Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Moralizing and contempt

January 26, 2016

I was reading the new iteration of the feature in the NYTimes called “The Conversation.”  It used to be between Gail Collins and David Brooks, now it’s come back with Gail Collins and Arthur Brooks.

Part of the dialogue discussed the role of contempt in shaping current politics and what’s going on in the presidential race.  In a comment I wrote, I voiced my agreement that contempt is divisive and widespread.  I also mentioned that my hope that David Brooks was interested in bringing people together by bridging the gap opened up by contempt between, say, liberals and conservatives, had been disappointed.  I think I thought he was interested in seeing how conservatives have strengths in political and social relations that may not be present among liberals, and vice versa.  I had this idea that he was going to observe what each group can bring to the table that’s positive and how the members of each group might learn to relate to the positives and put aside the contempt.  Something like that.

Then later I read an article about David Brooks by Danny Funt in Columbia Journalism Review from last October that discussed Brooks’s moralizing.  I have often had a problem reading this moralizing, for my own reasons, but in light of the point raised by Arthur Brooks about the divisiveness of contempt, I started thinking about what separates moralizing from the expression of contempt.  And I decided that often, not much.

I think that doing what some people happen to deem to be morally correct is enjoyable to do because doing the thing in that way makes it go better — more easily — and less detritus is formed from doing it in that way than would be formed from engaging in behavior that tried to accomplish the same thing through things like deceit, fraud, coercion, etc.  I don’t generally think about it as being what one does because it’s a superior thing to do, I think of it more in terms of friction and fallout and how it makes one feel in the long run.  It’s kind of like picking the comfortable shoes for the hike instead of the fashionable ones.

So behaving morally doesn’t have to involve moralizing, I don’t think.  I don’t think it has to involve the part of moralizing where a person might feel contempt for people or their behavior that doesn’t measure up to a particular moral standard.  Instead such people and their behavior can seem more like something involving making a poor choice.

So why do people go in for promoting moral behavior in a way that involves moralizing and something that borders on contempt?

I don’t know if I know the answer to that, but I am aware that some people feel a need to feel special, but don’t admit that to themselves, much less consider if that’s a good idea or what its impact on others might be.  I have no idea if that’s what goes on with moralizing in general or with David Brooks’s moralizing in particular, but that’s probably the avenue I would explore first — once I was able to put aside my reaction from feeling held in contempt.

Harmony and distinction

July 27, 2014

In law school students are trained “to think like a lawyer.”  It involves the ability to make distinctions and it also involves a skill in finding a way to “harmonize” prior precedents seemingly at odds with each other.

It’s, to my way of thinking, a language.  And its relationship to spiritual insight is that it gives a person a way of putting into rational linear thought an insight perceived as a concept without words.  It is not itself, I don’t think, a path to non-dual thinking, but nor does it inhibit non-dual thinking — I think it supports it.  And it doesn’t just deal with splitting things from each other, it provides patterns for seeing compatibility among things that might superficially seem not to fit together.

Now, as for getting to the point of seeing things non-linearly, I am not sure intellectual training is relevant (except insofar, as I said, for providing a language for communicating to others about it), any kind of intellectual training — philosophical, theological, mathematical, etc.  Training in any of them may well provide a fluidity of thought that helps in translating, but how to break out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz, well, that, I think, takes something else and involves a different part of our mental processes.

Pain avoidance, darkness, and evil

June 4, 2014

I think today’s Daily Meditation gives me an opportunity to approach a point I usually end up trying to make in other ways.

I want to debunk the notion that really severe pain and suffering imply some abstract, Platonic form-like thing which we call “Evil.”

I am not trying to say the pain or suffering is any less than it is, just that there is not an overarching concept beyond them.

Maybe we infer such a concept because it somehow makes bearing the pain and suffering easier in the moment.  But it gives us a dualistic world in which we suffer even more, I think.

Anyway, Father Rohr talks about people with certain personality profiles trying to avoid pain and not sufficiently accepting darkness as a part of life.  He doesn’t use the word “evil” and I agree with that.

Now I would just broaden the concept he’s promoting and apply it to “theology” and “philosophy” and ask people to accept the “darkness” there too as just a mundane, although difficult, part of life, and not try to cast it out as something foreign to (God’s) world.


October 26, 2013

I just read an interesting piece on blame.  I can’t remember who put me onto it, or I would mention them to thank them.

It also turns out that I used to know the author.

I don’t agree with all of the piece, especially the last paragraph, but I really like the way it opens up the discussion and points out the difference between a habit of thinking or reacting and a moral principle.

Reading it reminded me of a point my mother is fond of making:  whatever letters to the editor she has thought of writing, or even written, somebody else has written, too, she has found.

Log jams

October 21, 2013

All the discussion in the media about the technological problems with the federal website for buying health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act got me thinking about other situations in which a system was overwhelmed by more users than it can handle.

In the spiritual context, this can involve trying to achieve enlightenment, or even just basic connection to God, in order to take in fresh spiritual oxygen, through someone else, or it can involve trying discharge our spiritual detritus through someone else, looking for a place to discharge our carbon dioxide or worse, as it were.

Systems are overwhelmed, conduits become clogged.

These things can be fixed.

But to do that in the spiritual realm, religions need to become more flexible than many of them are and make corrections as needed, in my opinion.  And I am leery of systems that rely on using conduits — spiritual development requires everyone to get up off the couch and learn how to do it for themselves if they possibly can.  Accommodations are available for the truly disabled, but most people are not truly spiritually disabled, they are more like I was when I had a speech impediment and was using the wrong part of my vocal apparatus to make sounds.  It’s about finding that part of the self that comes to the fore when we pull aside the part of ourselves we identify with most of the time.  That’s kind of like the getting pregnant part of the process — it’s not the entire shooting match, but it’s a huge and necessary part of developing a spiritual life, that is, finding the part of the self through which this can actually be done.  And it’s where philosophy and other secular systems seem to me to fall down, whether or not that is a necessary result of their axioms, and where even many religions do not, in my opinion, place enough emphasis.  And don’t get me started on books in the popular press that overlook this issue.


September 3, 2013

Reading a NYTimes post about women in philosophy, I got to thinking about an old spiritual story.

The Times piece starts off with the author’s difficulty fielding responses to her self-description as a philosopher when people ask her what she does.

In this spiritual story I’m thinking about, a young girl is questioned by some men from another culture what she is.  I suspect they meant whether she’s a servant, a princess, a weaver, etc.  She answers something like “Energy worker.”  She is a shaman, I guess we might say.

They end up pressing her into prostitution.  She at some point blames herself for her easily misconstrued answer; maybe if she had not thought to present herself as accomplished they would have let her alone.

Nowadays we would say she was trafficked and we wouldn’t see her as the cause of her misfortune.

Natural law and positive law

July 1, 2012

I was replying to a reply to a comment I made on a NYTimes op-ed column (Thomas Friedman’s), and I got to thinking about law school training and the belief system embedded in Anglo-American law.

One of the “great debates” in law schools is that between natural law and positive law — is law what we say it is (positivism) or does it pre-exist in nature for us to discern?

Clearly, it is both, and I don’t just mean we consciously take from both categories — what we believe to be immortal truths and what we knowingly enact somewhat arbitrarily (like which side of the road we have to drive on, or something).

It’s both because we are the conduits — even if we are perceiving a law or system that pre-exists us, we are doing the perceiving and we don’t usually understand what we are trying to perceive clearly and hence what we say it is is our own creation, at least often.

Activity, inactivity, tax, not a tax

June 29, 2012

One person’s sophistry is another person’s reasoning, it seems.  That, to me, is one of the lessons of yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on health care, more specifically, on the Affordable Care Act.

Not buying health insurance: can Congress regulate that?  According to enough justices, no, it is not activity within the scope of the Commerce Clause.  Can the Court review the legislation or is it a tax and must we then wait for it to be implemented before it can be reviewed judicially?  No, but it is characterizable a tax for other purposes, namely finding a basis in the Constitution for its lawful creation.

Is this why we go to law school?  To learn how to think like this?  Maybe.  But to me it speaks more to the limits of how we think generally in our culture, in black and white, in terms of X and not-X, opposites, and opposition.

There are other ways of thinking, but they are not developed through our intellects (although we do express them through our intellects and language once we have developed them elsewhere in our psyches).

One of the hazards of having done so is losing the patience or interest in communicating and working with people who haven’t; but that’s no less important a challenge to be mastered than moving beyond dualistic thinking.

Patterns and variations

March 5, 2012

Not that long after Willy died, and I was trying to deal with all kinds of stuff, my friends and neighbors, Jane and Bob, came up with the idea that Bob would come over on Sunday evenings to “do” philosophy (I suspect I’ve written about this before) with me — to give me some sort of reprieve from my usual responsibilities and to get himself to reread texts he probably otherwise wouldn’t but wanted to.  And we read Plato dialogues in English translation together just about every week until they moved, I think.

Some time after that, when I was reading a lot of Henri Nouwen, I found myself reading parts of the New Testament in Greek, Latin, and English.

So, I read the Brooks-Collins Conversation today in the NYTimes and think, “Okay I’ve never read Marcus Aurelius [I think my mother has], maybe I should — the translations are enough to make me wonder what the original text (Greek) says.”  (Brooks quotes Aurelius and Epictetus in the dialogue.)

I don’t think in the way philosophers seem to, but Marcus Aurelius seems to have something of a mystic’s approach to his ruminations, so I’m thinking that I might find his work more accessible.

But what really interests me at this point is how this pattern and its variations come up in my life — they feel like a series of similar waves that roll in over me, or as if I’m replaying a somewhat similar scene over and over again in different variations.  I can’t tell what I’m supposed to be learning from this particular lesson (the fact that the pattern recurs makes me think there’s some lesson to be learned here), or if each succeeding iteration is some kind of improvement on the others in some way and is leading to some kind of resolution of something — I’m leaving out some of the details that might be relevant to that, like Jane’s brothers and people who wanted me to convert to Catholicism, so the lesson to be learned might lie with those pieces — but maybe it’s just a matter of replaying the scene over and over again until the energy from some original version of it dissipates.  For me at this point the progress is that I feel more relaxed and less impatient about what the consequences of this scene might be this time around, and in fact I am kind of looking forward to seeing where this leads.

Violence measured per species or across species?

October 26, 2011

Having encountered yet another discussion of the recent book The Better Angels of  Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, and having wondered myself whether violence is just a symptom of something else that actually hasn’t decreased and is manifesting elsewhere, I am wondering whether the argument in this book takes into account violence expressed against other species, such as in overfishing or deforestation.  Maybe I should read the book.