The Game of Philosophy: Student Questions

The following questions were asked by students at Montgomery College in response to the textbook, The Game of Philosophy. The questions are organized by chapters that correspond to chapters in the textbook.

Chapter 1 The Rawls Game

QUESTION:

In the Rawls Game, I did not understand the cards up, cards down element. I believe most people will vote according to how they feel regardless of marked cards. Can you explain what I’m missing? 

RESPONSE:

The important feature of the Rawls Game is that the cards are face up in the first two rounds and face down in the third round. In the first round, people vote from self-interest, and problems of fairness arise. In the second round, people vote out of concern for the welfare of both themselves and others, and again problems of fair treatment arise (when a child incapable of consent is used for the good of the many). In the third round, the cards are face down. This forces people vividly to place themselves in the position of the least well off (enslaved persons, in the example used in the Rawls Game) and vote with the knowledge that they may find themselves in the least well off position after the vote is taken. The perspective in the third round is a fair-minded perspective. We will see philosophers defend self-interest (Hobbes), concern for the general welfare (utilitarians), and fair-mindedness (Kant and Rawls) as the moral point of view.

QUESTION:

After reading over the material, it was very interesting how the Rawls game was set up. Can you further discuss in what context the game could be used?

RESPONSE:

You ask an important question, since some of Rawls’ critics claim that in practice a unanimous vote is an impossibility. A student of John Rawls, Ronald Green, explains Rawls’ theory with the perspectives illustrated in the three rounds of the game—self-interest, altruism, and fair-mindedness. Rawls presents his theory as a thought experiment that helps to explain where basic rights (such as constitutional rights) come from. He observes that some say basic rights come from God; others say they come from nature; but Rawls proposes that they come from humans. The point of view from which basic rights are created is fair-mindedness as illustrated by the third round of the game. Rawls says it is “as if” people adopt this fair-minded perspective and vote unanimously when they create a right to religious liberty, a right not to be enslaved, and other constitutional rights.

QUESTION:

One comment I have for the reading, ” The Game Of Philosophy ” is how interesting it is how each individual has their own meaning to a word. For example, the word fair people can have their own perspective for some people they can go in-depth with the meaning and other simple explanations. I think the reading brought out very great points that I never thought before. 

RESPONSE:

You are getting into the spirit of doing philosophy when you recognize that the meanings of words can shift. The term “fairness” may mean each person receiving what they want, or everyone receiving what they need in order to survive, or everyone receiving an equal share. Rawls uses fairness to mean respect for the rights of persons—rights created from an impartial perspective. The impartial perspective is illustrated in the Rawls Game by turning the cards face down, as it were, and creating rights with a unanimous vote from that perspective.

QUESTION:

The Rawls Game seems very interesting and I would have loved to play it in person and seen how students reacted towards the circumstances. The different situations really illustrate how hard it can be to get a society to come together to solve an issue. That is reflected in our country today where both sides of the political spectrum can never seem to come together to solve an issue. Even something like deciding what is right and wrong is difficult to agree on. This class seems like it’s going to be a very interesting course.

RESPONSE:

I expect you will continue to find the course interesting, since this week’s readings point to some of the issues we will study. The Rawls Game will help, for example, better to grasp the theory of justice put forward by John Rawls. The perspective of fair-mindedness in the third round is meant to illustrate the perspective from which basic, constitutional rights have been created. Rawls proposes that rights come from human beings and not, as some traditions have held, from God or nature.

QUESTION:

Why do philosophers focus on the three perspectives of self-interest, altruism, and fair-mindedness?

RESPONSE:

The three perspectives are general points of view, and other perspectives typically may be placed under one of these three. Some philosophers—Augustine, for example—add a divine perspective when they base morality on the will of God. The fair-minded perspective overlaps with this divine perspective in Western religions.

QUESTION:

After reading the first half of chapter one, I really enjoyed the Rawls Game. The Rawls Game is a great excercise that helps everyone understand the importance of equality. The third round of the game is particularly my favorite because it truly helps people understand how individual rights are created. 

RESPONSE:

You have caught the essence of the third round of the Rawls Game, which presents an image that illustrates Rawls’ account of the origin of basic rights. Rawls wrote an early essay called “Justice as Fairness,” and the perspective of fair-mindedness is illustrated by turning the cards face down. This requires a person to imaginatively place himself in the position of those most seriously impacted by a policy decision and to decide from that perspective.

QUESTION:

Rawls talks about justice as fairness, but do you think that the game of life is fair?

RESPONSE:

We take our children to games and teach them various games governed by fair rules in order to convey the idea that life can be fair, while recognizing that oftentimes it is not.

QUESTION:

I was asking myself about the title of the book: “Game of Philosophy”. It is quite interesting, so I would like to know how the name came about please.

RESPONSE:

The Rawls Game is featured in the opening chapter, since the three rounds of the game reflect three perspectives that philosophers have used to describe a moral point of view—self-interest, altruism, and fair-mindedness. This becomes a focal image for our study of moral and political philosophy. Other philosophers—Alasdair MacIntyre and Sarvepelli Radhakrishnan, for example—use the image of games to illustrate their views of life as a rule-governed activity. I think it takes some of the mystery out of moral and political philosophy to see these areas as a search for rules or principles for guiding human actions.

Chapter 1 Moral Relativism

QUESTION:

Can you explain the main difference between descriptive relativism and prescriptive relativism using a modern day scenario?

RESPONSE:

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In a sociology classroom, you may hear the professor say “morality is relative.” In the philosophy classroom, you are likely to hear a professor say “morality is not relative.” The sociology professor’s statement is true if by “morality” one means “what is regarded as right.” The philosophy professor’s statement is true if by “morality” one means “what is right.” When a social scientist observes, she may correctly conclude that people in different places regard different practices as right. This conclusion reflects the approach of descriptive relativism. When a person decides what to do and what not to do, she looks for guidelines for her actions. These guidelines reflect the approach of prescriptive relativism. The prescriptive relativist principle “what is right is relative” is seldom an adequate guideline—especially if an individual is contemplating a horrific action such as a mass killing.

QUESTION:

I ask that you please clarify communal or cultural relativism. Are one’s beliefs understood to be right in comparison to others’ beliefs? Or are they understood to be right as products of one’s upbringing? Or do communal relativists judge based on their cultural upbringing?

RESPONSE:

I suggest your first two questions are best placed in a context of descriptive relativism. These are questions that arise quite naturally when a person observes various cultures and finds a variety of beliefs concerning what is right and wrong. How the beliefs compare with those of other cultures and the origin of the different beliefs fit in a comparative study of cultural beliefs—as one might do in a social science such as sociology or anthropology. When a sociology teacher says “morality is relative,” her claim is accurate if by “morality” she means “what is regarded as right.”

Your final question speaks of a way to evaluate others. This question reflects the perspective of prescriptive or moral relativism. When a sociology teacher says we should not condemn others because morality is relative, she is going beyond the scope of her science—which is observation or description—and entering the realm of moral evaluation (evaluating others or their practices).   She is shifting from descriptive relativism to prescriptive relativism.  She is no longer simply describing how people act; she is prescribing how people (namely, the student of sociology) ought to act. She is now making a different claim if she says “morality is relative,” because she is using “morality” to mean “what is right.”

As we will see, a considerable search has gone on and continues today to find standards or measures for evaluating societies or policies, persons or actions. We begin to examine that search with our study of Plato. As long as the varied practices that the social scientist observes involve minimal harm, tolerance seems to be an appropriate response. However, when a society engages in slavery, genocide, etc., our intuitions tell us that the practice or policy should be placed out of bounds. Finding a good reason or reasons for placing particular horrific practices out of bounds is the project of moral philosophy or ethics. The philosophers we study are searching for a standard or measure that will explain and justify placing some practices out of bounds. Their standards may be thought of attempts to find a definition of a right action or a good person.

QUESTION:

I did not realize until today how in depth philosophy is. The example about philosopher Philip Montague really made me question myself and people in general. We humans always try to fight for the right thing even if we do not have any specific reason for it.

RESPONSE:

I find the insights of Philip Montague very helpful in trying to sort out descriptive and prescriptive relativism. This is an important first step as we begin to examine the various philosophers and their attempts to define a standard for evaluating persons or actions. When humans try to fight for the right thing they may very well be drawing upon their intuitions of what is right. The philosophers try to capture those intuitions with their proposed definitions or standards of right action.

QUESTION:

I think it’s fascinating that the individual relativists and communal relativists both have at least one point in common—they strongly believe that humans are like animals, driven by a basic need to survive, and so all subsequent behavior is naturally “relative.” I’d be interested to know what the relativists, both communal and individual, would think of the behavior of certain altruistic animals—dolphins, for example, who frequently save humans from predators with no benefit to themselves, dogs who raise other animals’ young as their own, and so on. It seems to me that the relativists have a very simplified view of the world around them, but maybe that’s their intent–to simplify everyday existence in order to understand the cause and effect.

RESPONSE:

Your suggestion that relativists simplify the world is accurate. The simplification takes the form of a hasty generalization. Moral relativists observe that practices vary in different cultures and acceptable actions vary among individuals; from this they draw the generalization that objective standards or norms for evaluating actions cannot be found. Social scientists describe the various practices and beliefs and draw the conclusion that what is regarded as right varies. Many people confuse this observation with the related, but different, claim that what is right varies. The moral relativists simplify the world when they generalize from (and equate) what is regarded as right with what is right. Humans are capable of both observing (or describing) and evaluating (then choosing) actions; by contrast, many nonhuman animals seem to lack the level of evaluating and choosing actions that most humans possess. Studies of animal motivation have generally focused on self-interest and altruism, and the examples you provide illustrate a complex behavior of animals that point toward the capacity for altruism in some animals.    

QUESTION:

A question I had for Unit 1 is how most societies view prescriptive relativism. The reason is that prescriptive relativism may be defending something “negative” towards multiple cultures but one culture may see it positive. Prescriptive relativism is very open thinking. Is there a backlash towards philosophers because of their open thoughts?

RESPONSE:

In response to your question about a backlash toward philosophers, philosophy tries to find reasons behind policies and actions that people engage in. A backlash can occur if people who engage in horrific practices do not want their reasons to be known.

Let me take Nazi policies toward minorities, including Jews, as an example. A prescriptive relativist takes as a guiding principle “Morality is relative.” This removes any sense of wrongdoing from a practice as harmful as genocide. Saying that genocide is not wrongdoing runs contrary to the views of many, including many philosophers. As philosophers try to discover the reasons that lie behind practices—even harsh practices such as genocide—they search for standards (measures) of right action that also can be expressed as definitions of right action. In doing so, they offer principles for guiding actions that go beyond the principle that morality is relative. They offer such principles as “the greatest good of the greatest number” and “actions based on a rule that can be made a general rule.” From these types of standards, people can say that such practices as genocide are wrong. In doing so, they are rejecting prescriptive relativism—the view that morality is relative (when morality is understood as “what is right”).

You may wish to study the contrast in the text between “descriptive” and “prescriptive relativism.” Prescriptive may be understood along the same lines as receiving a prescription (directive) from your physician to take a particular medicine.

QUESTION: 

After I read the reading for the week, it seems more and more plausible that there is only one conclusion: moral relativism does not address any problems regarding morality. Moral relativism is defined as the idea that there are no universal or absolute guiding principles. Rather, it is divided into two forms of relativism: Communal (where moral standards are defined by the culture you are living in) and individual (an individual independently determines what the moral standards are for themselves). 

The problem with moral relativism seems to be that there are many beliefs that individuals and groups have, leading to there being many different moral beliefs. With the presence of differing moral beliefs, it seems as if people just believe what they think is true or are taught is true. In that case, moral relativism is not about morality. Moral relativism, in my opinion, is about the justifications behind why people behave the way that they do in certain scenarios. In India, the caste system is something that is still used widely today in my family. The caste system is morally justified by my caste to stick to our own kind, so as to not corrupt ourselves with the “values” of others. However, members of my same caste in the US do not align themselves now with the ideals as our caste in India. Why has the position on the caste system differed? It is because it is morally relative. In India, with a huge community present, it was morally justifiable to adhere to the caste system. However as an individual in the United States with its vast diversity, it is not morally justifiable to adhere to the regressive and discriminatory aspects of the caste system. 

Moral relativism does not explain the morality or the immorality of something. Rather, it provides a justification for a person or group’s actions or beliefs. 

RESPONSE:

Your suggestion that moral relativism serves merely to offer a justification for a person’s or a group’s actions or beliefs is helpful. You are also quite correct when you state that “moral relativism… is about the justifications behind why people behave the way that they do in certain scenarios.” The distinction between descriptive and prescriptive relativism helps to clarify why someone who claims to be a moral relativist has no coherent grounds for his or her belief. Although prescriptive or moral relativism is simply incoherent, people, as you suggest, will claim to be moral relativists in order to rationalize questionable actions or policies.

Your classification and evaluation of the caste system as morally relative may be interpreted in this way: the caste system is regarded as right in India, but an overt caste system is not regarded as right in the U.S. This is a statement that reflects the perspective of descriptive relativism. Prescriptive or moral relativism would not render an evaluation of the caste system nor the suffering that caste inflicts on many people.

QUESTION:

I’ve read and been considering the first section of The Game of Philosophy. I was particularly struck by the idea that morality could be individual, and completely up to each person. This basically undermines morality as I knew it. I had always considered morals to be focused around their effect on as many people as possible. I suppose that this is closer to a communal relativism approach, but that still seems to be a more individual scale than I imagined. I was thinking of morals and ethics as universally balanced and supported, but I realize that’s completely unrealistic, since people argue and disagree all the time. My question is, is it possible for any morality to be universally agreed upon? If not, is there any hope for peace? 

RESPONSE:

We will shortly discover in our study that a major problem with moral relativism (in both its individual and community forms) is that it makes an exclusive either/or claim: the individual form claims it is solely the individual who determines right and wrong, while the communal form claims it is solely the community that determines right and wrong.

 The problems with both of these claims lead to more moderate claims by moral liberals and moral communitarians. Moral liberals say it is primarily the individual who determines what is good, while moral communitarians say it is primarily the community that determines what is good and right.

You point to a standard when you look to the effect on as many people as possible. You may find the utilitarian standard of the greatest good of the greatest number of interest as we approach the study of utilitarianism during the semester.

In response to your question of whether there is any chance for peace without a universal morality, I find it helpful to look at attempts to discover and, in some cases, enforce a universal morality. This has been the project of some religious movements, particularly those traditions that seek converts. Historically, “conversion” has sometimes been forced upon people who have been subjugated in crusades.

QUESTION:

When I first began this 12 page reading, I thought of myself as a communal relativist. But, this was before I had a better understanding of what communal relativism entails. Communal relativists believe if a community to which they belong regards an action as right, then it is right. There are many different groups to which many different people belong. Within each group, the individuals believe their group’s standards are the right ones. If you really think about it, though, is that not individual relativism? If within the earth there were not so many subgroups to the human population, there could be a stronger argument for the idea of communal relativism. If each individual did not, to some extent, have a choice to the groups to which he/she belongs then the idea of communal relativism could be stronger. Even if it be simply their individual choices of selecting the communities to which they belong, all people have at least a hint of individual relativism in them. 

RESPONSE:

You cite a significant issue with the claim that the community is the sole determiner of right and wrong—namely, that each person belongs to several different communities. Individual relativists also face a major issue when they claim that the individual is the sole determiner of what is right and wrong.

We will see in upcoming chapters that moral communitarianism (which differs from communal or cultural relativism) maintains it is primarily the community that determines what is good and right, but they leave some room for individual judgments. Similarly, moral liberalism (which differs from individual or subjective relativism) holds that the individual is the primary determiner of the good life; however, moral liberals also leave some room for community judgments.

QUESTION:

Before taking this course I have always pondered on ideologies of the past and how we draw from those same concepts today. After coming across moral relativism, I finally have a term for how I have always perceived the world. I believe that people’s beliefs and behaviors are products of one’s culture and that what is right varies from community to community. Page nine in particular, then made me question the concept of moral relativism because of the very examples given such as genocide and slavery. There will always be a community that believes that their actions are justified by their belief in what is right. I feel that subjective relativism reflects on my own beliefs because an individual (despite that individual’s community’s opposing beliefs) can persuade other individuals into seeing their point of view; thus what is right can vary from individual to individual. 

RESPONSE:

Our opening discussion raises two possible candidates for moral decision-making—the individual and the community. Moral relativism, however, faces difficulties in both the individual and the communal form. Individual (or subjective) relativism claims that the individual is the sole determiner of right and wrong, while communal (or cultural) relativism claims that the community is the sole determiner of right and wrong.

As you find yourself drawn toward the individual side of the question, you may wish to examine the claims of moral liberalism and compare these with the claims of moral communitarianism. During the next few weeks, we will see that moral liberalism claims the individual is the primary determiner of the good life, while moral communitarianism claims that the community is the primary determiner of what is right and good.

Moral relativism has serious problems and quickly becomes incoherent as a guide for action, but moral liberalism and moral communitarianism are more serious candidates as guides for actions and practices.

QUESTION:

I think that judging morality of people in the past is funny because, when you think about it, it was right in those times even if it is wrong now—such as slavery. I think that morality is composed by individuals and society together, which requires people to pay the price of what wrong is in that society—because when you live in a society you have to give up certain rights. Back to why it is funny to judge people of the past: it is because we are using a different moral code than people of the past who also had a different moral code. It is like comparing apples and oranges or cats and dogs. We act all high and mighty when we compare the past to now, but we forgot to take in the moral inflation of the times.

RESPONSE:

You express some straightforward views as you try to sort out these issues. When physicians study medicine, they look to the past to see what has worked to address different illnesses and diseases. They also know that some diseases re-appear in our own time and other illnesses are new in our time. They make judgments on what will work in both cases—as medical research goes forward to help with traditional diseases as well as manage new diseases.

Moral and political philosophers make similar attempts to address problems, but their focus is on the problems of harm and injustice in society. They study past societies to see what has worked to manage problems in an earlier age, and they remain alert for new problems that accompany changes in ways of life and current practices. They may see a recurrence of practices that have brought harm and injustice in the past—such as slavery—and recognize that slavery can take different forms in our own time. Human trafficking, wage slavery, and debt slavery are some current examples of new forms of slavery. Measures to prevent these new forms of slavery may then be put forward.

QUESTION:

After reading both theories about Justice from John Rawls and Philip Montague, I find that subjective relativism is more accurate describing society nowadays. Although Rawls’ theory describes how an ideal society will function, in real life the majority of people tend to decide what benefits themselves before the rest. 

Regarding the Subjective Relativism or Fish in the Sea theory, I agree with the statement that a human person is an isolated individual who determines what is good and right. I believe that ideally everyone should have the same rights and opportunities. In addition to that I also believe that everyone is different and sees things differently.

Even though it is mentioned that this theory can be refuted by mentioning the mass killer from New York who claimed it was right to mass kill, I also believe that a bigger relativism is present from people who do not agree with mass killings.

RESPONSE:

A helpful way to think about moral relativism (in the present unit), and moral liberalism and moral communitarianism (in upcoming units) is that people have turned to these “isms” in a search for guidelines for their actions. Moral relativism is incoherent as a guide for actions, and the example you give regarding the mass killer in New York helps to show this. If moral relativism (in its individual form) is to serve as a guide for action, its principle could be stated in this way: “If a person regards an action as right, the action is right.” Now the mass killer regarded his action as right, so an individual relativist logically would have to conclude that the mass killing is right. This conclusion follows from the principle.

Your example helps to challenge the conclusion of the individual relativist. Many people say mass killing is wrong. So the individual relativist would not only conclude that mass killing is wrong. The individual relativist, faced with the additional claim (by a mass killer) that mass killing is right, logically must conclude that mass killing is both right and wrong. This is an incoherent conclusion that shows the principle (“If a person regards an action as right, it is right”) is incoherent and thus fails to serve as a guideline for action.

Both moral liberals and moral communitarians search for guidelines of action that will be both coherent and useful. Note that moral liberalism claims that the individual determines what constitutes a good life, but it leaves room for community judgements as well. Moral communitarianism claims that the community is the primary determiner of right and wrong, but it also leaves room for individual judgments. We will examine these two moral philosophies in the upcoming units.

QUESTION:

From what I can understand from the first 12 pages of your book, it appears that the possibility of morality being from nature as a self-evident truth is ignored. Do natural rights actually exist or is it not part of the relativism doctrine? I believe that murder is considered wrong in nearly all cultures and individuals since it goes against the instinct to survive. Would this be considered an absolute truth?

RESPONSE:

The question that many people, including the philosophers that we study, ask in moral philosophy is: “On what grounds, if any, does it make sense to regard an action as right?” Three general answers will emerge: relativist grounds, conservative (communitarian) grounds, and liberal grounds.

Relativists deny any objective standards of right action. They turn instead to the question of who decides. Some relativists maintain the individual is the decision-maker and hold that whatever an individual decides is right is right. Other relativists say that the community determines what is right and hold that whatever a community regards as right (through its tradition, law, and so forth) is right.

The relativists appear to ignore the question of natural rights because they deny that any objective standard is possible. Natural rights generally include life, liberty, and property. Your suggestion that prohibitions against murder are universal or absolute is one way that has been proposed to reject relativism—namely, to find a rule that is common to all cultures. When murder is taken to mean the killing of another human being, it is possible to find exceptions to a universal prohibition against murder. Killing in self-defense or capital punishment are frequently cited as exceptions.

In Units 5 and 6, we will see natural rights proposed as an objective (universal or absolute) standard in the social contract tradition. While the social contract tradition includes philosophers (notably Kant and Rawls) who reject natural rights as a standard of right action, the three philosophers in the social contract tradition who defend natural rights as an objective measure of right action are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson.

As we approach Thomas Hobbes, I will make a case that he fails to escape a relativist position–even though he tries to do so with his proposal that long-term self-interest provides an objective standard of right action. Anything we have a natural interest in, according to Hobbes, we have a natural right to possess–including life, liberty, and property. We will see some problems associated with Hobbes’ position, some of which are also problems faced by all who adopt a relativist position in moral philosophy.


Chapter 2  Plato and Augustine 

QUESTION:

I am not sure I understand what Plato is saying about women. Is he saying that women should be treated equally or should women be governed by men?

On another note, while reading about the different stages that the state can be in according to Plato, I couldn’t help but think about our two parties in politics.  The party who looks out for themselves and their families and the party that believes everyone should get a fair share.  Ironically Plato thinks that wanting a fair share is one of the worst stages.

RESPONSE:


Plato challenges his contemporaries who have been committed to the democracy in Athens. His challenge includes going against a prevailing practice of allowing only men into policy-making circles. He writes in The Republic that women can occupy the place of fair-minded legislators at the top of the pyramid.

You are making a good connection in your suggestion about the two parties. We will gain further information as we go along that will help you to think about the system in the U.S. Plato opposed everyone wanting an equal share of the wealth. He saw the democracy as promoting this idea, and held that the pursuit of wealth—whether by the few (plutocracy) or the many (democracy)—was prompted by the bodily appetites, not by reason (or fair-mindedness).

QUESTION:

While reading about Plato I came across a question I have regarding Plato’s view of society. As stated in the book Plato believes that the craftsmen and farmers are the body of the society, but my question is how can they be the body if they are only in search for personal gain? Doesn’t that go against what most societies are trying to achieve?

RESPONSE:

Plato uses an analogy between the human person and the state to defend his claim that only the few are capable of governing. Just as the person has a mind, a will, and bodily appetites, so too the state is an organism that has similar components. 

The bodily appetites—such as the need for food, water, air, and shelter–need to be fulfilled; the mind can devise ways to satisfy those needs; and the will is directed to carry out the means devised by the mind to protect and satisfy the bodily needs.

The state consists of parts that correspond to the three parts of the human individual. The legislators are the mind; the military and police are the will; and the merchants, craftsmen, and farmers are the bodily appetites. Just as the body seeks to fulfill the basic needs, so too the merchants, craftsmen and farmers seek self-interest (personal gain). By contrast, the legislators have a higher motive—namely, fair-mindedness—and the military and police (led by the head of state) are motivated by altruism.

We will see some of the influence that this model has had in the history of ideas that shaped the society we currently find ourselves in–namely, the U.S.

QUESTION:

The readings on Plato and Aristotle are very interesting because I had no idea that the concept of “aristocracy” originates with Plato, or that Aristotle’s ideas originate the feudal tradition that has its own problems with aristocracy. I have to admit that the concept of the pyramid, both Plato’s pyramid and Aristotle’s inverted pyramid, is hard to swallow. In order for Plato’s pyramid to function, the existence of a laboring and leisure class is practically essential, and that’s a little disturbing. It reminds me of the strict caste system in India.

In referencing Plato’s description of a utopian social structure as a “healthy individual” (p. 25), I have to admit that I’m surprised all the parts of the “body” aren’t valued equally so that the body, together, can function at its best. Did Plato simply reject the idea that all parts should be treated equally because of his idealism in a human being’s ability to “reason,” or was he subversively acting in the best interests of the leisure class, the “philosopher kings” who are allowed to govern?

RESPONSE:

You ask some very penetrating questions on this week’s readings. Plato’s ideas were subversive in one sense—namely, that he was challenging the Athenian democracy that had been in place for about a century in ancient Athens. Plato came from wealth and was named by Socrates during his (Socrates’) trial. Socrates was being tried on the charge of corrupting the youth.

Plato emulates his teacher Socrates and claims to derive many of his ideas from Socrates. In one of Plato’s writings, The Apology, Socrates identifies Plato as a friend during the trial in which Socrates defends himself against the charge of corrupting the youth. While Plato came from wealth, Socrates did not. Socrates had served in the Athenian army and made his reputation as a critic of corruption in Athens. Plato has Socrates calling for reform of the democracy in Athens, so both Socrates the commoner and Plato from the “leisured class” are advocating a change for better governance in the state.

I.F. Stone wrote a book on Socrates (The Trial of Socrates) in which he claimed that Socrates was advocating an aristocracy, and Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies describes Plato as one of the enemies of an open society. The line of thought represented by Socrates and Plato aimed at reform of a corrupt democracy that had bankrupted itself in an endless series of wars. Much debate has taken place about what was Socrates’ thought and what was added by Plato, but it seems that both advocated rule by the few who were capable of governing well. The term for such an arrangement is “aristocracy” or rule by the best. The best in Plato’s account included the fair-minded, persons with a capacity to make impartial decisions. In The Rawls Game, the point of view of fair-mindedness is illustrated by the third round, in which the negotiators of the rules choose principles and policies with the cards face down. This cards-down perspective is a metaphor for fair-mindedness. The Platonic school of thought did not regard everyone as capable of turning the cards face down; rather, only a few who had natural leadership ability and were selected young for education in good leadership had the ability to be fair-minded and govern well. 

As Plato’s thought influenced the early Middle Ages in Christian Europe, this became the caste system that placed the clergy at the top as the fair-minded few who were educated for leadership. The revival of Aristotle in the late Middle Ages opened the door for challenges to the caste system, although remnants of class division remained in Aristotle’s thought. Modern democracies that evolved after the Aristotelian revival were not the pure democracies (that Plato was criticizing) but representative democracies or republics. This feature, along with the advent of the industrial revolution, lent itself to new and different forms of corruption.

QUESTION:

Considering Plato’s upright pyramid model, would the Guardians also be restricted from owning businesses? Also, how were the Guardians ‘selected’ from an early age?

RESPONSE:

The Guardians were not permitted to own businesses. Merchants, craftsmen, and farmers, according to Plato, were mainly motivated by self-interest—a motive that was too limited in scope to allow service to the public. The leaders were to have the motive of fair-mindedness, or what Plato called wisdom. They were chosen at an early age if they displayed certain qualities: they were not easily deceived, they earned the respect of their peers and elders, they displayed a good character, they showed an aptitude for learning, and so forth.

QUESTION:

Is the dualist worldview the most ideal in creating peace when conflict occurs?

RESPONSE:

This is a very thoughtful question. The theories that we encounter have been advanced as ways of creating peace when conflicts occur. Dualism and materialism are two foundationalist worldviews that have played this role. Plato’s dualism has had a profound impact on some religious views, and many religious followers anticipate that the practice of religion can bring peace in conflict situations. Problems with a caste system that accompanied medieval Christianity in Europe brought a materialist worldview to the forefront. One philosophy that subscribed to materialism was utilitarianism: utilitarians proposed that, when welfare rights (the values of life and health) come into conflict with liberty rights (the values of property and other liberties), welfare rights should take priority.

Non-foundationalism has emerged as a response to problems with both dualist and materialist worldviews. We have already seen in the third round of the Rawls Game an example of a non-foundational approach to managing conflict. Rather than turn to a dualist or a materialist worldview to address the problem of slavery, Rawls proposes that we turn to our intuitions regarding cruelty and brutality in human relationships. This intuition leads us to adopt a fair-minded (cards-face-down) point of view and make our decisions by placing ourselves in the position of the least well off. In the third round of the Rawls Game, the slaves were the least well off.

QUESTION:

When we examine communitarianism, we see that Plato believes in the ideal form of an aristocracy where power is held by the nobility. Given that, we see Plato’s example of communitarianism in the caste system in India where Brahmins are the aristocrats that dictate the way of living for all those in different castes. However, there has historically been suppression to not be held accountable for controversial choices made by Brahmins.  Is it fair to say that Plato’s views on communitarianism and the ideal form of aristocracy inevitably lead to a decline in the state towards timocracy? Does the very nature of man’s need for power and a need for representation & accountability for those that do not have it make it impossible for Plato’s ideal form of aristocracy and communitarianism to be a thriving model?

RESPONSE:

Your link with the Brahmin caste system provides a good perspective for discussing Plato’s proposal of aristocracy. When the previous generation of leaders selects the next generation of leaders, as Plato proposed, the leaders are accountable to those who appointed them. Hence, the leaders are not accountable to the people—a feature that helps to explain your observation that the Brahmins are not held accountable for controversial choices.

Plato was responding to problems with the century-long experiment with democracy in ancient Athens. The form of society that eventually was most influenced by Platonic thought was medieval Christianity in Europe, where the clergy occupied the top of the pyramid. The corruption that set in with this system gave rise to the modern representative democracies, which are best described as republics.

India’s experience with the caste system parallels in many ways the medieval caste system in Christian Europe. In our own time, the power of wealth generated by industrialization has contributed to another type of caste system that is now the focus of much ferment—especially in light of the climate catastrophe linked to practices of industrial societies. The history of actual caste systems can help to address issues with the current industrial caste system—provided we remember that history.

QUESTION:

I want to know why kings/nobles are given the power to decide what is good and bad. Plato wanted people to be ruled of by philosopher kings since he thought that the masses are too stupid to realize what is good and bad—which I guess is similar today’s view of a technocracy which is run by scientists since they are the most knowledgeable. I noticed that Plato’s and Augustine’s society relies on a few people in power while the rest have zero say in anything. I guess this can be attributed  to how people view the future, which is often bogged down by the present—like how people thought in the 1950’s that in the 2000’s we would have flying cars but instead we have wi-fi, smart phones, and solar power. So what I am trying to say is that Plato’s and Augustine’s societies were bogged down by their current view of the world which, at that time, often relied  on kings and nobles only instead of providing a fair chance and education for all. I also ask: where are the female philosophers and were there even any? I would also say that materialism is what I like best since it doesn’t add in all the complex stuff—like you aren’t the same person once you change or adding math to the world.

RESPONSE:

The link you suggest between royal rule and technocracy is helpful. People have turned to science rather than royalty to provide a less arbitrary basis for governing. However, applied science with the use of fossil fuels has shown itself to have a very limited capacity to know the results of science’s applications. People are becoming skeptical about rule by science as they have also become skeptical about rule by royalty—and, of course, royalty is often linked to religion.

Plato was responding to problems with democracy in ancient Athens, where democracy had been practiced for about a century. His model of rule by the few became an important influence in the justification of Augustine’s model of rule by the few in medieval Christianity—often associated with royalty.

Women philosophers were present in the past: Socrates’ teacher Diotima of Mantinea was a woman. Aesara of Lucania was another ancient philosopher, and Plato’s proposal included women as members of the Guardian class. The suppression of women in Western culture was generally reinforced by religion, as Rosemary Radford Ruether attests on p. 116 of The Game of Philosophy.

Chapter 2  Aristotle and Aquinas

QUESTION:

From what I have read so far, one of the reasons why Aristotle inverted Plato’s pyramid was because he thought that Government should be run by the people and not people by the Government.  Am I right?

RESPONSE:


You have found a good way to express the difference between Plato’s and Aristotle’s view of the role of government. Aristotle held that the leaders should be constrained by a constitution, so the people had more say in government operations and more protections from the coercive power of the government.

QUESTION:

I still don’t understand the idea of tyranny of perfectionism. You say that the tyranny of perfectionism occurs when a “notion of what it means to be human” or a notion of the “good life” is imposed on people with differing opinions. (pg. 58) This to me sounds like a tyranny of majority or minority applied to a difference in conceptual opinions rather a difference in situation. Does a tyranny of perfectionism imply a unanimous vote? What distinctions can be made between tyranny of perfectionism and tyranny of the majority/minority?

RESPONSE:


Surely the titles of these “tyrannies” (the tyranny of perfectionism, the tyranny of the majority’s interests, and the tyranny of the powerful minority, and so forth) suggest some overlap. In the text, I am stipulating the meanings of these expressions—that is, I have chosen the expressions to identify a particular weakness with each position.

Aristotle assigns the same meaning to the terms “perfection” and “function.” When women are assigned a domestic function based on their ability to bear (and rear) children, this assignment can be arbitrary since it confines women to the domestic role—when they have the interest and the capability to be employed outside the home. This becomes a problem for Aristotle’s position, and the problem is described as a tyranny of function or “perfection.”

We will see that the tyranny of the majority’s interests and the tyranny of the powerful minority are difficulties for the two kinds of moral liberalism we will explore–utilitarianism and libertarianism. The moral liberal positions will have problems raised by the focus on individual rights and needs, in contrast to the communitarian focus on the community’s rights and needs.


QUESTION:

Why wouldn’t self-realization be universally considered morally right? I don’t understand that because it seems like it has to do with bettering—and finding—your true self.

RESPONSE:


The class members’ discussion of self-realization was very thoughtful and showed awareness of the issues surrounding the claim that self-realization is the moral standard. A difficulty that accompanies this claim is that humans have various potentials. Aristotle advocated the pursuit of virtue, and virtues may be regarded as qualities that enable one to get along in a community. So the community’s goal of sustainability may place a limit on one’s actions. However, a person then faces the question of which type of community one should join. Why should one join a peaceful rather than a warlike or criminal society? This question would have to be answered before one could begin to consider self-realization as a moral standard.

QUESTION:

Most of the discussion on Aristotle seemed to focus on developing one (or more) personal skills, which requires a certain amount of selfishness. Could self-realization also include becoming more altruistic or caring, or developing skills that benefit others as much as they benefit the self?

RESPONSE:


While Plato divided society into those who were mainly fair-minded, those who were primarily altruistic, and those who were mainly self-interested, Aristotle proposed an alternative view. Aristotle maintained that everyone on some occasions could be fair-minded and on some occasions could be altruistic; everyone also had the capacity for self-interest.

Aristotle’s proposal opens up a whole arena of discussion: when can people be fair-minded, when can they be altruistic, and when can they be self-interested? This becomes the focus of discussion when Aristotle’s school of thought is revived in the early modern era–and it continues to be a focus of discussion in many applied ethics discussions in the present era.

QUESTION:

What brought about the revival of Aristotle in the late Middle Ages?

RESPONSE:

Thomas Aquinas was one of many philosophers who contributed to the revival of the Aristotelian school of thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The thought of Aristotle had been relegated to a minority school of thought during the period when Platonic and Jewish thought combined to form early medieval Christianity. The Augustinian school of thought was the major school during this early period, and Augustine reconciled the Platonic school with Christian doctrines. Also during the time of the dominance of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition, the works of Aristotle had been physically transported across the Mediterranean to the library in Alexandria, Egypt.

In Egypt, the writings of Aristotle were examined, commented upon, and developed by both Jewish and Muslim scholars. The influence of these writings eventually made their way back into Europe through the Muslim and Jewish communities in Spain. Their arrival in Europe came at a time when the caste system of medieval Christianity, built on the Platonic-Augustinian model, was crumbling. Aristotle’s thought came as a breath of fresh air and provided an alternative model for governing a society.

With Thomas Aquinas, his teacher Albert the Great, and other thinkers, the Aristotelian school was revived and the stage was set for the rise of modern science and the emergence of constitutional forms of governing. Many factors contributed to the rise of science and modern democracies, but the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition played a role in the development of constitutional monarchies during the late Middle Ages and later the rise of constitutional democracies in the modern era.

QUESTION:

In this week’s reading, I read Aristotle’s teleological viewpoint a few times because I was confused by his explanation of the principle of understanding associated with form and change, and the relationship it had to determining what is real. I do understand and agree that there are boundaries of human reason. However, what I don’t quite understand is how Aristotle’s viewpoint that form as a principle of change and matter as a principle of permanence negates the question of what is real, especially when he goes on to describe the  four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Is it that Aristotle believes the question of what is real should not exist, and that our understanding of a life well lived should be tied to the pursuit of happiness?

RESPONSE:

I have found it helpful in approaching various philosophers to see them as responding to a predecessor or to other philosophers. In Aristotle’s case, his teacher Plato is the main philosopher that Aristotle is responding to with his theory of form and matter. Plato had said that forms are permanent, non-physical entities and that matter is changing (impermanent) and physical. Hence, Plato divided reality into nonphysical and physical things (entities).

Aristotle focused on the observable and built his practical philosophy around these observations. His theory of causes (material, formal, efficient, and final) is directed at explaining the world that can be observed with the senses or extensions of the senses (hearing and visual enhancements, for example). He directly responds to Plato’s claim that forms are permanent and nonphysical with the proposal that forms change—physical things, for example, undergo changes. The physical, according to Aristotle, is always there but can take on different forms—a caterpillar can be “transformed” into a butterfly, for example. Aristotle’s focus is on the present, observable world, while Plato looks to a higher realm of nonphysical forms in his account of reality.

QUESTION:

I found this week’s readings to be rather intriguing. It is interesting to learn about different fields of thought between different philosophers. I found it particularly interesting to learn of Plato’s pessimisms towards Democracy; how he described it as “…everybody wants a share.” I also found it interesting that Aristotle studied under Plato for 20 years, yet rejected many of Plato’s views. Was this commonplace for philosophers to feel that their predecessors weren’t entirely correct? That they (the student) knew more than them (the teacher), and were more highly gifted philosophers. Or would they rather usually feel that they were indeed protégés just adding on to their predecessors’ ideals? 

RESPONSE:

Many of the philosophers we study were part of a group of people who in their day were struggling to solve or manage problems in societies that were facing troubled times. They “put their heads together,” so to speak, in their efforts to address the problems. You may get a feel for this by looking at the painting by Raphael called “The School of Athens” available through Web Links on this Blackboard course site.

Plato and Aristotle stand at the middle of the picture and are surrounded by a host of other ancient philosophers. (By clicking on particular figures in the painting, you will find information on each one.) You can get a sense in this picture of the ferment of thought that preceded and came after Plato and Aristotle.

Probably the last suggestion you make in your comment comes closest to my own perception of what most philosophers regard themselves as doing—namely, building on the thoughts of others but refining these thoughts. I have found it helpful to see philosophers as engaging in thought experiments as they make their proposals in ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology. Some of these thought experiments have endured as major cultural influences while others have been less influential in shaping a society’s self-understanding. We tend to study those that have been major influences in shaping various cultures.

Chapter 3 Epicurus

QUESTION:

I think that Epicureanism is interesting. It is true that you trust your senses most of the time, but locking yourself away is a terrible way to live and is also only for those who could afford to do that. What about money for food or bills?

RESPONSE:

It is likely that Epicurus was addressing wealthy followers when he advocated that people remove themselves from the ups and downs of government or the business world. He was looking for a common element that people could readily identify with, and he found this element in pleasure. He advised people not to feel guilty for pursuing pleasure, but rather to simply accept this as a legitimate goal.

QUESTION:

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, but I still find it fascinating when I read about ancient philosophers and can identify distinct reflections of their beliefs in my own modern life. The most striking so far has been learning about Epicurus. Epicureanism’s advocacy for people to “surround themselves with a few close friends, withdraw to a private garden, and engage in a simple life and the pleasant conversation of philosophy” hits very close to home in terms of my own goals for myself. As a teenager that is plugged into things like social media and celebrity life, I am very aware of the fact that I gain only momentary pleasure from paying attention to these outlets. When I remind myself to sit outside and read, I feel a greater and longer sense of fulfillment than scrolling through my phone indoors. There is a sense of pride in spending my free time on something worthwhile, and I don’t feel so brain dead. Although there was no Instagram when Epicurus was alive, I’m pretty sure he would hate it. 

RESPONSE:

I agree with you that Epicurus would not have found attractive the momentary pleasures that Instagram brings. He favored long-lasting or what he called passive pleasures. He felt these would endure over time, and he preferred an absence of pain to intense but fleeting pleasures (what he called active pleasures). We will see that Epicurus’ theory exercises influence in modern philosophy when the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham prefers Epicurus’ moral philosophy and worldview (or metaphysics) of materialism.

QUESTION:

I didn’t agree with Epicurus as, indeed, looking at his views as a singular truth is inaccurate to how humans interact with the people around them. This idea is flawed in the ability to be applied in the community as well as in completely voiding the hope of any kind of virtuous action in a community in order to push the people forward.

RESPONSE:

You reflect some of the complexities that people face in the present day. Epicurus’ philosophy of withdrawal from public matters does not address the urgency of many current problems that pose a threat to society and humanity itself.

QUESTION:

Epicurus’ theory, which views pleasure as the standard of right of action, was probably a good look at matters that arise regarding right actions until human goals began to broaden. As explained by philosophers such as Plato, humans are currently pursuing bigger life goals as each day passes by. Hence the theory of Epicurus does not meet the standard of consistency.

RESPONSE:

You have entered into the spirit of doing philosophy with your criticism of Epicurus’ pleasure theory. The comments you make echo those in the modern debate over utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham (p. 48 of The Game of Philosophy) employs Epicurus’ standard of pleasure, but John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (p. 49) argue that pleasure is too narrow to serve as a moral standard.

Chapter 3 Thomas Hobbes

QUESTION:

I have a question about Hobbes. What caused him to draw his conclusion that humans only care for themselves? 

RESPONSE:

As Hobbes saw the break-up of societies based on the aristocratic model, he traced the causes of conflict to the battle over who should be on top—the fair-minded clergy or the altruistic military (the head of state—usually the king—was the head of the military). One can think of the battle between the English King Henry VIII and the clergy as an example—although many more examples can be found.

In some European traditions this battle could be traced to Plato’s proposal that the fair-minded should legislate and direct the military and the general population. Plato regarded the military personnel as altruistic because they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the community and the general population mainly as self-interested because they sought personal gain.

Hobbes tried to bring some sanity to the endless wars fought in the name of religion, and he offered what he thought of as a realistic proposal—namely, that everyone, including the clergy and the military, was self-interested. As we see in this unit’s readings, he traced both law and moral rules to the motive of self-interest.

QUESTION:

In the context of Hobbes’ social contract—which people enter to elevate them from a state of nature to a state of civilization (since civilization increases the quality of life and it involves giving up liberty)—what  extent of the liberty can be given up to ensure a balance between it and security? What will guarantee the terms of the contract?

RESPONSE:

Hobbes experienced the terrible series of wars fought in the name of religion in England and Europe, and he saw religion as a source of violence. To keep peace, Hobbes claimed, religious liberty must be surrendered to the state and replaced by allegiance to the Leviathan (head of state). Hobbes’ first principle was seek peace and pursue it, and allegiance to the state could be given out of self-interest. People also were to give up the liberty right to property, in Hobbes’ proposal, and the head of state was to own and distribute the land to those he thought could make it productive.

People’s rationality guaranteed they would keep the contract, according to Hobbes, and Hobbes equated rationality with long-term self-interest.

QUESTION:

Reading through the comments made by my colleagues in the class carefully, I am still in a fix as to the actual meaning of ‘self-interest’ in Thomas Hobbes’ writing. Inasmuch as there was no incorrect answer to the question which leads to different opinions, was it ok to associate self-interest with responsibility?

RESPONSE:

Responsibility for oneself is one meaning of the term “self-interest” in Hobbes.

A difficulty arises when Hobbes makes this type of responsibility the sole motive behind a person’s action. He leaves out other possible answers to the question of what motivates humans, although he does so deliberately. He has seen the problems that accompanied fair-mindedness and the question of who were the fair-minded in society.

Rather than say there are no incorrect answers, I have come to prefer the view that there are complex answers to the questions we discuss in philosophy. To say there are no incorrect answers is a self-contradictory statement, since if it is true it is a correct answer to the question “Are there any correct answers?”

QUESTION:


It occurred to me that what is considered selfishness is dependent on your self image. If selfish action is action based on the interest of helping yourself, you must first define the “self.” Perhaps those who feel they are more a part of a whole rather than an isolated fragment are more likely to act in the interests of the whole. In this way, you could see that everyone acts selfishly but with varying identifications and thus varying definitions of what constitutes self-oriented (selfish) action.

RESPONSE:

The communitarian thinkers tend to see the human person as part of a larger whole. Hence, modern communitarians reject Hobbes on the grounds that his philosophy isolates the individual from others in Hobbes’ claim that the individual is not part of a social organism. The emphasis on individualism in our culture is due in large measure to the type of philosophy represented by Hobbes.


QUESTION:

I am wondering if Hobbes has any evidence to support his claim that humans always act in a manner driven by self-interest.  I understand his reasoning behind such thought (and agree that there is certainly almost always something in it for us when we do a good deed.)  However, I am more of a scientist and most hypotheses or assertions are based on at least some initial evidence supporting the claim. Do you know of any solid evidence that he used to justify his beliefs?  It is obviously very difficult to accurately measure a person’s intentions.

RESPONSE:

You have posed a critical question that I regard as a fatal issue for Hobbes’ theory. The evidence cannot be gathered because Hobbes is speculating on unconscious motives. While we can verify our conscious motives, we cannot verify our unconscious motives. Speculation may lead to the claim that unconsciously we are self-interested, but it also leaves open the possibility that some motives are not self-interested.

Chapter 4  Classic Libertarianism

JOHN LOCKE and THOMAS JEFFERSON

QUESTION:

Is liberalism just another word for libertarianism?

RESPONSE:

Libertarianism is one type of moral liberalism; another type is utilitarianism. As we will see next week, Marxism is an extreme form of utilitarianism. Marxism also is considered a moral liberal philosophy.

In sorting out the different terms or categories, you may find helpful the material on my website under the file “Outline of Some Positions and Philosophers.” My website (billsoderberg.com) is available through Web Links on the course site.

QUESTION:

After reading Chapters 3 and 4 about Modern Moral Liberalism, I could not help but notice how some philosophers in different times were hypocrites. All of them were talking about morals, liberties and human rights and freedoms but they also failed to notice how their beliefs were not in line with the reality of their own lives.

The one that shocked me the most was Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the abolishment of slavery while keeping his own slaves and even having a child with one of them—yet still believing that Africans and Europeans cannot co-exist under the same government and no good citizen can come out of interracial marriage. If he only knew that the 44th President of the same country where he was the 3rd President would have been born from an African man and a white woman. He added the right to “pursuit of happiness” as a basic the human right to our constitution but at the same time he believed in the right of one group of people to deny human rights of another group of people which was slavery in his own house.

RESPONSE:

Thomas Jefferson may be viewed as a tragic figure whose life provided a mirror to the tragedy of the slave society that he was born into. He included in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence the grievance against King George of England, one of the many grievances against the king, that King George had fostered slavery in the American colonies. However, members of the Continental Congress included southern plantation owners and New England merchants who supplied ships for the slave trade, both of whom profited from slavery; together they rejected that grievance against the king. Slavery could have been ended at the very founding of the United States if the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had accepted the grievance that Jefferson wrote.

Jefferson promised his wife Martha, when she was on her deathbed, that he would never re-marry. After her death, he had several children with Sally Hemmings, who was Martha’s half-sister and an enslaved person at Monticello.

A quote inscribed on the third panel of the Jefferson Memorial reads as follows:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.”

This inscription may be found on the following website: (For security, you may wish to copy this link into a browser instead of selecting it directly from this site.)

https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/quotations-jefferson-memorial

This same website gives the original quotations in Jefferson’s writings from which the above inscription in the Memorial is drawn. Note the final quotation regarding the question of whether the two “races” (Europeans and Africans) can live under the same government.

“For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . . .”Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. . . .” – Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” – Jefferson’s Autobiography

The view expressed by Jefferson in this last quote was a common belief in his day. Several presidents between Jefferson and Lincoln supported the “re-patriation” of African-Americans to Africa (or elsewhere). The state of Liberia was created in Africa for this purpose: its capital Monrovia was named after President James Monroe. The attitude expressed in this common belief helps to explain much of the discrimination against African-Americans that has continued in various forms into the present day. We will explore some of the roots of this attitude when we examine the distinction between the state of nature and the state of civilization that Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and other social contract theorists draw. While these philosophers generally did not regard these two states as actual states, many of their followers have interpreted the distinction as describing two actual states. These followers place some groups in a state of nature and others in a state of civilization. This classification of people provides an underpinning for colonial attitudes that have resulted in the brutalization and sometimes genocide of groups viewed as living in a state of nature.

Chapter 4 Utilitarianism

BENTHAM

QUESTION:


In The Game of Philosophy you discuss the notion that “each should count for one and no one should count for more than one.” I wonder whether this also applies to animals and other forms of life. In the utilitarian approach is a flower or grasshopper as important as a human? 

RESPONSE:

In the version of utilitarianism that Jeremy Bentham advanced, each creature that could feel pain or pleasure was taken into consideration. The debate between Bentham and his critics centered on the question of whether humans were “reduced” to animals in Bentham’s philosophy.

The anti-vivisection movement in England received support from Bentham’s philosophy. This was a movement that sought better treatment of animals and targeted such practices as operating on animals without anesthesia.

My interpretation of Bentham’s “each should count for one and no one for more than one” places this statement in his attempt at reforms for the working class. People in privileged social positions had undue influence on policy; in the meantime, the workers were subjected to wage and working conditions that resulted in excessive suffering among workers and their families.


MILL and TAYLOR

QUESTION:

Mill and Taylor claim that decision-making in politics is made from kindness and compassion for humanity.  However, Hume denies this claim and states some humans don’t have the capacity of compassion and are regarded as immoral. As I am reading the text I am not getting the understanding of the definitions of ” greatest good of the greatest number”. What does greatest good of the greatest number mean? 

RESPONSE:

You may find it helpful to consider two features of moral frameworks. The first is the motive that prompts people to do the right thing, and the second is the standard for determining what is right. The motive, according to Mill, Taylor, and Hume is the feeling of compassion or altruism. The standard for determining the right action is the greatest good of the greatest number. “Good” is taken by the utilitarians to mean pleasure (Bentham) or happiness (Mill and Taylor). In broad terms, the utilitarians view “good” as a general sense of physical, mental, and social well-being.

As Hume defends compassion as the motive, he observes that someone incapable of feeling compassion is generally not viewed as a moral person.

The utilitarians are trying to change the focus of moral evaluation. The traditional focus in communitarian thought is on the character of the person. The harsh treatment inflicted on persons judged as bad (heretics, infidels, witches, and so forth) was so severe that many people, including the utilitarians, searched for a different basis on which to make moral evaluations. They promoted the idea that a focus on the results of an action or policy was preferable to a focus on the character of the person or persons performing the action or engaging in the policy.

Another group that focuses on the action rather than the person is the followers of a Kantian framework, who are known as deontologists. They look at the kind of action in making their evaluation: if the action respects the rights of persons, it is right. If it fails to respect rights, it is wrong. The focus on actions rather than persons is typical of moral liberalism, while the focus on persons is typical of moral communitarianism.

QUESTION:

I was wondering if you could clarify what you mean when you ask if altruism is the moral point of view? Also how would this differ from the standard of right action?

RESPONSE:

As people recognize problems with moral (prescriptive) relativism, they search for an alternative to relativism. This involves a search for a moral standard and a good reason (motive) to be moral.

Recently we examined a proposal by Thomas Hobbes that self-interest is the moral standard. Hobbes went further and claimed that self-interest is the motive of morality (the motive for following the rules). This motive may also be referred to as the moral point of view.

Some philosophers have proposed other standards–the form of the Good (Plato), God’s commands (Augustine), self-realization (Aristotle), consent of the governed (libertarians), and the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Mill and Taylor). They have also made different proposals for the motive of morality or the moral point of view.

Fair-mindedness has been a favorite, and the philosophers have debated whether everyone or only a few are capable of being fair-minded. Hobbes challenges those who defend fair-mindedness and offers self-interest as both the standard and the motive of morality.

The utilitarians that we are studying in this chapter turn to a third motive: they propose that altruism (compassion or sympathy) is the moral point of view. Those incapable of compassion, as David Hume argues in support of this view, are not ordinarily regarded as moral beings.

When you see a reference to the standard of morality or the moral point of view, you can expect to find philosophers defending different proposals as they search for an alternative to moral relativism. They are searching for an objective basis for moral judgments. They continue to do so, even though they recognize that no proposal has been the clear favorite in these debates.


QUESTION:

How does the idea of altruism as the measure of morality fit in with our earlier discussion that all human motives are driven by self-interest?  Can doing a good deed to make yourself feel good still be considered altruistic?  It clearly requires understanding the other person’s situation and having compassion on them.  Does our motive for that compassion influence whether it is defined as altruism?

RESPONSE:

You show an appreciation for the complexity of the question regarding moral motivation. It is possible, as Hobbes maintains, that all human motives can be traced to an unconscious self-interest.

The main difficulty with Hobbes’ position is that a claim concerning unconscious motivation cannot be verified. Conscious motives can be confirmed or verified, but unconscious motives cannot be. It is possible that we are unconsciously motivated by self-interest, but it is also possible that we are unconsciously motivated to have care and compassion for others. It is also possible that we seek mutual advantage out of a sense of fair-mindedness.

In upcoming chapters, we will see philosophers who try to incorporate all three of these motivations in a more complete and complex account of human motivations related to morality.

Chapter 4 Marxism

KARL MARX

QUESTION:

I have noticed that a lot of the younger people today, especially on social media, have started to lean towards preferring a socialist/communist society. I’m starting to see Karl Marx get quoted more and more on twitter especially. Obviously I don’t know how serious these young adults are about communism but it is very interesting to see. 

RESPONSE:

Marx’s analysis of capitalism and predictions about its future continue to resonate with many people, but his proposed solutions posed the major problems. He observed that capitalism required endless resources and predicted that it would lead to centralized control by the wealthy elite. His proposed solution to have equal incomes for all and public control of the means of production (factories, mines, and farms, for example) posed the major difficulties for Marxist socialism. The transition to socialism in the U.S.S.R. gave rise to the dictatorship of Stalin, and the resistance to public ownership by many in the private sector led to widespread repression, imprisonment, and mass killing. Efforts to find a blend between the goal of greater equality in the distribution of wealth and private ownership of the means of production have occupied many minds since Marx’s time.

QUESTION:

I didn’t previously know that property rights and inheritance were originally attributed to the mother. I understand that the patriarchy allowed for men to have offspring with different women, so property began to be passed by fathers. I find it interesting that the original inheritance rights of women didn’t protect them or give them more individualism. During the 1900s, property rights became a major pillar of power and personal autonomy. I suppose that inheritance didn’t make a difference for women during barbaric times because they did not yet have a financial hierarchy within their societies. 

RESPONSE:

Marx is giving a speculative history of property and inheritance, a history that reinforces his proposals regarding women’s rights. Marx put out a call for women and workers to unite in opposition to the oppression that suppressed both groups. You might enjoy a book by Rianne Eisler entitled The Chalice and the Blade, which draws upon archeological evidence for a more prominent place for women in pre-Abrahamic societies.

You may see another example of speculative history in the following link, where Kant describes conflict between nomads and farmers: https://billsoderberg.com/excerpts-from-philosophy-texts/immanuel-kant-from-conjectural-beginning-of-human-history/

In Kant’s case, he was defending autonomy or democratic self-regulation by a society. He introduced the term “autonomy” since its root meaning was self-rule or self-regulation.

QUESTION:

This week’s reading was particularly interesting. One thing that stuck out to me, as has happened in the past during this course, is how good these failed ideas seem on the surface. Marxism/communism, for example, sounds great in theory. Everyone has the same rights, makes the same amount of money, and classes are gone. Once you start to put things into practice, however, you are able to pick it apart. The lack of incentives for work causes this all to crumble. If a librarian is paid the same as a surgeon, then the incentive to go through 10+ years of school to become a surgeon has gone out the window. In turn, a ton of important careers will see large vacancies.

RESPONSE:

Your addition to the problems with Marxism is extremely helpful. The training required for positions important to society is often strenuous, and without a financial incentive people may very well lack the incentive to go through this training. Marx replies to this type of objection by appealing to the altruism in people, a feeling that Marx and the utilitarians claim is a central part of human experience. Thomas Merton replies to this claim of altruism and says that the monastery is the only place on earth where Marxism could work—because of the altruism that it requires. Only monks, according to Merton, possess this saint-like quality of altruism.

QUESTION:

How do you think things would be if we used Marx’s proposal globally? Is Marx’s proposal kind of similar to what the government in Canada is doing approving universal healthcare?

All Marx’s ideas were good until he tried to make us (women) slaves.

RESPONSE:


The Canadian system is closer to the moderate utilitarian proposal that leaves many of the means of production (mines, factories, and farms) under private ownership. Marx proposed that the means of production be placed under public ownership, but this has generated so many problems that Marxism has failed in some countries.

Marx saw women as oppressed by confinement to the domestic role—not having the opportunity for college education, for example—and thus deprived of a realistic opportunity to find meaningful employment outside the home. He worked to liberate women from this form of unequal treatment.

Chapter 4  Contemporary Liberalism 

JOHN RAWLS

QUESTION:

Since being in this class, it seems there are many answers or thoughts about what is a right action when it comes to making decisions about life and society. In the study guide for this week you have a question: Do rights come from God, nature, or humans? Don’t rights come from all three areas? I feel like humans are complex beings, who can know the heart as the Bible states; but who can know the mind? There are times in life where some rights are given by man, there are times when rights are inherently from God and nature. What are your comments on this?

RESPONSE:

Some of the very influential philosophies we have studied, including those of the African philosopher Augustine and the Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, maintain that rights come from God. Problems with this view (including the problem of conflicting revelations, inquisitions and crusades in the name of religion, and a tyranny of orthodoxy) gave rise to the claim of the libertarians Locke and Jefferson that rights come from nature: if a person is interested in something, he or she has a right to it. Problems with this approach included a conflict of rights (liberty and property rights of owners took priority over the life and health rights of workers during the industrial revolution) led to the emergence of the claim by M.L. King and John Rawls that humans create rights. Problems accompany this claim as well, but it seems these three cover a rather full range of possible answers to the question “Where do rights come from?”

QUESTION:

I agree with Susan Okin’s point that Rawls leaves out women when discussing subjects of justice. I know women were not fully considered the “wage earners” at that time, and it seems as though the wage earners are the only ones being more properly discussed by Rawls. 

RESPONSE:

The strong focus on justice in Rawls, Kant, and other social contract theorists has led to the emergence of a morality of care among feminist philosophers. In addition to Susan Okin, Annette Baier and Sara Ruddick represent this emphasis on care in our text. We will examine these feminist philosophers and the morality of care in Chapter 5.

QUESTION:

I understand that Rawls does not agree with Locke’s notion of natural rights. Instead Rawls opts for the concept of human negotiated rights. But ultimately what is the difference between these concepts? Does Rawls mean to imply that rights are just when they are deemed so by the people who negotiate them? This seems to reflect the position of prescriptive moral relativism. If Rawls simply means to say that we must negotiate as best we can towards the ideal of natural rights then his position does not seem significantly different than Locke’s.

RESPONSE:

One distinction between Locke and Rawls that I have found helpful is that Locke regards rights as discovered (in nature) and Rawls regards rights as created (by human choice). As a libertarian, Locke assigns priority to liberty rights when they conflict with welfare rights. Rawls also accepts that liberty rights can take priority over welfare rights when a society has reached a basic level of economic well-being for its citizens. The negotiation process from a fair-minded (cards face down) perspective allows for re-negotiation of rights in response to changing circumstances.

On the question of moral relativism, Rawls maintains that a unanimous vote on a question of basic (constitutional) rights is as close as humans can come to objectivity in moral matters. The issue of  a conflict of rights does remain one of the major problems for Rawls’ theory. We will explore strengths and weaknesses of Rawls further when we come to the issue of foundationalism and non-foundationalism later in the semester.

QUESTION:

I thought that this week’s discussion about negotiated constitutional rights was very interesting. I am curious, do you know of any examples of countries that have used this concept as a foundation to base their society on rather than the view of natural rights?

RESPONSE:

Rawls’ model could help to account for policies in countries with social programs that aim at greater equality in the distribution of wealth and other social goods. To cite just a few examples, countries such as Canada, France, Sweden, and South Africa (since the end of apartheid in the 1990s) provide universal access to health care—as one example of a social good.

While Rawls is willing to discuss distribution of social goods as a matter of justice, neo-conservatives approach the question of justice as a retributive rather than a distributive matter. This means that people should receive in proportion to what they have earned. Re-distributive programs to provide for basic needs are not part of the neo-conservative model. We will be studying the neo-conservative philosophy soon.

QUESTION:


Do you think that Rawls’ two principles could someday be stable here in the USA? What would have to be done for it to work?

RESPONSE:

The examples that Rawls favors to illustrate people’s willingness to overcome biases and adopt a fair-minded point of view are slavery and religious persecution. The wars that followed these historical atrocities led people, finally, to say enough is enough and create a right not to be enslaved and a right to religious liberty.

An issue that needs to be addressed is whether people can overcome their biases on issues that have not led to war–equal rights for women, abortion, gay rights. You may wish to direct your criticism to these types of examples. If you do so, you may also wish to consider whether you agree with Rawls that the right not to be enslaved and the right to religious liberty were created from an impartial, unbiased point of view.

Chapter 5, General, Modern Moral Communitarianism

QUESTION:

Is it safe to say that none of these liberal or communitarian philosophers is more right than another?

RESPONSE:

A related question to the one you ask is: “Is moral progress possible?” We can ask this question in regard to slavery and its demise, the relegating of women to the role of passive or second-class citizens and the movement for equal treatment of women, and violence inflicted in the name of religion (inquisitions, crusades, and witch hunts, for example) and the declaration of the right to religious freedom.

When we compare diametrically opposed views, we may find that one justifies slavery or unequal treatment of people while another views slavery and unequal treatment as unjustifiable. Herbert Spencer (who is mentioned in the background information on Neo-conservatism) argues that only the economically fittest have a right to survive. Those who challenge such versions of slavery and inequality may reflect a view that moral progress can be made.

When the moral pendulum swings far in one direction—the survival of the community, for example—individuals can be disregarded in the name of community survival. Mussolini reflects this in his justification of fascism. I have found it helpful to read philosophers—particularly in moral and political philosophy—as attempting to correct an extreme swing of the pendulum and remind people of other moral values, such as the well-being or liberty of individuals.

QUESTION:

Communitarians believe in the idea that being a member of society is directly linked to one’s nationality, ethnicity, geographic location, etc. It also follows the idea that an action that someone takes should be taken only if it benefits the community and conforms to the rules of the community. But with the emergence of the Internet and social media, it is more and more obvious that individualism is becoming the norm of society. With the rise of the Internet, is it justifiable to say that communitarianism is on the decline? 

RESPONSE:

One’s nationality, ethnicity, or geographical location may be described as involuntary—in the sense that one does not choose the nation, ethnicity, or geographical location into which one is born. Many communities are involuntary in this sense, with people continuing to live in the communities to which they were born without consciously choosing to do so. However, many people as grown children or adults will choose a nation, geographical location, or other types of communities (sometimes based on gender or ethnic identity, for example). These communities then become voluntary associations.

The internet increases the prospects of voluntarily associating with a range of communities, based on religious, political, gender or other affinities. The change that we are witnessing today may be described as a shift from involuntary communities to voluntary communities on a scale larger than BC (before computers).

Chapter 5  Contemporary Moral Communitarianism

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE

QUESTION:

Alasdair MacIntyre writes in the section on Fascism in the Study Guide and Text Supplement for Unit 4: “Presenting national political leaders as moral leaders virtually guarantees a tyranny.” 

My question about this would be, while this may be the case for most national leaders, how would you explain an exception to this statement such as her majesty queen Elizabeth the 2nd who is the longest reigning British monarch and has ruled with next to no controversy for decades. Although her role is mainly symbolic, she is still viewed as both a moral and political example across the Anglo-sphere. What separates her from say Mussolini or even another constitutional monarch like the king of the United Arab Emirates?

RESPONSE:

You acknowledge that Queen Elizabeth II plays a largely symbolic role in Britain, a role that prevents her from direct policy decision-making. The history of the emergence of this role helps to understand why Britain is concerned about abuse of royal power. When Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church, he united two very powerful sources of the people’s allegiance—the church and the state. His declaration initiated centuries of power struggle, part of which was a devastating civil war in England.

MacIntyre warns that tyranny can arise when government is viewed as a moral entity—and its leader as a moral and religious leader. When the two powerful political forces—church and state—are combined under a single leader, the conditions are ripe for absolute rule. Mussolini made the Catholic Church the official religion of Italy and presented himself as a moral leader of the people. In doing so, he united church and state. Islamic tradition regards each male as a priest; the religious leaders are to be followed for administrative purposes only—to avoid a union of religion and government. MacIntyre’s comment could provide a warning in settings where a religious leader is also the head of government.

QUESTION:

I had a question regarding Macintyre’s (hypothetical?) child chess incentive experiment. Macintyre claims that a child’s desire to cheat is heightened by the outside incentive of being given candy. After working in a school system, however, I could argue that a child would be more inclined to win in a chess game by any means necessary solely for the desire to “beat a grown-up.” Was this accounted for in Macintyre’s study? I know you mention that “to cheat is to deprive oneself of experiencing the goods internal to a game,” but for many children winning (regardless of how it is accomplished) may be seen as the ultimate reward and satisfaction.

RESPONSE:

Your comments on MacIntyre’s analysis of the chess game are quite cogent. Many motives may prompt a child to win in a game, and as long as winning is the goal it makes sense to cheat. It does not make sense to cheat, however, when as a mature (perhaps an adult) person one plays to discover where one stands in relation to other players of the game. The experience of goods internal to practices motivates players to be honest: such experience is internal to a practice while winning is external to a practice. A person may engage in many activities (other than playing chess) to have the experience of winning. However, one must play chess to experience the goods internal to playing chess. From these goods arise the virtues, including the virtue of honesty. MacIntyre maintains that virtues arise from practices, but an issue that MacIntyre needs to address in greater detail is what constitutes a practice.

Chapter 5 Fascism

BENITO MUSSOLINI

QUESTION:

I believe that some foundationalist concepts can be interpreted as non-foundationalist because some foundationalist concepts like fascism come from certain belief systems or perspectives of groups in order to identify a common enemy. 

I think each society chooses its idiosyncrasies along with its political and philosophical requirements; however, I also think that it’s important to realize that these can change over time. Nowadays, who decides which parts of the world are first, second, or third since the Soviet Union dissolved long ago. To classify people like this, I think, is kind of confusing and insulting. My question: Is Fascism an ideology or a doctrine? 

RESPONSE:

I share your concern over the terms “first, second, and third world.” These seem to arise from a standard of economic development: the more advanced in industry and technology, the higher the ranking. However, as global warming, depletion of non-renewable resources, and a poisoning of the environment unfold, these terms take on an ironic meaning: the “first world” may well be the greatest culprit in creating these planetary problems.

Your comment on fascism is quite accurate: foundationalist positions have an appeal to some people because these positions seem to provide certainty. While a sense of certainty concerning what is real, true, just and right is satisfying to some, problems with foundationalism have given rise to the counter positions in philosophy known as non-foundationalism. We will explore non-foundationalism in detail in Unit 10.

Fascism is an ideology in one version that became a doctrine under Hitler and Mussolini. The ideology is expressed by Mussolini and is summarized in the section on Mussolini in The Game of Philosophy.

QUESTION:

After reading Modern Communitarianism I was very interested on how Mussolini explained his whole argument. But do you mind further explaining this quote: “He claimed that an invisible hand in the marketplace and hidden wielders of power actually do the governing.” 

RESPONSE:

Mussolini was criticizing democracy, and the statement you quote is part of this criticism. He claimed that rule by the people in a large nation-state was merely an illusion. The real power lay in the hands of the wealthy people who determined the policies of the state. His reference to an “invisible hand in the marketplace” is a response to an idea put forward by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Smith maintained that a law of supply and demand would act as an “invisible hand” that would serve to control prices in a market economy. This law was the underlying rule of an industrial society, according to Mussolini. The people profiting from the industrial economy were the ones who did—and should—make the laws.

Chapter 5 Text Supplement Neo-conservatism

STRAUSS and NEO-CONSERVATISM

QUESTION:

Can you elaborate on this passage from the study guide in reference to God?

“A liberal education, according to Strauss, leads to the conclusion that God does not exist.” A few educated leaders share this “esoteric” teaching among themselves. While religious belief is false, according to the esoteric teaching, such belief is necessary for the mass of people. The few instruct the masses that God exists through “exoteric” writings aimed at the populace at large. The majority of the population must believe in God’s existence if the society is to remain stable.

The atheism of the great thinkers is carefully concealed in the exoteric teachings: the safety of the great thinkers—along with the stability of society itself—rests on this type of carefully guarded secret. Plato’s “noble lie” that society is best ruled by the wise few is a necessary fiction that the masses must accept if society is to remain stable.

If I understand correctly the leaders believe one thing among themselves (inwardly) but chose to tell the people something (probably false teachings) outwardly to keep people in line, or keep them orderly? Did the great thinkers feel in some way that man just evolved and had no sense of morality?

RESPONSE:

Some of the “great thinkers”–Plato among them–held that the ordinary people were not capable of fair-mindedness. This led to the aristocratic (rather than the democratic) ideal of the just society.

Leo Strauss’ followers are advocates of restoring an aristocratic society. Strauss can be challenged by those who think the ordinary person is capable of fair-mindedness. Among the thinkers who hold this view are Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and M.L. King. For some thinkers, the ability to be fair-minded means that a person is capable of godliness. M.L. King and Mohandas Gandhi subscribe to this view. These advocates of non-violence are opposed to the type of philosophy represented by Strauss.


QUESTION:


Since we are studying neo-conservatism, I was wondering is there such a thing as neo-liberalism? I think I may have heard the term before.

RESPONSE:

There is such a category in the contemporary political arena. (On this course site, see Course Content>Course Handouts>Neoliberalism. Also see Web Links>Neoliberalism.) Neoliberalism generally refers to a libertarian position that emphasizes freedom in the marketplace. As we have been noticing, corporations have made their way into the industrial/technological scene in ways never envisioned by Locke and Jefferson–who both formulated their theories for a pre-industrial society. With corporations possessing rights (rather than individuals, as envisioned by Locke and Jefferson), liberty in the marketplace has led to the type of distribution described in the Web Link “Distribution of wealth in America.”

QUESTION:

I am still having a difficult time completely understanding the philosophy of Strauss and his neo-conservative ideas.  I was initially under the impression that it was a political philosophy in which “great minds” or great thinkers lead the masses and attempt to make decisions to benefit the majority.  The philosophy came across to me as having moral leaders who looked out for the best will of everybody.  However, the discussion board seemed to revolve quite a bit around “elitist” leaders who would placate the masses simply to keep themselves in power.  Is this part of the philosophy, or is it a common side effect of those communities that subscribe to this philosophy?  It seems to me that the Catholic church, for example, embodies the neo-conservative philosophy.  There is a humble, moral leader (hopefully) who guides the rest of the community and sets an example to them for proper behavior but is respected and looked up to by his “subordinates”.

RESPONSE:


The Catholic Church, when it has become an official religion in different societies, has claimed to follow the Augustinian model of the three-tiered upright pyramid. This may be called a strict communitarian or moral conservative position.

Mussolini made the Catholic Church the official religion of Italy in 1929. However, his model placed corporate leaders at the top of the pyramid, a proposal that displaced the clergy and replaced them with policymakers from business and industry. When he made the Catholic Church the official religion, the clergy were assigned a mere token position of leadership; the real policy-making power resided in the industrial, corporate leaders. Augustine would have objected strongly to Mussolini’s placing corporations with their wealth at the top of the pyramid. Drawing upon Plato, Augustine held that rule by the wealthy is a sign of the deterioration of a society.

While Leo Strauss made a proposal that closely resembled Plato’s, many followers of his neo-conservative philosophy have taken the route that Mussolini took. Corporate leaders are the actual policy-makers in the neo-conservative politics of the U.S. Religion is promoted by the neo-conservative politicians, but only in a token fashion. During the last election, it is interesting to follow the defection of some religious groups from the neo-conservative faction of the Republican party: these religious groups were offended at the refusal of the very wealthy to share the burden of taxation to deal with serious budget deficits.


Chapter 6: Metaphysics 

QUESTION:


Is there a significant difference between metaphysics and ontology?

RESPONSE:

Metaphysics and ontology are generally interchangeable terms in philosophy. In popular usage, however, metaphysics is often taken to refer to the alleged realm of the nonphysical. For this reason, some people link metaphysics and religion. In the text, I use metaphysics and ontology as synonyms.

QUESTION:

I personally believe the mind and brain are not separate because of the effects that a damaged brain has on the mind. But if the mind is separate, then where would the mind reside? Where does it come from, and how is it formed?

RESPONSE:

By claiming that the mind is nonphysical, the dualists (Plato, Augustine, Descartes) do not have to address where the mind resides. Since something nonphysical, according to the traditions represented by these thinkers, is not found in space and time, it does not have a specific location.

Plato maintained that the mind has a prior existence and is temporarily trapped in the body. Augustine and Descartes emphasize the other end of life: the mind or soul continues to exist after the death of the body. This view harmonizes with the Christian doctrine of immortality.

QUESTION:

The brain and the mind are both very powerful entities. Since they work so closely together, I understand how some may suggest they are one. However, I do not see how they may consider them totally separate entities.

RESPONSE:

The view that the mind and body are separate entities is reinforced by religious beliefs, accounts of near-death experiences, reflection and observation.

Various religious traditions, but not all, adopt a form of dualism in claiming that a permanent reality lies behind the changing world of the physical.

Reports of near-death experiences have been forthcoming for centuries, in which people who have been declared dead come back to life, as it were. A significant percentage of these people report experiences that seem to be consistent with an “out-of-body” experience–that is, the mind has been separated from the body.

Reflection and observation tell us that the body operates at a horse and buggy pace, but the mind operates at the speed of light. Descartes held that each type of entity has its own laws and sciences that explain it: the workings of the body are explained by biology, chemistry, and physics while the workings of the mind are explained by logic and mathematics.

QUESTION:
After this unit’s reading, I concluded that we don’t fully realize how much we actually use our senses, touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. I feel as though we take them for granted, as we use them every day for everything we do.

RESPONSE:

This is a helpful observation. We also use the senses by extending them with aids such as telescopes and microscopes.


QUESTION:

In my opinion, I believe that Plato’s theory means that our body can change as we get older, but our knowledge and wisdom remain the same. For example, as I get older my physical appearance may change, but if I have a mindset of what are my morals and beauty, I will have inner peace with myself.

RESPONSE: 

Your example of the body changing but one’s knowledge and wisdom remaining the same is a good application of Plato’s theory. Note that Plato and other philosophers address the question in metaphysics of what remains permanent through change. When Plato proposes a nonphysical realm, Aristotle responds with the claim that a nonphysical realm is purely speculative. Aristotle then focuses on what can be known for practical purposes. This difference between Plato and Aristotle will become an important theme in the history of ideas that we study.

QUESTION:

After reading Unit 2 one of the first similarities I noticed between Augustine’s City of God and Plato’s philosophy of an ideal ruler was that those who shared similar experiences or could relate to a specific group are deemed fit to be a voice of reason and/or attain a high position. An example of this very concept can be seen at my old work place. The current general manager started as a porter. Starting at the bottom allowed him to gain experience through various positions, all of which he could use to relate to his employees as he was in their positions before.

Throughout my entire life I believed that everything was made up of particles; however, after reading about Plato’s dualism philosophy, I feel that there can be both physical and non-physical things in this world. The example of a drawn circle was a perfect clarification on dualism. However, Aristotle’s answer to what remains permanent through change also raises an interesting point—specifically the fact that virtues come from practices, which I feel holds true. Speaking from personal experience, physically doing something yields much more satisfying results than knowledge itself. 

RESPONSE:

You have touched on features in Plato and Aristotle that have made both philosophers major influences in Western culture. The tension between Plato’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics will be quite evident as we watch the development of rationalist dualism and empiricist materialism in the course of the semester. One form this tension takes is a conflict between religion and science—Plato’s thought being a significant influence on medieval Christianity.

QUESTION:

Is the dualist worldview the most ideal in creating peace when conflict occurs?

RESPONSE:

The theories that we will encounter have been advanced as ways of creating peace when conflicts occur. Dualism and materialism are two foundationalist worldviews that have played this role. Plato’s dualism has had a profound impact on some religious views, and many religious followers anticipate that the practice of religion can bring peace in conflict situations. Problems with a caste system that accompanied medieval Christianity in Europe brought a materialist worldview to the forefront. One philosophy that subscribed to materialism was utilitarianism: utilitarians proposed that, when welfare rights (the values of life and health) come into conflict with liberty rights (the values of property and other liberties), welfare rights should take priority.

Non-foundationalism has emerged as a response to problems with both dualist and materialist worldviews. We have already seen in the third round of the Rawls Game an example of a non-foundational approach to managing conflict. Rather than turn to a dualist or a materialist worldview to address the problem of slavery, Rawls proposes that we turn to our intuitions regarding cruelty and brutality in human relationships. This intuition leads us to adopt a fair-minded (cards-face-down) point of view and make our decisions by placing ourselves in the position of the least well off. In the third round of the Rawls Game, the slaves were the least well off.

Chapter 7: Theories of Truth and Foundational Epistemology

QUESTION:

While I was reading the unit on epistemology, I really did not understand it. Do you mind further explaining the meaning of the traditions? 

RESPONSE:

As long as we are dealing with day-to-day observations, the questions addressed in Chapter 4 generally don’t arise. However, when people address the question of what is real in an ultimate sense very different answers appear. Some (materialists) say that only the physical realm exists while others (dualists) maintain that both a physical world exists and a world that may be called “nonphysical” exists. These different claims lead to much conflict, including a standoff between science and religion.

In an effort to manage or resolve this conflict, people have asked how we can know that a claim is true. The different answers to this question may be called foundationalist and non-foundationalist. The foundationists are willing to accept the speculative answers of the materialists and dualists, while the nonfoundationalists turn to what is known and knowable for practical—such as public-policy—purposes.

QUESTION:

In The Game of Philosophy, while dualism and materialism reflect two different concepts of moral progress, the predicted outcomes of each seem to mirror each other. On one hand, dualism regards the simplicity of life as promoting a peaceful existence which can eliminate war in the world. On the other hand, materialism regards civilization as promoting a peaceful existence with the same likelihood of reducing war in the world. In the section on the “Correspondence Theory of Truth,” it is stated that a belief is regarded as truth if it corresponds with the facts. What are the facts in materialism and dualism which could make either concept true? Can there be two truths to one question? It seems that perception, not facts, is influencing the theory of truth in both dualism and materialism. An encompassing question in analyzing what is true can also be: what is a fact? 

RESPONSE:

Dualists in the Platonic tradition look to an ideal past in which people lived in harmony. Augustine, for example, accepted the biblical account of a garden of Eden. Materialists see the past as filled with conflict rather than peace, so they turn to the human future to express the hope for peace. Kant, who sought to reconcile dualism and materialism, wrote a book entitled Toward Perpetual Peace.

To establish facts, the dualist school closely aligns with rationalism. Rationalism, as represented by Descartes, approaches the question of truth by attempting to establish what can be known with logical certainty. From the basic certainty that Descartes proposes—namely, the fact of his own existence—other claims of truth can be established. Thus, the dualist-rationalist tradition is known as a form of foundationalism.

Another type of foundationalism is materialism, which becomes linked with empiricism. Empiricists ground truth in sense observation—which in recent centuries includes extensions of the senses through microscopes, telescopes, and so forth. The materialist Hobbes, for example, claims that we can be certain of what we verify through sense observation.

Both of these traditions are forms of foundationalism that accept a belief as true if it corresponds with the facts. Hence, both adopt a correspondence theory of truth. Their ideas of what constitutes facts, however, are very different, as evidenced by their very different starting points and methods for determining what is true. This is the source of many controversies, including the conflict between religion when it is linked to dualism-rationalism and science when it is linked to materialism-empiricism. Truth is quite different when viewed through the different lenses of these two traditions.

Some non-foundationalists turn to a coherence theory of truth rather than a correspondence theory. Some forms of pragmatism are also non-foundationalist, meaning that they (along with coherence theorists) do not claim knowledge of what ultimately is real—the physical or non-physical realm.

QUESTION:

Concerning Chapter 7, I found the ‘battle’ between materialists and dualists to be fascinating. It’s very interesting that each school of thought was prominent at different times. It is a testament to how powerful and divisive religion has been throughout history. People are so eager to jump at the first thing that makes them feel comfortable and safe. It’s as if it doesn’t  matter whether you actually believe what you say you believe regarding faith. As long as you can convince yourself to be happy with your choice, you will feel blissful. If you believe in a god, you will feel that a higher power has your best interests in mind, and won’t do any harm without giving you something to gain. If you do not believe in god, then you may feel as though you make your own path, and having that control will lead to you living the life you want to make for yourself. You can ‘choose’ the path to happiness. These dueling ideologies also presented an interesting debate on war. Each side presents (both very convincing) reasons why their ideology leads to less war. This ironically has probably indirectly been the cause of many wars—differing  schools of thought which led to animosity.

In all, this chapter was very interesting—however, a lot to unpack.

RESPONSE:

Materialism and dualism do indeed lead to conflict, particularly when people commit to the diametrically opposite beliefs about whether reality is ultimately nonphysical or physical. The movement toward non-foundationalism has been prompted by the search for an alternative to beliefs and pseudo-certainties that can readily lead to violent conflict.

QUESTION:

This week’s readings on foundational epistemology were quite enlightening–especially on how it correlates to the progress of mankind. I agree with the idea of Platonic dualism that civilization’s progress has left behind a better, simpler world for a world full of greed that leads to war amongst different nations. There have been countless wars that have been started over a fight for resources. My question for this week is: Why doesn’t the world see this and willingly revert back to our old ways of life? 

RESPONSE:

You are asking a question that takes us to the depths of the human psyche. Humans know of their own mortality, a knowledge that could lead them to despair. The persistent belief in progress is one way of preventing the despair that might set in when people are aware they are going to die. Evidence is growing that progress is not inevitable and indeed may eventually threaten the continued existence of the biotic community. Just as people can courageously face their own mortality, present and future human generations may be called upon to take a courageous stand in favor of the continued existence of the biotic community.

QUESTION:

I do find myself unsettled with the topic of what exists and what does not: it’s one that frightens me mainly due to my desire to preserve myself.  I’m not often one to be selfish, but at a level like ceasing to exist, I won’t deny it is terrifying to be absolutely nothing, to have my stream of consciousness disappear.

I personally like to believe that I exist and that the world around me exists, that while God may not be what we’ve interpreted, and the afterlife may not be there as Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, or other religions have deemed, that at a bare minimum, I will be there. Granted, I can see the argument in which when you become nothing, you feel nothing, so ultimately there’s nothing to fret about at that point. However, I think what makes viewpoints like those of Plato and Aristotle so appealing, back then and even now, is that it helps create some meaning to our deaths, it helps keep us from being as small as we really are in the universe. Foundational materialism is, incredibly cold and decisive, as it calculates things to the core, and leaves no room for speculation. This is not to say that it believes in one way and that’s all there is to it; rather, it prefers to keep things in what we’ve come to know as “reality”.

Who knows? Maybe this world is really a dream, and dreams themselves are our reality.  It’s an incredible discussion, but it’s scary still to no end.

RESPONSE:

You offer some thoughtful reflection on the questions of immortality and meaning. The role of meaning is central to one’s existence and, as you suggest, it helps to avoid being reduced to insignificance. Perhaps a search for meaning is shared by all humans. Viktor Frankl writes (in Man’s Search for Meaning) that a person can live with any how as long as he or she has a why for living.

Materialism in its most basic form (Democritus’, for example) resonates with few people since it removes meaning and the quest for meaning from the human picture. A modified form of materialism (that of Karl Marx), however, establishes a focus of the quest for meaning. Instead of anticipating an afterlife and union with God, Marx proposes that meaning is found in working for a better future on earth. The quest for justice and fairness, according to Marx, can provide meaning and offer a meaningful goal in life.

Chapter 7  Emergence of Antifoundationalism or Nonfoundationalism

QUESTION:

These were my answers to the five questions in the Text Supplement for Chapter 6.

1. God exists. False
2. Immortal souls exist. True
3. I exist. True
4. The world exists. True
5. Smallest physical particles exist. True

I found the explanation (in the Study Guide and Text Supplement for Unit 9) for how your answers reflect on your ideologies to be interesting, but it didn’t really settle anything for me. My answers lean toward materialistic-empiricist, except for number 2. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about number 2, because there’s nothing telling me I’m correct except for an emotional feeling. I gave a definitive answer to each question, like a foundationalist, but I have nothing to back up my answer. I don’t want to accept uncertainty as a legitimate answer, but I suppose I am uncertain. This reading was overall very thought-provoking! I’d like to get into the habit of seeing where I personally align each time I read about different philosophies.

RESPONSE:

Your intention to see where you align with various philosophers is a good approach to the study of philosophy. It helps to test different philosophies in light of your own experience and intuitions. In the process of doing this, you are working out your own philosophy and finding how your own views fit with the views of other thinkers. By reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the various philosophies, you can critically examine your views—which could lead to a more informed choice of your views.

QUESTION:

In this week’s readings, the statement that “[at] the societal level, the central issue [of anti-foundationalism] is whether people can accept a non-foundationalist view without also threatening the stability of their society” fascinates me (The Game of Philosophy, 93). Is it possible to have any kind of structure without a foundation to build on? The example proposed by Ernest Sosa of foundationalism being synonymous with a pyramid and anti-foundationalism resembling a raft made of tied-up logs, intrigues me as raising more questions than it answers. If anti-foundationalism is a raft, then what’s the water? That might be picking at it too much, but is it possible for humans to create something out of nothing? It reminds me of the phrase, “building castles in the air.” 

It seems to me that anti-foundationalists don’t necessarily want to reject the concept of society. Instead, they seem to be pushing back against established norms in order to create their own norms. This may be an oversimplification, but remembering the raft, it seems that to get anywhere you have to start building from somewhere. I agree with The Game of Philosphy that one of the greatest pitfalls of anti-foundationalism is that it leans strongly towards relativism (93). Then again, is it so wrong if everyone builds a different kind of raft? It’s very interesting to think about… 

RESPONSE:

You pose some very thoughtful questions on foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. Your comment that anti-foundationalists don’t necessarily want to reject the concept of society is accurate. They are aiming to correct some of the excesses that have occurred when people subscribe to pseudo-certainties.

In response to your asking what the water is, anti-foundationalists build a raft on a sea of uncertainty. To explain, they acknowledge that answers to the question of what is ultimately real may lie beyond the capacity of humans to know. In regard to such a question, the anti-foundationalists accept that humans are uncertain and this uncertainty is simply part of the human condition. At the same time, they do not give up on addressing questions of what is right and just. They ask what is real for practical purposes rather than speculate on an ultimate reality as a foundation for answers in morality and law.

QUESTION:

My response to this week’s readings is one of general reflection, and not a specific question. Last week I was especially struck that I could not answer the five questions as either true or false, especially since I believe in God. I think if the questions were more personal, I would have had very different answers, for example, changing the question “God exists?” to “Do you think God exists?” would have evoked a different response from me. However, what I realized is that I try to not allow my personal beliefs to shape the way I experience people and the world. Moreover, I realized that for me, unless there is empirical evidence, I cannot accept something as true wholeheartedly, even if it works for me. I do place a high value on intuition, but unlike Moore  (p. 97 of The Game of Philosophy) who believes that an intuitive understanding of what is good could suffice to shape practical knowledge, I do not feel it is enough to form a standard for living. Unlike the standard definition for the color, yellow, the definition of good will change based on a given situation. Furthermore, how is intuition formed or developed? Is it influenced by genes and the environment? How can we give credence to intuition when it is unique to the individual? Although Aristotle believes that “something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect,” and Descartes evolved to take a foundationalist perspective, I am not yet able to evolve to an absolute belief about God and immortality. I think my intuition is enough to guide me, but I also think uncertainty is a valid response to some questions. I guess that makes me a non-foundationalist, though I wonder if there is a category for people who contextualize their beliefs. I think God exists, but I do not think the evidence is enough for me to arrive at an absolute belief, so am I really a non-foundationalist?

RESPONSE:

Your questioning Moore’s analogy between knowledge of “yellow” and knowledge of “good” shows good insight. Knowing what is good, as you point out, depends on particular situations, whereas knowledge of what is yellow does not.

Descartes gave a proof of God’s existence that followed logically from his initial certainty “I think; therefore, I am.” Followers of Descartes used his proof to claim factual certainty of God’s existence, but logical certainty does not establish factual certainty. You are entering the spirit of these discussions when you acknowledge uncertainty regarding God’s existence. Even Descartes stopped short of claiming factual certainty that God exists. You may wish to explore the position of William James on religion, a position that I summarize on pages 106-107 of The Game of Philosophy. James is a non-foundationalist whose philosophy has been characterized as pragmatism, a philosophy also shared by John Dewey. If you wish to read further, you may check the references to James’ writings on page 160 of The Game of Philosophy.

QUESTION:

Coherentism, the main type of non-foundationalism , follows the idea that our beliefs are formed by an  interlocking system where one belief must be coherent with a set of beliefs. However, this means that one belief could be coherent with many different sets of beliefs, leading to contradictions and dogmatic beliefs being laid down via arbitrarily selecting what works and what does not. 

Most people rely on religion as a guide on how to live life and as a system of belief. However, religion itself is run by coherentism, with the arbitrary inclusion and deletion of facts and reasonings to justify its mission, values, etc. We see this in the Hindu and Muslim fight over Ayodhya in India and with Jews, Muslims, and Christians over Jerusalem. My question is this: Is modern religion a non-foundationalist social construct due to its firm justification of beliefs with coherentism, where facts believed and followed by one religion can be overturned and contradicted when looked at from another perspective?

RESPONSE:

You have pointed to one of the problems with coherentism. A belief is true, according to coherentists, if it coheres with one’s other beliefs. However, a system of beliefs can be internally coherent while also being inconsistent with external reality. This is why coherentists struggle to find a way of linking beliefs with external reality.

Religions aim at moral ideals and teach these ideals to their followers, but the practice of religion in a non-ideal world can involve conflict. One source of conflict is an allegiance to places, writings, and traditions viewed as holy or religious. “Religion” in its root meaning is “to bind together again.” The word thus expresses a moral ideal of unity. However, the ideal of unity often is reduced in practice to allegiance to one’s religious authorities who teach the moral ideals. Thus, religious unity can degenerate into allegiance to those who identify and define holy places, writings, and traditions. Accepting the word of one’s religious leaders promotes unity among the followers of a particular religion. What at first seems to be a good thing to do—namely, to follow one’s religious leaders—has often led to great harm when conflict has arisen among particular religious traditions. Moral ideals, as Plato reminded us, may be unattainable in the physical world. The same may be true of knowledge of ultimate reality, in which case a “workable coherentism” may be the best we can aim at. Non-foundationalists in the text may be viewed as aiming for a workable coherentism.  

QUESTION:

After answering the questions regarding God, immortal souls, self, world and smallest physical particles, I believe I would be in the same position as non-foundationalist philosophers. There are questions that I find difficult to determine as either true or false. However, I do share the same sentiment as followers of foundationalist schools of thought because I also believe that humans are capable of greater understanding of reality than non-humans. There will always be an uncertainty to me in regard to the questions I cannot determine as either true or false, unless I am presented with either physical evidence or a logical explanation that makes sense to me. 

RESPONSE:

Identifying where you stand in relation to philosophers in the history of ideas can be very helpful. It allows you to examine critically positions similar to yours and examine their strengths and weaknesses. Humans generally are more clever toolmakers than non-human animals; the nonfoundationalists, however, question whether humans can know ultimate reality. In questioning this, the nonfoundationalists try to avoid the excesses of some dualists who have engaged in inquisitions and persecution in the name of religion as well as the excesses of some materialists who have viewed humans simply as controllers of nature—a “control” that has come in for serious scrutiny in light of nuclear weaponry, pollution of the planet, and global climate change.

QUESTION:

Initially, I was skeptical in answering the five questions which put me in the bracket of non-foundationalist. After careful thought of my choices and what I truly believe, I found myself answering “True” to questions 1 through 4 but answered “False” to question 5. Personally, I do not believe smallest physical particles can be determined as the basic make-up of any form of matter. What is the guarantee that what is being regarded as the smallest particle is indeed the smallest particle? I have found myself falling within the bracket of foundationalist, precisely dualist-rationalist, because I believe there is God, I believe immortal souls exist, and I answered True to self and the world being in existence as well. Is there a specific reason why people may begin as non-foundationalists but tend to change their opinion or view over a period of time?

RESPONSE:

Your first set of answers may reflect the views of philosophers who address problems with the answers provided by foundationalists in both the dualist and materialist camps. In the dualist camp, Descartes provided a proof that claimed logical certainty for God’s existence. This proof has been described as the “ontological proof.” He inferred the existence of God from his first certainty—namely, that he existed as a thinking being. Critics of Descartes have pointed out that logical certainty does not imply factual certainty. The conclusion of the following is logically certain in the sense that it follows logically from the reasons given to support the conclusion: All U.S. presidents have been male; Hillary Clinton has been a U.S. president; so Hillary Clinton is a male.  

The difficulty with this argument is that the premise “Hillary Clinton has been a U.S. president” is false. The conclusion of a logical argument is only as good (true) as the premises that support it. On page 103 of The Game of Philosophy you will find a summary of Descartes’ logical argument for the existence of God. The critics of Descartes argument for the existence of God point out that at least one of its premises, “God is a perfect” being, is true by definition only; its truth is not established by observation. While the conclusion follows with logical certainty from the premises (just as “Hillary Clinton is a male” follows with logical certainty from the premises in the above example), it is factually false because one of the premises is false.

While Descartes’ proof for the existence of God does not make sense, according to the critics (such as Immanuel Kant, on page 104 of The Game of Philosophy), people who accept the existence of God may find other bases to support their belief. Rather than claiming knowledge of God or logical certainty for their belief, they may acknowledge some uncertainty. They could hold, for example, that belief requires doubt. To say, for example, “I believe that something is factually true” is different from saying “I know that something is factually true.” People who turn to Descartes’ argument for support confuse logical certainty with factual certainty, but others who accept the existence of God may find it compatible with doubt or uncertainty. This may have been the case with your first set of answers to the question of whether God exists. In this regard, you may wish to examine the non-foundationalist positions of Thomas Aquinas and William James in chapter 8, “Arguments for the Existence of God” in Part 3, Philosophy of Religion, in The Game of Philosophy, pages 106-107.

QUESTION:

I believe that I am a non-foundationalist. I believe this is the case as, while i do accept that I might very well exist, and that the world exists, I find matters of a speculative nature hard to believe immediately. I do believe there is merit to the scientific approach, but I think that has somewhat to do with my approach to growing up, in that I’ve grown up with a religiously free home. 

What I mean by this is that while I feel spiritual, my family and friends have never held me to believe a specific religion is right or wrong. I’ve grown up with the spiritual freedom to ask what is and isn’t real. While this isn’t a good thing, it’s not bad, and presents its own set of challenges to my life. 

One such challenge is that I do find it difficult to believe in other-worldly things without the proof that science gives. Yet, my main reason for trusting science more isn’t particularly great either. Just because science continuously tries to disprove itself doesn’t make it right; it just means it’s trying to figure things out.

I don’t disbelieve in a higher power, but I think it’s hard to just say what we know is true without question. I believe that there is no way to determine it, or we may have found out by now. Humans are pretty intuitive in figuring out things. Even then, this is just one of those things that I suppose we won’t know until we know.

RESPONSE:

You offer some helpful reflections on the readings as you share your own experience. You reflect an uncertainty that is consistent with the non-foundationalist approach to ultimate questions—such as what ultimately exists. The non-foundationalists address the question of what is real in practical terms—as the question has a bearing on public policy, for example. Perhaps a distrust of science helps to explain why some people today reject the near consensus of scientists that global climate change poses a significant threat. The sources of this distrust are worth reflecting on.

JOHN DEWEY’S PRAGMATISM

QUESTION:

I find the theories of contextualism that Dewey holds to be rather interesting in the sense that everyone can hold a separate meaning for the same things. His strong reliance on science, indeed pushed him away from having any confidence in people, believing that in science all the issues he said plagued mankind could be eradicated. I believe in foundationalism, though I’ve seen often that his first viewpoint holds some logic to it.  I feel Ayer’s point on his rejection of utilitarianism ties in a little with Dewey. Both people look at x and both get something contradictory out of it, though Ayer says both are right. Ayer’s desire to focus on strictly empirical evidence draws a very confusing picture because if everyone is right, then how can there be truth of any kind? If one person says and believes x is actually y, then his view should then be considered valid in Ayer’s view.

This somewhat confuses me because if his argument is that empirical evidence is what makes something meaningful, than how can the previous statement be meaningful when the evidence says otherwise? From his view  in page 100 that adding “it is wrong” to the phrase “you stole the money” is unnecessary, what is to be done with the robber? Should we just state that he stole the money and let him go? Because who cares if his robbery can be empirically proven, Ayer’s lack of moral philosophy makes the whole situation meaningless, because why should we bother this man simply for following his subjective truth that he deserved that money? I don’t believe his view of subjectivism stands. In fact, to me it looks to be a flimsy  argument that works only to resolve the conflict that could potentially arise from  two forces trying to seek/face/debate,  reality or truth. While I see that some instances can be very easily resolved with Ayer’s philosophy (Such as the argument on which calendar is absolute? (Chinese, Rome, etc)), that does not work for every case. Very interesting piece Professor.

RESPONSE:

You have understood well some of the problems with Ayer’s position. His claim that he can solve the problems with traditional philosophy through his empiricism is the first clue that he is over-reaching. The impact of this over-confidence continues to have its effects in philosophy: some people known as transhumanists are claiming that, by the applications of science, humans can transcend their present biological limitations. I see Ayer’s over-confidence as contributing to attitudes behind the transhumanist claims.

QUESTION:

In this week’s reading, I found John Dewey’s “contextualism” theory  the most interesting. Dewey stated that science and philosophy’s role is to experiment. Dewey believed that science and philosophy can provide a path and control to the world, and in his world science was supposed to disconnect nature and religion from humans. Additionally, Dewey’s theory was that people manage and deal with problems in different ways, and that what is valuable to one may not be valuable to the other person. However, his theory was discarded because of the weakness in his work. 

Dewey believed that science and philosophy could find the answers to all human problems and betterments. How was his theory completely disregarded? Was Dewey’s theory ever included into someone else’s theory? 

RESPONSE:

Dewey proposed a more limited aim for philosophy than the aims we have seen some earlier philosophers propose. Some philosophers claimed that humans could know ultimate reality: dualists claimed that both physical and nonphysical entities were real, and materialists claimed that only physical things existed. Dewey was responding to these claims, and he proposed that knowledge of ultimate reality—as claimed by either dualists or materialists—may well lie beyond the capacity of the human mind.

Dewey then proposed a more limited goal for philosophy. Philosophy would aim at supporting science in its efforts to control nature and serve human welfare. This was a pragmatic goal, and Dewey’s philosophy was thus known as pragmatism.

Dewey expressed an optimism toward science and its applications. His theory has come to face problems in recent decades because the applications of science have sometimes worked to make human life worse rather than better. Environmental pollution, the development of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and climate change have created significant problems for human welfare. Dewey’s optimism about the applications of science has not come to fruition, and for this reason some thinkers have rejected Dewey’s confident claims that science could improve human welfare by controlling nature.

William James was a philosopher who joined Dewey in the pragmatic tradition. Pragmatism is related to utilitarianism, in that both look to consequences to evaluate actions and policies. Utilitarian thinkers have exercised considerable influence in ethics and public policy today.

QUESTION:

Of all the different viewpoints discussed on anti-foundationalism, I found John Dewey’s perspective to be the most practical and applicable. His concept that everything depends on its context is a realistic look at how things work in the real world; every situation varies and so does every persons individual understanding. It is for these reasons that I found  his  concept appealing; as his views are non-binary they can be applied on a circumstantial basis. Furthermore his concept of contextualization fixes the problems that arise from the ambiguity seen in the foundational epistemologies’ coercion truths which were problematic due to their attempt to define one thing as true despite different contexts. I also admire his intentions to apply the scientific method to philosophy which bridges the two fields of study.

RESPONSE:

Dewey’s pragmatism has many appealing features, and you have identified some. His tone of optimism toward science and its applications, however, has come in for serious review in light of the effects of industrialization and many applications of science that that have had a poisoning effect on the planet.

QUESTION:

This week’s reading on non-foundational epistemology was one of the more interesting readings to me so far. I agreed with John Dewey’s ideals of contextualism the most. I like that he wants to use philosophy in a practical way to help solve real world problems, as a way to assist science. I agree with him that science is needed to bring order and control from the chaos in the world. The counter arguments—that of eugenic wars and environmental changes—don’t  seem to me to be from the use of science. It is more from how people choose to interpret scientific data and misuse that information to satisfy their own agendas.

RESPONSE:

You offer a helpful response to the problem that I linked to Dewey’s position—namely, that trust in science has been eroded due to some of the applications of science. Your suggestion that the misuse of scientific information has been prompted by people satisfying their own agendas is an important insight. Eugenics as practiced in the early years of the twentieth century has come to be widely regarded as a pseudo-science. Further support and detail for this suggestion should lead you into the heart of moral and political issues in our time. I find the desire for and satisfaction of conveniences—in transportation, home, workplace, food, medicine, communication, and other areas—are part of the “agenda” you allude to. Science in another key—closer to the science you describe—is  needed to address problems posed by these previous applications of science.

QUESTION:

I rather enjoyed this unit’s reading. I found the different approaches to foundationalism (and non-foundationalism) to be fascinating. One philosopher who stuck out as particularly interesting was John Dewey. I found his philosophies to be well-intended, but ultimately, flawed. The idea that knowledge must cohere with one’s practical experience is quite a narrow-minded way of thinking. Did he mean this in the sense that only knowledge that one is able to prove and make sense of themselves is a reasonable belief? I appreciated your final thoughts on him, in citing that “neither science nor religion in itself is the guaranteed means to human betterment.” This is something I kept thinking while reading your summary of his beliefs, so it was nice to read an affirmation of my sentiments without having to look for it!

RESPONSE:

I find an optimism toward science as I read Dewey. This optimism was quite widespread in the 19th and early 20th century when Dewey was writing. Emile Zola in “The Experimental Novel,” for example, wrote that one day science will cure all diseases. The dream of a new day through international trade and cooperation was widely shared, and the anticipation of liberation from wars fought over territory and in the name of religion was a theme in much literature and philosophy. In the present day, a major challenge is to balance the dream of a new day made possible by science with the practical reality of addressing problems generated by applications of science. While some people turn to religion as an alternative to science, the historical problems associated with both religion and science need to be taken into account as we address present-day and future problems.

Chapter 8 Religion 

Questions on Descartes

QUESTION:

Descartes had said, “From the fact that I cannot conceive God without existence, it follows that existence is inseparable from Him, and hence that He really exists.” Does this mean that God exists because we do or rather that we exist because God does?

RESPONSE:

You draw some interesting inferences from Descartes’ argument. Descartes did not address the alternatives that you suggest. He has noticed a remarkable feature of math and logic–namely, that both allow formal certainty. He tries to incorporate this type of certainty into religion. He holds that the statement “God exists” is true by definition. The issue that arises is whether our definitions (that is, mathematical or logical truths) tell us anything about what exists or only about what is consistent within the systems of math and logic.

QUESTION:

I can’t understand Descartes’ proof of the existence of the body (external world). Could you clarify the idea of the “hand”?

RESPONSE:

Descartes had a “clear and distinct” notion that his body, including his hand, existed. He was not sure, however, that he was not being deceived–since the senses can sometimes be deceived. This uncertainty was reflected in Descartes’ comment that he did not know whether the hand that he believed was writing out his ideas was real, or whether he just imagined that the hand was real. Descartes then concluded that a perfect being—which  he previously had logically demonstrated to exist—would not deceive him into believing such clear and distinct ideas as his body and hand (as part of the body).

QUESTION:

I have read that Descartes gave two other proofs of God’s existence besides the one we studied in class. What is the significance of these other proofs of God’s existence?


RESPONSE:

The other proofs are more closely associated with the question of the cause of the universe. They attempt to draw inferences from observation rather than to give a definitional proof of God’s existence. Descartes was not satisfied that proofs of God that rested on sense observation could have logical certainty; for this reason, he turned to the ontological proof.

QUESTION:

Descartes seems to me to give different reasons for different issues that don’t make sense together. His reasoning for one particular issue seems to contradict his reasoning for a different issue or statement. Am I right? I know we talked about it in class, but I’m afraid I still don’t understand.

RESPONSE:

One of the keys to Descartes’ reasoning is to note that he draws conclusions about what exists from the definitions of things. He concludes that God exists, for example, from the definition of God as a perfect being. This type of reasoning does not win the approval of Kant and others.

QUESTIONS ON THOMAS AQUINAS

QUESTION:

I have a question on Aquinas’ first proof for God’s existence. How can he say that the “first mover” from which all movement originates is “of course,…God”? Why, “of course”—is it a being, a god? Why not a scientific principle, a principle of motion or scientific creation? Why did Aquinas jump ahead to it being unquestionably a god?


RESPONSE:

The non-foundationalist framework that Aquinas draws from Aristotle uses the term “God” to refer to the “unknown and perhaps unknowable.” The question of the origins of the cosmos lies in this realm. Aquinas may be translated as follows: “the question of the first mover deals with the question of the world’s origins. Of course, this is in the realm of the unknown and perhaps unknowable.”

QUESTION:

Aquinas’ theory concerning religion I find acceptable in many parts. He admits that certainty in matters of religion and creation is impossible. He acknowledges he is not infallible. Perhaps Aquinas also encourages a “leap of faith” as many religions do, yet promotes leaping with a safety net. Rather than staunchly and inflexibly proclaim knowledge of the “unknowable” he acknowledges the “what if.” I believe this is a more acceptable, tolerant view than those presented earlier.

RESPONSE:

The subtleties of the multi-cultural influence that Aquinas synthesized are many. I believe the view advanced by Thomas reflects many of these subtleties, and you point out some of these subtleties.

QUESTION:

How could Thomas Aquinas be such a guiding force in Catholicism if he held so many multi-denominational views and tenets?

RESPONSE:

Several major religious traditions have survived for many centuries. Their ability to endure may be explained in part by their ability to incorporate different viewpoints and cultures. Aquinas is a major voice for those who were searching for common ground among warring cultures in the thirteenth century.

QUESTION:

How come there is no reference to the harmony and complexity of nature as proof of God’s existence? Aristotle made reference to this, but I don’t recall him (or any modern Aristotelian) discussing this in detail.

RESPONSE:

The arguments of Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Paley known as the Argument from Design build upon the harmony and complexity of nature.

QUESTION ON BLAISE PASCAL:

QUESTION:

Is Pascal saying that he believes there is no God or he believes in God but God doesn’t exist?

RESPONSE:

Pascal is admitting to some uncertainty over the issue of whether God exists. He tries to make a decision about whether to believe in the face of this uncertainty. The argument that he presents reflects a cautious temperament, since he decides to avoid the worst possible outcome—namely, eternal punishment.

QUESTION ON WILLIAM JAMES

QUESTION:

How can William James disregard the negative effects of religion in the world, or simply decide that personal satisfaction or a “sense of purpose” can eclipse war, hatred and religious discrimination? Religion and religious people are rarely as pure as they ought to be and perhaps if you’re an idealist “working for the better order of things” is what the religions do, but more often they are caught up in political or moral agendas to achieve their individual state of “better order.”

RESPONSE:

I suspect James acknowledges the ravages of the Inquisition and Crusades, but he holds that other aspects of religion—care for the sick and needy, for example—have a positive result. One may seek the positive side while guarding against the negative sides of religion in James’ practical approach to religion.

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION: GENERAL QUESTIONS

QUESTION:

When I considered materialism versus religion (or the immaterial), what came to mind was what Jesus said about taxes: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God, what is God’s.” I think there may be a physical reality and a spiritual reality. Physical reality can be experienced through the senses and proven by science and math. But I think spiritual truth can also be proven through experience, but most people don’t experience it, so they don’t really believe it. But these truths can only be individually known. However, I think the spiritual part of a person has an effect on the physical and likewise, the physical can affect the spiritual.


RESPONSE:

The position you describe runs into a problem with consistency. When you say that spiritual truth can be proven, it appears that spiritual truth is something more than private truth. Yet you hold that these truths can only be individually known. We will examine practical reason (and practical truths) and distinguish them from speculative reason (and speculative truths). Perhaps this set of distinctions will be helpful to you as you analyze and classify spiritual truths.

QUESTION:

If Muslims and Jews define their religion through practical reasoning, why do they experience such conflict?

RESPONSE:

 The current conflict may be partially understood in light of Muslim teachings concerning violence: they seek peace, but will go to war to rectify an evil. The suffering of innocent persons displaced from their homes is viewed as an evil; thus, warfare to prevent this evil is regarded by some Muslims as justifiable.

QUESTION:

Do Jews and Muslims lack a faith of a perfect being?

RESPONSE:

The concept of a perfect being is a Platonism grafted onto the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This type of conceptualization was not generally part of the Jewish tradition, and the Muslim philosophers did not, to my knowledge, respond favorably to the ontological proof for God’s existence. The Aristotelian, practical approach was more consistent with their views.

QUESTION:

Isn’t the coherence view very limiting as opposed to dualism, where the ultimate ground is an infinite, unlimited view?

RESPONSE:

If the dualist position could be firmly established it would provide an ultimate ground. The main difficulty is the issue of how to establish the position.

QUESTION:

Why can it not be argued that God is the ultimate source of goodness? Simply by virtue of God being God he is self-governed by reason and is therefore temperate, courageous, wise and just. And that being the case, it would follow that his moral prescriptions are not arbitrary.

RESPONSE:

Some religions attribute virtues to gods and advocate imitating those godlike qualities. Your suggestion points toward this feature of religion. Thomas Aquinas proposes that what is in the effect must first be in the cause. This proposal could be applied to your suggestion in the following way: If humans are capable of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice, these qualities must first have been in whatever caused humans. Immanuel Kant also provides a “moral argument” for the existence of God that is echoed in your suggestion.

Your suggestion would work (and has worked in history) as long as the community accepts the belief that you express. The main difficulty arises when different groups claim that opposing practices (e.g., monogamy and polygamy; slavery and a free citizenry) are right and invoke divine revelation in support of their claims. Wars between the faithful and the infidel can then break out (and historically have broken out).

QUESTION:

It appears that Aquinas, Descartes and Kant all really began with a belief in God and were then able to prove it to themselves through philosophical reason. However, each one of their reasons would seem to have difficulties if studied by someone who was not disposed to that belief in the first place. What do you think?

RESPONSE:

I find this to be quite applicable to Descartes, who claimed logical certainty for his belief in God. In the case of Aquinas and Kant, however, a reinterpretation of the notion of God took place and they viewed the divine as a perspective humans were capable of adopting—an impartial perspective that persons could choose to follow or ignore.

QUESTION:

Can “turning the cards down” mean the same thing as “turning to religion”? I believe it could, because both cards down and religion seek the Goodness in the people.

RESPONSE:

Seeking the goodness in people is common to both the metaphor of turning the cards down and religion. Religion, however, has a mixed history and has been associated with inquisition and civil wars—particularly in the European setting. In another aspect, religion attempts to “bind people together,” and in this respect both the cards down and religion seek the goodness in people. The creator of the Rawls Game, Ronald Green, has commented that the turning down of the cards represents the best, not the worst, of religion.

QUESTION:

Could you repeat the two criteria for a group to be a cult?

RESPONSE:

The members of the group are denied ordinary access to information, and they are denied access to the ordinary means to reflect on information—namely, discussion and debate.

QUESTION:

You gave two criteria for a group to be a cult. Well, Jesus denied his followers ordinary access of information. Any information his followers got came directly from Jesus’ mouth. And as for reflecting on information, Jesus controlled how his followers reflected on information. Therefore, Jesus was a cult leader, and Christianity was, and is, one gigantic cult!

RESPONSE:

You point to vagueness in the criteria that I cited for a group to be a cult. I would add to the two criteria that cults tend not to be self-sustaining. Major religions that have sustained themselves and have been passed down for generations may avoid the category of cult by educating their young (teaching them how to gain access to information and providing them a setting in which to reflect on and debate the information they gather). In this respect, Christianity—although certainly a cult in some of its many forms—may in general be said to remain outside the category of a cult.

QUESTION:

You said that Jesus was a “non-violent” opposition leader against Rome. But his future followers did exactly what their Messiah said not to do—kill. Whether it was the Inquisition or the Crusades, Christianity has been a violent and murderous religion. Don’t you think that Jesus is disgusted by the religion that he founded?

RESPONSE:

People who view themselves as turning the cards down and reaching unanimous decisions don’t necessarily act in a “laid back” fashion. They often tend to act in a righteous fashion, because they regard their view as “right.” At times, this can spill over into self-righteousness. People must accept that uncertainty accompanies decisions made from a fair-minded (cards-face-down) point of view. I recall a bumper sticker: “Jesus, deliver us from your followers.”

Chapter 9: Feminist Perspectives

QUESTION:

Upon reading the feminist perspectives section, I noticed there is very little praise coming from feminists regarding most philosophers. I can’t help but feel like I shouldn’t take many philosophers we learned about at this point too seriously since most of their ideas appear to be either impossible, biased, or unjust. What are your thoughts about this?

RESPONSE:

In reading contemporary criticisms of past philosophies, a good critical approach is to ask whether the contemporary author shows an appreciation for what the past author was addressing. The feminist responses to Locke in Chapter 9 provide an illustration. Lorenne Clark in effect demands of Locke that he address contemporary issues of women’s rights, but Mary Lyndon Shanley shows a clearer understanding of Locke’s purpose. Locke was attacking the view that rights were possessed by the few at the top of the upright pyramid (Plato’s and Augustine’s models); Locke challenged this view with his proposal that rights were possessed by the many. According to Locke, the individual–and not the few leaders who view themselves as the embodiment of the state–is the possessor of rights.

Shanley appreciates more fully than Clark the problem that Locke faced and tried to resolve, and for this reason Shanley gives a fairer account. Understanding the past, I suggest, is needed if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Chapter 10  Asian Thought

QUESTION:

For this reading, we touched based on cultural differences. My question is in an East Asian perspective how do their human rights differ from others? Human rights are important but there are places where they don’t value human rights.  

RESPONSE:

In general, East Asian countries have given greater priority to welfare rights than to liberty rights, while a country such as the United States gives greater priority to liberty than to welfare rights. In addition, a strong communitarian tradition may be found in East Asian countries, where the state is often viewed as a family. Virtues take priority in communitarianism, so the focus is primarily on the community and its preservation.

QUESTION:

Have Buddhists always been faithful to their commitment to nonviolence. I have read that Buddhists in some places have used violence against other religious sects?

RESPONSE:

The Buddhist commitment to nonviolence has not always been put into practice. Buddhism has historically provided a strong voice for non-violence. However, just as other major religions over the centuries have become aligned with the ruling powers, Buddhism in some countries has had a similar status. Sri Lanka and Japan are examples where Buddhism has become aligned with government. Sri Lanka has seen a Buddhist majority promote a nationalist movement that suppresses Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities. In recent decades this has led to violence. See this link:

<www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2016/10/peaceful-buddhisms-violent-face-in-sri-lanka>

In Japan, samurai warriors have adopted Zen Buddhism and claimed that arms may be taken up in self-defense. They have also developed the idea that taking the life of someone who is about to commit a violent crime is an act of Buddhist compassion.

<www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22356306>

Chapter 10 African, Latin American, and Native American Thought

QUESTION:

I feel the chapter on multicultural perspectives acknowledges two major factors to people—the first factor, being that people put self-interest above others, is nothing new. While it’s more easily observed nowadays thanks to the use of media and social sharing platforms, the fact still remains that there have always been cases of people who put others down in order to better gain power, influence, and their desires.  From such systems like slavery, to religious slavery like the caste system, these are ways in which we put others down just to make it easier on ourselves.

Yet, the second important factor is that, while this negative exists, there are those who are willing to stand and move against those who are focused on self-interest.  What  wrongs have been made can also be undone by those who are willing to take their time in explaining and helping others understand the way that better helps us all become one.  

I feel that as we continue onwards, the acts of self-interest may become more difficult to determine, yet being able to see them, I think, may be easy. What I mean by this is that with how connected and on stage our lives are now, I think that the smart will find a way to hide their intentions, and may try to present themselves as persons who are for the people. I think that in our future, now more than ever it is important to take a hard look at who we speak to. This doesn’t mean we look at their lives in depth and base it off what moral codes we’ve developed. Instead,  it might mean we look at how they present themselves to us and if they want to only provide reasoning for why they should be listened to and others shunned, or if they want us to listen and learn, to take in all walks of life.

How we grow will shape how we wish to take on the world, and for us to be active and ready to fight self-interest from creating more systems of oppression will require us to pay attention and to read more than just the front cover of any story. 

RESPONSE:

You reflect a historical perspective as you incorporate caste and slavery systems in your response to self-interest. The historical extremes of self-interest are important to keep in mind as we face contemporary examples of the same tendency to self-interest in humans. Facing these examples is an important first step in seeking a balance among competing values and interests in the present day.

QUESTION:

This has been a very enlightening class for me. I used what I’ve learned to talk with some of my family and friends about life and what our goals should be. I thought the epilogue ended by saying that all people want a fair game of life and this is one of the only indisputable aspects learned in this class.  One other thing that the epilogue touched on was class division based on wealth and money. Here in the United States, the majority of the wealth is controlled by a small percentage of the population. I see more and more people getting tired of this disparity and wanting to tax the wealthy elite at a much higher rate than they currently are. But one of the things stopping this is other poor Americans. There is a large portion of the country that believes they can one day become a part of that wealthy elite, so they refuse to vote on tax increases for the wealthy. All of this is based on a hypothetical that most likely will never happen. But this country has sold this “American Dream” that if you work hard enough, you can one day join the wealthy elite. I believe this “dream” is the one thing that is stopping a class revolution. What is your opinion on the “American Dream”?

RESPONSE:

On the question of class division based on wealth in the U.S. sociological studies have shown that movement out of the income levels of one’s parents is quite rare in the U.S. The version of the American Dream that you offer is a plausible explanation of class division and the lack of social mobility. This dream is reinforced by media owned by a few wealthy families in the USA. Efforts to counter to thiswill surely be an uphill struggle, but a glimmer of hope may be found in independent media and publishers.

We have studied the question of reality, and one source of illusion in regard to reality is money. The American Dream, as you correctly explain, creates an illusion that can translate into a class or caste system, a reality that proves harsh for many people.

QUESTION:

My question for the week is as follows: 

If the poor need to achieve fair mindedness in order to have power or a voice, how much and what kind of powers would community leaders have to give up in order to give the poor that power?

While I believe all societies have a voice that needs to be heard, what is the guarantee that their voice is for the common good of all the people within the population? How much would poor communities have to give up in order for their voice to be heard? Is that determined by those who are in higher positions?

RESPONSE:

I once heard the expression “poverty is not a culture.” I also heard a response to Garrett Hardin’s claim (for security you may wish to copy the following link into a browser: billsoderberg.com>Garrett Hardin) that wealthy nations should never help poor nations. The response to Hardin’s claim came from a person who grew up in Namibia: “But the wealthy nations are wealthy because of what they took from the poor countries.”

Poverty is often inflicted on people whose land, minerals, and labor are exploited as resources and exported to wealthy nations. When poverty results from these causes, it is quite true that the exploited poor will support each other in community efforts to survive.

The wealthy would have to surrender a sense of entitlement and see themselves as part of the human community. The exploited poor directly express a sense of humanity as they offer support to others suffering from poverty. In the extremes of poverty, even this sense of humanity is sometimes lost when individuals reach the desperation point.

Sustainable agriculture has been the heritage for thousands of years among people that the so-called wealthy of today label as poverty. However, “wealthy” people are very dependent on remote sources of food, fuel, and energy. Given the fragility of the many dependencies of people in “wealthy countries,” those who regard themselves as wealthy should surrender any sense of superiority over so-called poor countries that traditionally have survived with sustainable agriculture.

QUESTION:

I think the desire to create a fair social game is a cute sentiment since there are a lot of social problems that most philosophers (educated males) tend to forget about—like institutionalized racism. I mean that it is an optimistic view for the future, but I would say that it might take 1,000 years for a fair social game to be created or even longer. I mean for that to happen that we need to get rid of all -isms that exist in this world. We would also need to create a level playing field—like education for people in Africa, food for those in poverty, and so on. I mean to be born into this world is to get shackles tied to you, since you could be born gay, or a women, or black, or Asian, or all of them, and so on. That is just the start. I mean you could also look at the country too like Nigeria, where you could be raped, or be born in China where you will be silenced, or Russia where you will be taken away if you are talented in anything. So what I am trying to say is that this world is too complex for a fair social game right now, but also that the philosophers who are doing this kind of thinking are generally males, educated, and probably white. So they have an unfair advantage from the start and don’t really see the atrocities and the unfairness of this world since they get to benefit so much  from this type  of society. It is like a CEO who is standing in his high rise building watching people go by. He sees them but not in clear details. 

RESPONSE:

You express the frustrations of many people who search for a fair society. It may be helpful to see fairness as an ideal to strive for in every generation and in each community. It is an ideal, but ideals can serve as ways to measure how close to fairness a community comes. Plato proposed that a perfect circle could not be achieved in the physical realm and that an ideal society could not be achieved in an actual state. However, both the concept of a perfect circle and that of an ideal society serve as templates by which to measure how close a physical circle or a physical state comes to the ideal.

Some moral progress has been made through the efforts of many people, including philosophers. An end to slavery, the recognition of rights for women and minorities, and religious liberty are some examples that indicate a move toward moral ideals. It is always, however, an uphill struggle that is needed in every generation.

QUESTION:

Personally, I agree with the claim from the book that “since money instead of land has become the measure of wealth, money seems to be simply replacing the earth as the basis for class division.” I also think that its invention allowed the access of the bourgeois class to power. I think that the invention of money from its origin made possible the excessive accumulation of wealth, which until then was limited because the economic system of exchange was used, and this exponentially increased social and economic inequality as well.

Before the invention of money there were no rich and poor, nor social groups; however, in Europe some specific things were always very coveted among others, and greedy people came to America. The English, French, United-Statesian, and industrial revolutions that led to capitalism occurred thanks to the wealth that was sacked from America. With tons of stolen gold, some Europeans gave birth to the concept of economic power. These individuals gained political importance because some of them bought nobility titles and some of them promoted the revolutions, but this stolen gold has always been stained in blood.

My comment: perhaps, the capitalism system has arisen at the price of the lives of possibly tens of millions of people who already inhabited America.

RESPONSE:

You have correctly identified a dark underside of capitalism—namely, that it rewards greed. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations warned that a limit of 5 percent should be placed on interest, but John Stuart Mill advocated that the market should determine the rate of interest.

Karl Marx recognized that capitalism required unlimited resources, and today we see the resources needed to sustain an industrial society are becoming scarce. You could extend your historical perspective further into the past—into Egypt, for example—where people were enslaved to construct pyramids that were built to honor members of royal families. The building of castles and cathedrals in Europe also reinforced caste systems in government and religion. Your final suggestion is highly plausible—namely, that capitalism exacts a high price in human lives for a few capitalists to acquire vast wealth.

QUESTION:

Below are my thoughts, comments and reflections regarding this week’s topic of Latin American perspectives and the epilogue.

When it comes to the enslavement of Latin Americans by the Spanish to fulfill their desires for gold, the question was asked why did Christian missionaries allow this kind of treatment. I think that this answer relates to the earlier topics on what is truth: in this situation the Spanish are using the concept of cohesive truths to justify their actions on the basis that they line up with their current personal beliefs  that they are Christians from a Christian world who need to save the souls of the lost. Conquering and subjugating the Latin American natives will somehow lead to their salvation. If missionaries resisted these practices they risked not being able to go to the new world to try and fulfill what they believed was God’s calling for their lives. This was without a doubt manipulated by the Spanish ruling class in order to line their own pockets; however, their greed would be their downfall: with the influx of gold from the new world gold in Europe would slowly lose its value. 

As for the epilogue I have found this concept of philosophy most intriguing but also somewhat complex: whilst some aspects are practical others are so theoretical it seems almost unnecessary. However the current advances in global civilization would not have been possible without philosophy and philosophers to ask these important questions and to ponder life’s many great mysteries.

RESPONSE:

The missionaries often shared with the Spanish ruling class a view that non-Christians were an unenlightened people and had to be elevated to the superior way of life of European Christians. When this attitude was combined with the superior weaponry of the Spaniards, the lands, resources, and the Native Americans themselves were subjugated by the Spanish to achieve their ends.

Today the blind refusal of many “first world” people to accept the effects of industrialization on climate change is fueled by a worldview that the industrialized way of life is superior to agricultural or nomadic ways of life. This attitude could prove as disastrous to large populations in today’s world as the attitude of superiority proved disastrous to Native Americans in the days of Spanish colonization.

Epilogue 

QUESTION:

While I was reading I was stunned by this quote which said: “The U.S. is a good country, but it needs help.” I could not agree more. I feel like this country is well developed and it’s the country of dreams and hopes, but this country has so much more to it than just that, and actually needs help. 

RESPONSE:

You express an important idea when you say that the U.S. is a country of dreams and hopes. It is helpful to try to name what those dreams and hopes are—for example, to spell out what people mean when they refer to the American Dream. It is also important to recognize that dreams may sometimes become nightmares when people think their society has fully achieved the dreams and the hopes. When people think this, self-righteousness sets in and the society turns into a nightmarish scenario in which some people suffer excessively from inhumane policies.

QUESTION:

The readings for Latin American perspectives and the Epilogue to The Game of Philosophy are very challenging. It’s fascinating to see how people’s perspectives can influence whether or not their judgment is “fair.” It’s practically impossible for humans to be impartial—so in the end, what is and isn’t “fair” can be debated by different parties. It seems obvious to most people that it’s fair for women to have the same rights as men, but someone else might challenge the fairness of that assumption based on their own perceptions. It seems there has to be some moral framework for humans to base their decisions on. Our modern use of a jury in a court of justice helps keep any one opinion from dominating a situation, but just because a majority agrees to a course of action doesn’t make it correct. 

The readings on different perspectives of our struggle to achieve fairness emphasize to me just how hard it is to achieve true justice in the face of opposing views. 

RESPONSE:

You reflect an appreciation of the complexity of achieving “true justice.” Conflict resolution is a major goal of moral philosophy, and an understanding of various value perspectives is important in one’s effort to attain that goal. Trying to achieve this type of understanding is a long and worthy project, and the more one becomes familiar with the various perspectives the greater the chances that one can contribute to resolving or managing conflicts of values.

You use the expression “true justice” in your response to this week’s readings. Moral communitarians often consider justice a basic virtue and restorative justice as true justice; utilitarians (in the moral liberal camp) consider distributive justice as true justice; and libertarians (also in the moral liberal camp) consider retributive justice as true justice. These are refinements that you could pursue as you continue the study we have started in our philosophy course.

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