Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A project on morality

So, I've set myself a project. It's an ambitious project, I suspect, but I'm looking forward to it.

This project is to determine whether I consider morality to be an objective or subjective/relative thing. I lean toward it being objective in some sense, but I could be wrong. I've never truly looked at arguments for it being subjective, after all. In the process, I suspect that doing this will either confirm or disconfirm where morality "comes from." I've done a related study when I studied Dan Fincke's Empowerment Ethics, and provisionally accepted it. For this project I'll once again be looking at Dr. Fincke's work, since he has a number of posts on the subject, but I'll also be expanding beyond that and trying to find other arguments for or against objective morality (do you know of good sources, ideally free? let me know!). I'll be writing up some of what I find and attempting to give them all a fair hearing.

Right from the start though, let me just say that there is one theory I already know about, and won't bother considering: Divine Command Theory. Pretend there's a god. Divine Command Theory states whatever God commands, that is the morally correct thing to do (or not do). Some theologians have claimed that the reason this is so is that God, by his nature, is perfectly good, or virtuous. As such, anything he commands will be perfectly good, because a perfectly good being could not command otherwise. Other theologians have stated that God's commands are good simply because God commanded them. I have problems with both versions.

If God's commands are good simply because God commanded them, then that makes morality completely arbitrary, and up to the whims of God. One century it's ok for conquering soldiers to take the virgin women they find as their wives, the next it's not. In such a case, morality is not objective, but rather completely subjective. It's just that there's only one being that is the deciding subject.

If God's commands are good because God is perfectly good and can't command otherwise (or simply would never choose to; it amounts to the same thing), then that just pushes the problem back a step. In such a case, one is left with "where does God get his morality?" What reasoning does he use to arrive at perfectly good commands? See the issue?

By the way, this issue was addressed centuries ago in Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro."

So, I will not be considering Divine Command Theory as a basis for morality, and I suspect that I wouldn't give it serious weight even if I were a theist, given what I said above, unless I first eliminated the idea of objective morality.

Anyway, as I said at the start of this post, this is an ambitious project. Whether morality is objective or not has been argued about for millenia, so I don't expect that whatever solution I come to, whatever side of the debate I end up falling on, that everyone will agree with me. I encourage my readers to give me their arguments!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Not the same at all

I recently saw the following image on social media:

It bothered me when I saw it, but I couldn't pinpoint why. So I did some thinking and some reading, and now I've got it figured out. They're simply not the same at all.

Tim Tebow is a Christian. America is a (by far) majority Christian country. What he did took little to no courage, because there is simply nothing all that special about coming out as a member of the majority (if Tebow was in a country where Christians are actually persecuted, such as a number of Middle Eastern countries, then it would be a different story).

Caitlyn Jenner -- oh yea, the picture says Bruce Jenner. That's just one more reason to find the picture wrong: Bruce has changed her name to Caitlyn, and if it isn't a legal change yet, I'm sure it will be soon. People who change their names should be called by the new name, regardless of why the change occurs. And while we're at it, what's with using the pronoun "himself"? Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, plain and simple, who just happens to have been born with male sex parts. Anyway, moving on.

Caitlyn Jenner required courage to come out as her authentic self in large part because we live in a country that is a majority Christian country, and generally none too friendly to transgender people. Jenner is risking a great deal by coming out, including abuse and murder. I applaud her for her courage. I hope everything goes well for her, and others like her who aren't celebrities.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On the purpose of education

When I recently wrote on the question of the government's purpose, I mentioned that I see education as a foundation of people thriving. Now I'd like to examine that assertion in some more detail.

Thriving means that we're empowered to develop and live our lives to our fullest potential in whatever areas we find to be most rewarding. In order to discover what areas we find most rewarding we need to try different things, learn about them, and then determine whether that's something that we would like to continue doing and improving in. For example, music. In order to determine whether we like music, like making music (such as playing an instrument or singing), and so on, we must first be exposed to music and get a chance to be involved in things like playing an instrument. Likewise for science, literature, writing, sports, and so on. Without exposure to such things, we cannot possibly know whether that is an area of life and culture that we would like to grow and develop within.

This is where education comes in. An ideally designed education system would make sure that our children were exposed to a wide variety of topics and activities. It would give children a chance to explore these various topics in some depth, the better to give them the opportunity to discover where their interests and talents lie. Once they've discovered that, this system would then encourage and allow them to develop further along those paths, in order that they might better grow in their abilities and develop to their highest potential.

This is beneficial to society as well. When we're empowered as individuals to develop our abilities to their fullest potential, that means we can then turn around and use those abilities to benefit those around us. A musically talented individual who is able to develop that potential can turn around and add to the overall pleasure that others experience in this world by playing or writing music for others to enjoy. A mathematically talented individual who is able to develop that potential can turn around and empower the world through excellent science, engineering, or perhaps pure mathematics that leads others to new realms of science. Someone who's mechanically talented can go on to empower others by fixing up cars. And so on, and so forth.

There's another aspect to education that I think is worth mentioning, one that I don't think is appreciated enough. It helps us to understand who we are, and our place in society -- both as it is, and as it may be. Human beings are social creatures, and we exist as social creatures. Part of being social creatures means that in order to have a sense of self, we need to have a sense of ourselves as distinct from others.

How does education help with this? Well first, keep in mind that much of education is not the explicit things that we generally think of, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. A good deal of education, whether it takes place in the home or the school, is implicit. It takes place at an unconscious level. At that unconscious level, we learn things like love, trust, gender roles, loyalty, familial roles, how to talk to and relate to others, and so on. In the school system, learning how to relate to peers and to authority figures is obviously a big thing. In extracurricular activities teamwork is often a big thing that we learn. Yes, much of this is explicitly presented to us, but it often doesn't sink in properly until we observe (unconsciously) the examples provided by others, and have a chance for trial and error. Of course, it's not all positive: bigotry is learned as well.

On an explicit level, learning history increases our understanding of our society and the world we inhabit, and can even help us develop the ability to dream about new shapes to our society by studying the examples of past heroes, and learning about the (often competing) dreams that have shaped how society looks today. Through all of this, we come to understand our place in society.

I haven't mentioned the obvious role of education, and that's to prepare us for the workforce. I haven't harped on that because I think it's rather obvious that we need quality education to produce quality workers. However, it should be clear by now that I don't consider that the end purpose of education, or even the main purpose. The main purpose, put succinctly, is to create empowered individuals who go on to empower society so that everyone can thrive together.

Education's impact on our society, and on us as individuals, cannot be underestimated. We are all shaped by the education we receive, and what it tells us about ourselves and our place in society. When a poor school is unable to give a quality education because it simply doesn't have the dollars to maintain the school, provide textbooks, and such, that tells the students of that school that either they don't matter, their education doesn't matter, or both. They can develop the sense that they cannot do certain things that should have been within their reach in an ideal society, and that sense can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if someone doesn't believe that they matter, in what ways might they act out? Will they bother to vote? Will they take care of themselves? Will they in any way become productive citizens?

We as a society need to recognize the importance of education, not just to the individual (which is huge), but also to society (which is also huge). What kind of education we provide, and who we provide it to, will shape society for generations. We are finally beginning to bring the education of girls and women up to par with the education men receive, but we need to do better. We need to combat the institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism that keeps people of color, women, and the poor from advancing as far as their talents would otherwise allow. If we don't, we will never thrive to our maximum potential as a society, even if a lucky few are able to thrive as individuals (and I'm not sure that those lucky few are thriving as much as they otherwise could).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What's the purpose of government?

During the past however many months it's been, I've been taking Dan Fincke's Social and Political Philosophy class online over Google Hangouts (and let me take a moment here to plug his online classes; they're definitely worth a person's time to take, and there are scholarships available for the financially hard up). Recently, while doing some reading related to the class, a thought occurred to me: is it possible that the government's purpose is to support the thriving of its constituents in ways that can only or best be done communally? Let me unpack what I mean by that, and then I want to explore the possibility that is raised by the question.

The purpose of government has obviously been a matter of some question, presumably since the first government was formed. It's been conceived of as a way to power over others by many governments past and present, as a way to protect territory, as a way to protect the constituents, as a way to protect the rights of people, and so on. What if all of that was either wrong, or only part of the story?

When I think of thriving, I think of individuals being empowered to develop and live their lives to their fullest potential in whatever areas of life they find most rewarding. This necessarily includes being safe and secure from violence (unless, perhaps, you're an MMA fighter or something), and having the protection of rights, whatever those rights are conceived to be. But being able to thrive in our powers also includes things like having the basic necessities for food and nutrition, healthcare, a place to live, and the education needed to develop our skills and abilities (at least).

But to answer whether the government should be actively and positively supporting people's thriving, as opposed to simply protecting us and our rights, requires us to first examine exactly why humans have formed into communities in the first place. The first thing that springs to mind is the safety in numbers feature of gathering together. Humanity may rule the planet currently, but that hasn't always been the case. It would have been advantageous in the distant past, even before we were humans, to gather together into groups for the protection of all from predators. Once we became human, that reasoning still held, but eventually groups of humans were required to protect against other groups of humans. Unfortunately, this still holds true today.

However, security is hardly the only benefit that humanity gets from living in groups, in communities. One can think of the barn raising that used to be done in farming communities, and still is in some Amish communities. Communities allow people to work together to get things done more efficiently, and perhaps in some cases, at all, that individuals or even single families would have a hard time doing on their own. Communal food gathering and storage, communal child raising ("it takes a village..."), and even communal worship, have been or are currently used. In today's modern world, community takes on perhaps even greater significance. Specialization in specific skill sets is something that has been taken to a whole new level in the modern world, and could only work in communal living arrangements.

So it seems that communal living has more going for it than just security. Community seems to have, at its very core, the purpose of supporting each other in our individual and communal thriving. Government then appears to be a way to accomplish some of that support. One could try to limit government to supporting security only, and this has been proposed multiple times. But no government has ever truly been limited in such a way.

In a modern democratic society, communities have elements of both local and national character, as well as international. Food is gathered from all over the country and world, and shipped to different parts of the country. Doctors might consult with experts on the other side of the continent. Goods are brought in from all over, as manufacturing is frequently a centralized thing. No one neighborhood or town is ever completely self-sufficient, and neither is any individual. A great deal of this is made possible with the support of the government. Government controls the roads, and continues to maintain and build more roads. Government provides for binding arbitration when individuals or companies require it. Sometimes government supports by enforcing laws that requires businesses to continue to allow for competition. The government supports education through the public school system. And of course it provides for security.

But in a modern democratic society, isn't there more that the government could, and perhaps should, be doing? The government acts as a way to get things done that individuals can't get done on their own, things that are necessary to the thriving of the overall community. A community cannot really be said to be fully thriving to its fullest potential when its worst off members lack the very basics of life and thriving: food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Couldn't the government act then as that arm of the community that seeks to make sure that the worst off (and everyone else) has at least the basics necessary to allow for thriving? Shouldn't it?

One could argue that there are other ways of getting the worst off taken care of. Charity is a popular proposed solution. And charity is great. But all it takes is a look around America and the world to realize that charity is not and never has been enough. Human beings are social creatures, but we are also selfish creatures, and shortsighted creatures. Government could be a way to counteract our selfishness and shortsightedness.

Of course, governments are made up of people, and as such are prone to the same errors in thinking as individuals, as one can see from a cursory glance at American politics. But if a system could be developed whereby those errors could be weeded out, then perhaps this could work.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Done with school!

So, I'm back! Sort of. I finished up my Liberal Arts AA degree (I'm just waiting for it to arrive by mail) with a GPA of 3.57. I'm satisfied with that. During that time, my wife also gave birth to our daughter, who is now 6 months old. I had a girlfriend for a while, and then we broke up. And I recently left my job to be a stay at home dad, but am now looking for work again so my wife can be the stay at home parent instead. So, a lot has happened in the roughly nine months that this blog has been on hiatus, both in my life and in the world.

I want to get back to regular blogging, but at the moment I'm having trouble thinking of topics that I'd like to write about. If you happen to have things you would like to see me write about, then by all means let me know. I won't promise to write about it, but I'll certainly consider it!

At any rate, this is just meant to be a quick note to let any readers I still have know that I'm done with school, and able to blog again. Happy thinking!

Friday, August 29, 2014


This is just a short thing to let those few readers I have know that this blog is going on a semi-hiatus. I've started school, and it's proving a little more difficult than I anticipated to get into the swing of things with it. So, I'm giving myself permission not to write for non-school related things, like this blog. I might still write some things, if I have the time and inclination, but no promises (of course, I haven't been very productive on here of late anyway, so it's not that much of a change). Once school is over, I'll consider being more productive on the blog again.

Thanks for reading, past, present, and maybe in the future.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Choosing life in the face of depression

In the wake of Robin Williams's recent death to apparent suicide, Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers wrote a beautiful piece about how he viewed Robin Williams's life and death. Let me highlight a few parts that called out to me:
Reading the various lamentations of the suicide of Robin Williams, I’m troubled by the tendency for people to take a single deed to define a man’s entire disposition towards life. There is a tendency to frame what happened as Williams losing his battle with depression. Or to take his act of suicide as his ultimate verdict on the value of his life, or of life itself. 
But it’s neither of these things. 
Monday he had a bad day with depression. A lethally bad day. 
But had he been lucky enough to survive it, he would have likely regretted it. Most survivors of suicide attempts are glad to be alive. And his judgment day after day prior, over the course of decades of struggles, was that life was worth enduring even through the blackest nights of addiction and mental illness. He transmuted his pain into enduring art. It took the form of manic, exuberant, genius, edge-of-the-seat improvisational stage comedy that exuded life more than any other comedian’s. And it took the form of painfully self-revealing dramatic performances. He played so many characters who brimmed with combustible desperation and vulnerability.
And then later in the piece he wrote:
And those are the twin things to remember about life. Nobody gets out alive. We all die. Whatever the cause. But in most places on most days, everybody gets out alive. No matter how bleak things are for us, most of us live to fight another day. And it’s the same for those struggling with depression. Most days, they win. Most days, they endure. Most days, they choose life. 
On their darkest days the simple act of breathing is an act of hope. Even when the mind and heart feel like they’re in despair, they manage to breathe. They manage to take themselves to the next moment and see what it has to offer. 
My point is that people who struggle with suicide win their lives over and over again. They choose life more often than those who never make living into a question. They survive numerous ledges that their minds push them out onto, managing over and over again not to fall. And we should appreciate what their high wire skills tell us about them and what matters to them. Each time they choose their family, their friends, their life’s cause, or even just the next day, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to continue valuing and to continue giving.
If you've read this blog, or you know me personally, you know I've battled, and still battle, against depression. In my worst periods I've been suicidal. One night when I was 19 I got off work, and realized that if I went home, I might not --probably wouldn't-- survive the night (actually, I didn't even consider it in question). I made the choice to self-admit myself into the psych ward at a local hospital. I had to choose to think that life could be worth it -- or at least, that it was worth finding out. I didn't really think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what it was. To me, it seemed like I was battling twin desires: the desire to live, and the desire to end the pain. I made the choice to live.

Some years later, in my third year at college, I made two attempts at suicide, two attempts to choose an end to the pain. In one (I don't remember which was first), I started to cut my wrist before stopping myself. In the other, I started swallowing sleeping pills and chasing them with alcohol. In both cases, as I was doing it, I thought about what my suicide would do to my friends and family, my loved ones. I thought of the pain it would cause them. In the case of the sleeping pill attempt, I remembered the clear and obvious concern on a friend's face who ran into me as I was buying the alcohol I was planning to drink with the pills. I didn't tell him what I was planning, but I still noted that concern. And that concern was instrumental in making the choice to stop swallowing pills. In the wrist cutting attempt, I actually wrote a note, addressed to my roommate, and the process of that writing reminded me of her caring. And so, I could not finish the cut once I started. 

I made the choice then to stop, but though this may sound bad, it wasn't an easy choice. This was one of the worst periods of my life, probably my worst bout of depression, and every day was a battle. The sense of despair and hopelessness was at times overwhelming, and I can say that without hyperbole. 

But now I'm glad. I'm glad that I chose to live, even with all the pain I was in. I'm glad that I'm alive now to face yet another bout of depression, one that saps my ability to concentrate on things I'd normally enjoy, like reading or playing video games. I'm not suicidal this time (another thing I'm glad for), and I'm not giving up. I'm choosing to face this, and live. 

Thank you, Dan Fincke, for your beautiful words.