another. If anyone believed in a better time, it was in the past, when great empires had existed and fallen. Today, people had a very different view of history. We believe in progress, in continuous improvement, in fundamental change in society and economy. These ideas have power: during the last 200 years, the world population increased from under 1 billion to over 7. Why did this happen? The world has embraced the technological and economic progress made possible by Western philosophy. A rational philosophy can offer a unifying explanation of man and his universe and a guide for people and societies to achieve values and peacefully coexist.


World human population (est.) 10,000 BC–2000 AD.

World human population (est.) 10,000 BC–2000 AD.

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The One Minute Case for Rational Self-Interest

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism proposes a radical new theory of ethics: an objective, scientific theory of rational self-interest.  How does Ayn Rand justify her theory?

What is a moral code?

Morality is a code of rules or principles to guide one’s actions. Before deciding which principles man should live by, any moral theory must first explain why it is needed at all. Is it an arbitrary invention, or does it have some basis in reality? Is it universally true or different for every person? According to Objectivism, morality is objective: it is derived from our nature of human beings.

Life is the standard of value

All living entities must satisfy certain requirements (food, shelter, air, etc.) to remain alive. This is what sets life apart from inanimate matter. Life is a continual process of self-generated, goal-directed action. Only living things face the possibility of death and therefore the need to achieve values to remain alive. Only for living things can something be good or bad. The fact that life is conditional is the basis of values.

Values are automatic for non-volitional beings

The values needed for life are specific to the nature of each being: fish need water and worms; man needs food, clothes and shelter. Animals have claws, fangs, fur, and other traits to allow them survive in nature. These are their means of survival. For non-human animals, values are automatic: their instinct tells them that they must act in a certain way (hunt, run, reproduce) in order to remain alive. Animals neither need nor are capable of morals because they act according to instinct. Their instinct tells them that they must act in a certain way (hunt, run, reproduce) in order to remain alive.

For humans, our conscious, rational mind is our primary tool of survival

Human beings live by using our mind as the primary tool of survival. We pursue long-term goals to achieve the values needed for our life. Imagine a human being trying to live without choosing his values, like any animal: he would act on whatever he felt like doing from moment to moment. He would experience the drives to eat, reproduce, fight, and fear. But humans have urges, not instincts — it is up to our minds to decide how to achieve values. For a human being in nature, living without long-term goals is suicide.

Ethics provides a framework for long-term goal achievement

To consistently act towards long-term values, we need a consistent set of principles for living: a moral code. We need to recognize the facts relevant to our nature as human beings and live according to them over a lifetime. To recognize and act in accordance with reality is rationality. Morality is a means to an end — the end being life. If you want to live, then you must be rational.   The purpose of morality is to fulfill and enjoy one’s own life.

Rationality is the primary virtue 

The Objectivist ethics recognizes rationality as the primary virtue for man and productive achievement as his central purpose. To remain alive, we must focus on the facts and act accordingly. The choice to think and act rationally is the basis of virtue and life, and the choice to evade reality and abandon reason is the basis of evil. The primary virtue, from which all other virtues derive, is rationality, and the proper beneficiary of values is oneself.

Happiness is man’s highest moral purpose

According to Objectivism, each person should act to achieve the values required for his own life, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. Productive achievement is the central purpose of life, which integrates all his other values. Virtues such as productivity, independence, honesty, integrity, and justice are aspects of rationality: living according to the requirements of life as a human being. Happiness is the result of successfully achieving values, and man’s highest moral purpose.

 

Further reading

 

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The One Minute Case Against Cheating

Recent studies have shown that in the U.S., 56% of middle school students and 70% of high school students have cheated.[1] Why is cheating on the rise?  The best place to start analyzing this question is to look at the issue from the perspective of the individual student.  What reasons does he consider for and against cheating?

For most people, the decision to cheat or not is guided primarily by emotion.  Does the feeling of guilt exceed the feeling of satisfaction he will receive from getting an A?  But emotions are ultimately based on one’s values and ideas.  The predominant idea behind cheating is that morality is a conflict of self-interest versus self-sacrifice.  Cheating is the “selfish” thing to do, and confers an advantage in class and in life.  The “right” thing to, whether justified by promises of divine reward, utilitarian considerations, or a vague appeal to social harmony, requires an immediate personal sacrifice.  In such a conflict, the “moral” choice is understandably difficult for students to justify.  Without rational ideas to justify honesty and integrity, hard-working and “practical” students believe that morality only holds them back from success in life, and that they can “play by the rules” once they are out of school, and give lip-service to morality when it comes to more abstract and non-practical matters.

This is a grievous error is created by bad philosophy.  The lesson that students need to learn is that the choice between the practical and the moral is a false dichotomy.  Morality is the means to a successful life, not an impediment.  Teaching the practical, selfish value of honesty is the best way to discourage cheating.

The primary purpose of an education is to provide the practical knowledge and thinking skills that allow success in life and career. Cheating erodes both those goals. In a career, success of failure has material consequences on one’s work and the people it affects.  A grade on a biology exam is just a number, but a doctor who takes shortcuts with patients, or a construction engineer who takes shortcuts with buildings endangers both his career and other people’s lives.  The ultimate goal of education is not a piece of paper, but practical skills and knowledge, and cheating deprives oneself of that knowledge.  Whatever immediate benefit cheating provides is outweighed by the long-term harm.  Educators need to stress the practical value of their lessons, and the harm students do to themselves when they forfeit their education.

Even though it is an attempt to deceive others, cheating is a form of self-deception as well.  Cheating to get ahead will cause oneself to lose a grasp of what his skills actually are.  Someone who cheats on a quiz will find out that he is unprepared for the final.  Students who cheat in an entry-level class will find themselves helpless in higher-level classes. The more a student cheats, the more ignorant he becomes of his actual knowledge.  The more he gets ahead by his falsehoods, the harder he has to work to keep up his un-earned position.  Even if his dishonestly-obtained diploma gets his dream job, he will still be unqualified for it, and forced to continue his deception at work.  He will attempt to hide his inadequacy from co-workers and bosses just as he hid it from classmates and professors.  Cheating is an addictive habit that will surely destroy a career even if it does not (publicly) destroy an education.

Honest peers compete on the basis of their skill and hard work.  Their mutual excellence inspires and motivates each other to success.  Classmates and coworkers who cheat on the other hand, compete by the standard of who is the better liar.  They lose focus of the purpose of their education or career, and try to outdo the audacity of each other’s frauds.  Their peers do not inspire and motivate them, but present the constant threat of having their lies unmasked.  As they lose sight of their real goals, they will find themselves slipping behind.

The solution to the rise of cheating is not to attempt to instill a vague sense of moral guilt, but to explain and demonstrate that cheating is counter-productive and self-destructive.  Honesty does not require guilt or the threat of worldly or divine punishment.  Instead, ambition, integrity, and pride should guide one to success.

Sources

  1. Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 23.

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The One Minute Case For Strict Civil Liability of the Justice System

What is the problem?

The growing use of non-lethal weapons such as tasers by the police has to calls to ban or restrict their use. The real issue being debated is the extent to which police officers should risk their safety to detain suspects. Should they only use force when someone’s life is in danger, or to avoid the risk of injury when attempting to tackle a suspect, or to avoid a sprain from having to run after someone? It is likely that further debate will result in a consensus enforced by the legislative and judicial branches of government. But what criteria should be used to determine the level of risk that police officers may be exposed to before using force?

Under the current system, police officers are only held responsible for injuring others only if found guilty of a miscarriage of justice, that is, willful malice or negligent behavior in the performance of their job. This provides an incentive for the judicial branch to minimize liability by maximizing the leeway officers have in deciding whether to use force. Furthermore, establishing standards for proper police procedure is a highly-non objective process, based on factors such as the public’s fear of police brutality, their desire for safety, the cost of lawsuits from police actions, and the political gain politicians find from pushing more or less draconian policies. One means of improving on this process is to establish a strict liability criteria for police actions.

What is strict liability?

Under a strict liability standard, it is not necessary to find a party guilty of malice or negligence, only of fault. Perpetrators of damages arising from inherently dangerous activities are responsible for damages regardless of whether they acted improperly. For instance, drivers at fault for damaging another car or injuring a driver are held financially responsible regardless of whether they acted maliciously or negligently. Under strict liability, a police agency would be held responsible for personal injury and property damage if an officer injures an innocent suspect, or unnecessarily injures a criminal — even if the officer acted properly in the performance of his duty. For example, an officer who fires at a guilty suspect who poses a real threat would not be liable, but an officer who fires at a suspect who does not pose a threat will be held liable for damages whether the officer is guilty of a miscarriage of duty or simply made an error in judgment. Furthermore, such a system would repay defendants who are exonerated at trial for their time and suffering.

Strict liability shifts incentives to the party best qualified to control costs

One objection to the strict liability standard is that it would greatly increase the financial risk faced by police departments and courts. However, by placing the burden of minimizing costs on the judicial agency, a strong incentive is created to minimize mistakes – and therefore costs. It is likely that police departments would attempt to insure themselves against risk, and the insurance agents would in turn establish guidelines that seek to minimize their risk. Such guidelines may ban tasers because of their health dangers – or they may require them in most situations where deadly weapons were formerly employed. Police agencies may prefer to hire men because they would find it easier to tackle suspects (and thus avoid a major incentive for taser use) or women because they are better at resolving conflicts peacefully. Because they would bear the cost of mistakes, police agencies would be motivated to experiment on the most effective way to perform their jobs, while the public they protect would be financially shielded from their mistakes by a strict liability standard.

Strict liability discourages prosecution of victimless crimes

Another objection to strict liability under the current legal framework is that it would make police agencies averse to enforcing laws that are prone to mistakes or unsuccessful prosecutions – namely, those known as “victimless crimes.” Adultery, gambling, homosexuality, and the trade of illicit substances and goods are areas where the lack of a victim makes errors in suspect identification and successful prosecutions especially likely. This is especially true of laws pushed by vocal voters on unwilling recipients – for example, communities that favor drug or alcohol prohibition on communities that tolerate drug and alcohol users. Yet this only illustrates the insulation of government policies (and by extension taxpayers) from the cost of economically expensive (and thus socially destructive) laws. If enforcement agencies are required to pay for their mistakes, they will favor laws that can be objectively enforced, and violations of which result in victims pushing for enforcement.

Further reading

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The One Minute Case For Individual Rights

Man is the rational animal

Like all living beings, man requires certain values to survive, but he is unique in that he must choose the values necessary for his life because he has no automatic means of doing so. It is his ability to experience the world around him and comprehend it by the use of reason that gives him the capacity to understand the values his life requires, and then achieve them. Every value we enjoy in our civilized, comfortable, existence is the product of the application of man’s mind to reality.

There is no “collective mind”

All creative effort, every invention in history, was created by the mental effort of individual men and women. When they worked together, their knowledge was increased by the work of predecessors, but each advance they made was their own. The mind cannot be received, shared, or borrowed.

Man requires freedom to live

To live, man must achieve the values necessary to sustain his live. To achieve his values, man must be free to think and to act on his judgment.  Restrictions on freedom force man to focus not on the absolutes of reality, but on the arbitrary ideas of others. In a free society, a man can choose to not associate with those who do not respect his judgment – by finding a new job, new friends, or a new lover. Even if there is no one to share his ideas, every man is still free to present his own vision – by publishing his ideas or becoming an entrepreneur. However, as soon as he faces the threat of physical force, the possibility of any such alternatives becomes irrelevant. The initiation of force renders the mind useless as a means of survival.

Freedom requires rights

Rights are moral principles defining man’s freedom of action in society. The purpose of establishing individual rights is to protect man from man – to define the basic conditions necessary for social existence. All rights derive from a man’s right to his own life, including the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Whether it is by a theft, force, fraud, or government coercion, man’s rights can be violated only by the initiation of force.

Rights are inalienable and non-conflicting

Rights are not guarantees to things or obligations placed on others, but only guarantees to freedom from violence (the right to life), freedom of action (the right to liberty), and the results of those actions (the right to property). In a free society, men deal with one another exclusively by trade, voluntarily exchanging value for value to their mutual benefit. The only obligations one’s rights impose on other men is to respect the same and equal rights of others – the freedom to be left alone. A man may have his rights violated by a criminal or a government, but morally he remains, in the right, and the criminal in the wrong.

Further reading:

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The One Minute Case Against the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological, or “first cause” argument, is a metaphysical argument for the existence of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas stated it as:

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. Nothing finite and dependent (contingent) can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause.

The stylized “proof from the big bang” is:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

Both proofs contain several problematic claims:

A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.

Infinities do not actually exist. Each specific set of entities is discrete. But the causal chain itself is not an existent. It is the set of all entities that have ever existed. That is a theoretical construct (like infinity or a singularity in mathematics) rather than a discrete set of entities that we can point to. If I walk from one side of the room to the other, my body exists in an infinite number of locations along that path during the time it takes me to do so. But it only exists in one location at any specific time.

The universe is an entity.

This is an equivocation known as the fallacy of composition. The universe can be defined as “the set containing all entities in existence.” The universe is not itself an entity, but a collection of entities. All entities in the universe may be finite, but the set of entities need not be.

There is a cause “outside the universe.”

For there to be a cause, there must be an entity doing the causation. If the universe is the set of all existing entities, that entity must be part of the universe. An entity cannot be its own cause, so it cannot have created the universe.

The universe began to exist.

The cosmological argument defines “universe” as the set of events since creation, and places the first cause “beyond” our timeline. But time is a relative measure of the rate of change between entities, not an absolute linear constant. It is a contradiction of the concept of time to speak of a “time before time.” There cannot be such thing as a “timeless” entity because time includes all causal interactions, including the initial one. It is meaningless to speak of a time before the existence of entities, because time is a property of entities itself.

The universe has always existed — but this means only that as long as the universe has existed, so has time.

The first cause is God.

Even if we accept that the universe has a cause, it does not follow that that cause is God. Why should the first cause be a complex and conscious entity conforming to a particular religion? It is more logical to conclude that the origin of the universe is the simplest one possible, since all higher-level causes derive from it. The difference between science and religious dogma is that science is falsifiable, whereas dogma is not.How could one prove that the universe created by a personal, Christian God, and not a Hindu deity, a computer hacker in another dimension, or the flying spaghetti monster?

Further reading:

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The One Minute Case For Abortion Rights

What is abortion?

Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by the induced removal of the fetus which results in the death of the fetus.

There are two issues raised in abortion debates:

  • Does a fetus have a right to be in a woman’s body against her will?
  • Does the government have the right to restrict reproductive rights to pursue social objectives?

Anti-abortionists confuse the potential with the actual

A human being is a physically distinct being who survives by the use of reason. Prior to birth, a fetus is to a human being what an apple is to an apple tree, or an egg to a chicken. A fetus may superficially resemble a human being, but it is no more a baby than an embryo inside an egg is a chick – a picture is not an argument. It has the potential to be a human being, but does not become an actual human being until it is born.

There is no right to be a parasite

Rights derive from the fact that human beings need freedom from the coercion of others in order to live. Two properties are essential for a being to possess rights: physical independence and the capacity for rational thought. “Physical independence” means that a being’s existence is not necessarily dependent on the sustenance of another.

A fetus is not an independent entity – in order to live, it must drain the resources of the mother – it is literally a parasite until it is born. A newly-born infant is also helpless, but it does not impose a burden on the mother by its very existence – others may choose to provide for it. A parent who chooses to bring an human being into the world accepts an obligation to ensure that it is provided for, but until that choice is made, the fetus has no more right to live of the mother than a thief has to live on other’s wealth.

Humans own their own body

The most fundamental of rights is the right to one’s own life, which means the right to own one’s body. A woman’s body is not the property of the state or society, to be controlled by majority rule. Just as it would be unjust to violate a woman by raping her, so it is evil to force her to remain pregnant.

Pro-rights is the only consistent pro-life, pro-family position

“Responsible parenthood involves decades devoted to the child’s proper nurture. To sentence a woman to bear a child against her will is an unspeakable violation of her rights: her right to liberty (to the functions of her body), her right to the pursuit of happiness, and, sometimes, her right to life itself, even as a serf. Such a sentence represents the sacrifice of the actual to the potential, of a real human being to a piece of protoplasm, which has no life in the human sense of the term. It is sheer perversion of language for people who demand this sacrifice to call themselves ‘right-to-lifers.’ “

— Leonard Peikoff (Objectivism, in the Chapter on Government)

Further reading

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