Robert Anderson


Somewhere Aristotle says something to the effect that: “The truth is like the broadside of a barn. Everybody hits it.” By this, I presume he meant that everybody grasps some part of the truth. Not necessarily the whole, not necessarily with clarity or precision, not necessarily with confidence about which part, but nobody gets it 100% wrong.

I would qualify Aristotle’s “everybody” with “everybody intelligent and thinking.” The qualifier “intelligent” is not meant to mark a hoity-toity upper limit such as only “us educated folk” or “we PhDs” or “me and my fellow professional academics” but rather a lower limit. IQs in some people plummet to such depths that some people are no longer to be counted among Aristotle’s “everybody.” Similarly, “thinking” is not meant to indicate some rarefied phenomenon but rather to exclude obvious absences of the use of intelligence such as when a person is sleeping, under hypnosis, insane, intoxicated, whacked out on drugs, and the like.

The practical takeaway from Aristotle’s remark is, I think, the following. Whenever people (people intelligent and thinking) think something is true, then the fair way of dealing with them is always to search for what part of the truth they have grasped and to give them credit for it. Even when we are sure that their beliefs or convictions are ultimately wrong, we should always attempt to determine how they too have hit the barn in some fashion. This is respecting another person as a rational being.

Here is a case in point. The other day I found Frank Keating in an essay of his expressing a sentiment that I have heard many other people express at different times. Frank Keating is clearly intelligent. He went to Georgetown as an undergrad, earned a JD, served as a U.S. Attorney and as Associate Attorney General in the DOJ, was twice elected Governor of Oklahoma, and in the early 2000’s was picked to head the investigation of U.S. Catholic priests in the child sex abuse scandal. He also was clearly thinking when he wrote “The Death Penalty: What’s All the Debate About?” In the essay, he tells the story of Roger Dale Stafford, who was the first person executed in Oklahoma on his watch as governor. He asks the reader:

“Tell me what you do with a Roger Dale Stafford who, south of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City, waved down a car with a staff sergeant of the Air Force and his wife and their eight-year-old son inside. Stafford took the staff sergeant over the hill and shot him in the face, killing him. This was a robbery, yet he also took his wife over the same berm and shot and killed her. Then he came down to the truck, and, whimpering in the back of the cab of the truck, wrapped up in blankets trying to get away from it all, was the eight-year-old son; Stafford fired until he was out of bullets into the back of the truck to make the whimpering stop. Then he went to a steakhouse in Oklahoma City, a family restaurant. As it was closing up, he herded four fifteen-year-olds and two adults into the freezer and killed them execution-style while taking money from the cash register. Now, what do you do with someone like that?”

Frank Keating’s own answer to this question is that we should execute people like Roger Dale Stafford, and he, as Governor, allowed the execution of Roger Dale Stafford to continue without a stay in 1995. Thus, Frank Keating is in favor of the death penalty.

As far as I can tell, Frank Keating’s answer to his question is wrong because the death penalty is wrong. We do not get to execute people, not even people as depraved as Roger Dale Stafford. Thus, at least so far, I think Frank Keating has missed the broadside of the barn.

But the sentiment that I am interested in is Frank Keating’s explanation of why he thinks the death penalty is justified. He says:

“According to my sense of ethics, my sense of morals, my sense of right and wrong, you don’t chop off someone’s hand for bouncing a check, but somebody who kills nine human beings forfeits the right to live. That is my sense of values, my sense of ethics. I look at someone like that [Roger Dale Stafford] and I think to myself that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for that person. I honestly believe that.”

What, if anything, is right about this heartfelt conviction?

Perhaps many things. But I can find two things right, and I give Frank Keating credit for recognizing those two.

First, Frank Keating is right that this good earth, this wonderful land, is too good for Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also too good for me, you, and every other person that lives, has lived, or will live in this country or on this planet. I can find nothing in what I have ever done or in what anybody else has ever done that makes me or them deserving of the goodness and splendor of this life. This life, this world, is a great gift that none of us have earned. Nor can I find any evidence that this world or some God owes us this life, this world.  We puny human beings are simply undeserving. We don’t earn this life, and nobody and nothing owes it to us. This truth is piercingly clear in scoundrels like Roger Dale Stafford. But it is also obvious in the glorious, crescendos of life: when we fall in love; when our children are born; when we melt in the panorama of a high mountain just climbed; and when we finally see the light of truth. We do not deserve so much of what we enjoy. But from that fact it does not follow that we get to willfully deprive others of this life, this world.

Second, Frank Keating is right that banishment or exclusion can be a reasonable and justified response to wrongdoing. Time-out for little children, suspension from school, eviction from movie theaters, barring from Wall Street, ostracism from Athens, transportation to North America and later to Australia, removal to penal colonies like Devil’s Island, and placement in the Phantom Zone (as in Superman comics) might all be perfectly good ways to deal with wrongdoers. Banishment by death, however, is no part of the broadside of the barn.

Many people think that a hallmark of rationality is agreement. They think that genuinely rational inquiries should result in one side convincing the others to agree that its position is best. When agreement cannot be achieved, the matter in question is just a matter of opinion or preference.

This view is behind a commonly heard criticism of philosophy. Philosophy is merely a bunch of opinions or preferences because the history of philosophy is a history of disagreements. Surely, so goes the criticism, if anybody indeed understood anything substantive, then he or she could lay out the reasons, evidence, and arguments that would convince other rational thinkers. Nobody can lay out what convinces. Therefore, nobody has understood anything substantive (modus tollens). This view is also behind commonly held beliefs that politics, morality, aesthetics, religious faith and practice, and much more are nothing more than matters of opinion or preference.

But is it correct? Should we expect agreement to be the norm among thinking people? One tricksy way of showing that the view of rationality as leading to agreement has problems is by pointing out that many people (like myself) do not think that agreement is a hallmark of rationality. They disagree. As a result, the view, if it follows its own rule, becomes merely a matter of opinion or preference.

A less tricksy, somewhat helpful answer distinguishes between maximal rationality and everything less. Regularly reason goes off the rails, and when it does, disagreements among people naturally arise. Feelings and interests can skew rational judgment, just as biases and prejudices can. Poor education and bad mental habits can enfeeble rational thinking. Moral turpitude routinely spills over into thought and judgment. So also if enough goes wrong, minds can simply break. When a couple of these are added to the various shapes and sizes that native intellectual capacity and ability take, they form a toxic stew that should surprise nobody in its failure to produce agreement.

But what about in their best moments when people are maximally rational? Should we not expect agreement then? Probably not. If human reason is not all-powerful and if the world is as big and complex as it seems to be, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in speculative matters. Even truths as simple such as 2 + 3 = 5 become horribly convoluted when one presses harder on what exactly are numbers, what is addition, and in what sense are 2 + 3 equal to 5. The Hindu story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and then self-reporting wildly different accounts of what an elephant is may be a rather good image after all of the difficulty of reaching agreement in speculative matters.

Similarly, if there are a multitude of genuinely satisfying human goods as there seems to be and if they can be realized in different degrees by means of many, different, concrete projects and plans, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in practical matters. Betty wants to climb all of the fourteeners in the contiguous US, whereas Ron wants to raise children, garden, and bake bread. Even if they are broad-minded enough to see the value of each other’s goals, they still disagree so much on what is worth pursuing here and now that they have little hope of joining in the collaborative efforts that is the stuff of friendship and marriages. And so it goes. Juwan wants Paramount Pictures to make more Star Trek movies, whereas Deirdre wants them to make more Mission Impossible movies. Nation R wants justice that settles old scores first, and Nation P wants justice that wipes the slate clean and begins anew. You want ObamaCare, and I do not. And on and on.

In the end, people disagree because they have good reasons to disagree. Thus, we should expect disagreement because disagreement typifies human rationality at its best.

Of course, if you disagree with the above, you prove the point. And if you agree with it, you prove the point again!

Evil and the It’s-Worth-It Thesis

All of the most plausible responses to the problem of evil –the problem that the reality of evil in the world causes for believers who hold that the greatest possible being (God) exists– reach the same point but then advance no further. Less convincing responses typically downplay the reality or severity of evil, or they downgrade God to something less than the greatest possible being. The most plausible responses do neither. Instead, they identify some good that can be realized and advanced thanks to the reality of bad things (reconciliation with God in friendship and familial love is one candidate), and then they maintain that the realization and advancement of this good is worth the reality of bad things in this world. Thus, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil come down to an it’s-worth-it claim. But is any good truly worth the variety and amount of evil that the human race and the rest of the natural world have caused and suffered over tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years? The most plausible responses never get around to manifesting the it’s-worth-it claim, and how one would go about doing so is not obvious.

The difficulty in showing it’s worth it is the incommensurability or irreducibility of many values. Community, life, health, knowledge, beauty, and many more are different like apples and oranges, and nobody has ever shown that this many units of one are worth that many units of the other. Similarly, nobody has ever shown that something like heavenly community in the future is worth the destruction of earthly goods now. But here are three approaches to making good on the it’s-worth- it claim.

First, one could maintain that God possesses not mere omnipotence (the ability to do everything that can be done) but super strength omnipotence (the ability to do what cannot be done). Accordingly, God can square the circle and specify precisely the square root of 2. So also, God can conquer the problem of the incommensurability of values and make the disvalues in the world truly worth the realization of some positive value. The difficulty with this approach is that it quickly turns our talk about God into gibberish. If God has super strength omnipotence, then he can also conquer every contradiction. Thus, the propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” can be both true because God can bring about the truth of a contradiction. They also can both be false, and they also can both be true and false. Likewise, for “God is good” and “God is evil,” “God loves human persons” and “God does not give a damn about them,” and so forth.

Second, one could say that the incommensurability of values is a problem for us, but it is not an intrinsically insurmountable problem. Accordingly, God, the ultimate mega mind, can in some way that we cannot understand perform the calculus of values and show that the reality of evil is worth some good that will emerge. This approach to showing that it’s worth it, however, is unsatisfying because it leaves the mystery of understanding the it’s-worth-it claim where we found it: a mystery.

Finally, one could say that God is in the same boat as us with regard to the reality of evil. I cannot bring a child into this world without also guaranteeing that she or he will suffer, fail dismally as a moral agent, and ultimately die. I cannot pursue health in myself or others without drugs and treatments that cause all sorts of bad side effects. I cannot write this blog with risking confusing, angering, or demoralizing readers of it. So, just as I cannot bring about many goods without at the same time bringing about a host of evils, so also perhaps God cannot either. Moreover, the evils that I do bring about are worth it in the sense that they are worth it to me: I want to realize certain goods in this world (rather than do nothing) and do not intend, not even a little bit, the evils that I bring about as well. Similarly, perhaps one can say of God that whatever good He is trying to realize is worth it because He would rather do something than nothing and He does not intend the evils that come about in the course of pursuing that good. The difficulty with this approach is twofold, however. On the one hand, just as the defense of human actions by appeal to the distinction between intended goods and unintended evils often appears to be mere sniveling or shuffling, so also defending God by appeal to the same does not appear to preserve His perfect goodness. On the other hand, God appears to be as puny and weak as human agents who are stuck in a universe that disallows the bringing about of good without the bringing of evils as well.

In the end, the most plausible responses to the problem of evil hit the same sandbar that impedes further progress on the problem, and how to get off the sandbar is hard to figure out.

Robert Anderson
Department of Philosophy
Saint Anselm College

This paper was presented at a Philosophy Department Colloquium on December 8, 2009.

Robert Anderson: The Value of Human Life. Would you want to be a Brain in a Cyborg?”

Click above to listen or right click to download.

The human mind has a love affair with the rational.  It constantly seeks to find order, pattern, measure, or whatever intelligibility it can in whatever it beholds.  Think, for example, of well-known perceptual illusions, such as the duck-rabbit diagram or the spinning ballerina circulating on the internet these days.  The mind strains to make sense of visual cues when there is little or nothing to make sense of.  Sometimes when no order, pattern, or measure is to be found, the mind will overreach and attempt to find what is not there.  However, the effort to find rationality when there is not any to be found can itself be irrational.  The better response to the reality of irrationality is simply to accept that some things are just unintelligible and then cope with that fact as best as one can.

Because irrationality is a kind of nothingness, it often can, like other nothingnesses, surprise.  The first time I experienced the sensation of trying to breathe underwater when my scuba air supply was cut off, I was surprised.  In some nebulous and unthinking way, I had presumed that I would still breathe but in a non-oxygenating way.  Instead, of course, I discovered that in spite of all my volitional and mental screams for my lungs to breathe, they just sat by inert, motionless like a body buried under a pile of tacklers in football.  Similarly, the first time I picked the brain of a congenitally blind friend to find out what he thought I meant when I said “I can see objects at a distance” and “I see contrasts of bright and dark,” I was surprised.  I guess I expected that he would have confused or twisted or inchoate ideas of what I meant by these expressions.  Instead, he simply had none.  Rows and columns in his spreadsheet of ideas were empty cells.


One of the first meetings with irrationality face-to-face is in mathematics.  The diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the square’s sides.  Translated into plain English this means that the diagonal and the sides are incomprehensible together.  There is no grasping with precision how the length of the diagonal compares with the length of the side.  To get your mind around the length of the diagonal is to disable your capacity also to get your mind around the length of the side, and vice versa.  The irrationality of the diagonal of a square is astounding.  How can something so simple –the comparison of straight lines which are merely pure length—be beyond our mental powers?  It just is.  In fact, mathematics is full of irrationality.  For example, every curve (if it is truly curved rather than jointed) is irrational with every straight line, no matter how slightly deflected from the straight the curve is.  Thus, even mathematical objects –the most innocent-looking of objects—are bizarre and blemished with the stain of unintelligibility.


A second location of irrationality is in values, particularly moral values.  The fact is that many things are good in ways that are irreducible both one to other and all to one.  They are just different like apples and oranges.  Human life, knowledge, beauty, friendship, craftsmanship, and sport are different kinds of goods, and no measuring stick exists that can compare the amount of goodness in each.  But the mind balks at the prospect that moral values are unintelligible when compared side by side.  And so, a whole theory of morality has been constructed and widely accepted that claims it can measure the immeasurable and grasp the ungraspable.  The theory is, of course, utilitarianism.


A third (and especially distressing) place that irrationality is found is in people.  Besides the irrationalities of insanity and imbecility, there is a kind of deep irrationality that even very smart and sane people can possess.  One of my first encounters with profound irrationality in people was when I was eleven.  My Little League coach had invited me to vacation with him and his family at a Southern Californian beach for a few days.  The first evening into the camping trip, Coach Bob got drunk and enraged.  He then pulled out a shotgun, pointed it at his wife, two kids, and me, and demanded that all of us return to the camper and go to sleep.  For the rest of the night as he lay with the gun beside him and we lay quiet in the camper bunks, I remember thinking: “Why is Coach doing this?  How is this going to end?  Should I have seen this coming?”  A few years later another exposure to profound irrationality rocked my comfy, cozy world.  One morning the front-page story of the Riverside, California newspaper that I delivered reported the story of Mary Vincent.  She was a 14-year old girl that had run away from home and was found wandering naked on the side of a California highway.  She had been raped.  She also had both of her arms chopped off below the elbows.  I wondered then and still wonder now: “Why would anyone do that to another human being?”  I cannot fathom what rational appeal is there in hacking off another person’s arms.  The raping, stripping, and abandoning make a little (very little) sense.  But the mutilating makes none.  Still ten plus years later I found myself in the bizarre situation of being locked in an apartment in Southern Germany for about four hours.  I was locked in with three other young children, a middle-aged woman (their mother), and an American buddy.  My buddy and I had left Cologne and travelled four hours south to earn some money by helping to pack up the estate of the woman’s recently deceased mother.  Not long into the trip, however, the woman announced that she had changed the plans, and instead of packing up the estate we would be visiting the quaint city of Strasbourg, France for the weekend.  When my buddy and I informed her that we weren’t going any further with her and her kids, she locked us all within her apartment.  What was this woman thinking?  Ordering two adult American males around?  Locking us in like little children?  We could have done anything we wanted to her apartment, her stuff, and her.  We were bigger, stronger, and outnumbered her.  Still another ten years later I was the target of a girl’s obsessive infatuation.  My rebuffs were interpreted as convoluted “yes’s.”  Random events in the person’s life were interpreted as orchestrated efforts by me to convey meaning.  My minutest movements were interpreted as encrypted messages to her.  In a strange and sick way, I was the warp and woof in the world of a person whom I hardly knew and who definitely did not know me.  What was this person thinking?


When you come across profound irrationality in people, my recommendation is this.  First, recognize it for what it is.  It is something that does not make sense.  Second, stop trying to make sense of it.  It is something that does not make sense.  Third, resign yourself to the fact that profound irrationality in people is yet another unintelligible datum in a universe which in many ways lies beyond our capacity to understand.  Next, keep profoundly irrational people at arm’s length.  If you can keep a city between you and them, that is even better.  Finally, for your own part, live in a reflective and reasonable way which gives witness to who you really are: a rational being.

Many people think that literature (as well as movies, paintings, and other artistic works) must have as its point something or other important. Because they think this, they scoff at the notion that enjoyment or delight is its point rather than something more serious and substantive. When people are pressed on what is the supposedly serious and substantive point of literature, truth is the usual candidate proposed.

But that literature (or movies, or paintings, or other artistic works) convey truth is not very plausible. Novels and poems do not produce arguments, gather evidence, or provide first-hand experience of anything. They do not even seem to function as authoritative testimony to anything. To claim some proposition P is true because Shakespeare says in Hamlet such-and-such is plain foolishness.

Though the literature-as-truth folk seem to be mistaken, we should meet them half way and grant that literature can be a departure point for our own investigation of, reflection on, or recognition of some truth. Since literature can only be a departure point, we still have to do the work of discovering whether or not a given proposition is true.

A recent case in point is both Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and the homonymous movie thereof. Both are artistically delightful, and both can springboard us to two powerful truths, truths which many of us only come to recognize quite late. The first is that we human beings routinely make a serious mess of things, even when we intend the opposite effect, even when we are acting according to our best lights, and even when we are confident in our decisions. In Atonement, the main character, the young teenage Briony, gives testimony to a crime, and that testimony has as an unintended consequence the destruction of her older sister’s only chance to be united with the love of her life. That the world, other people, and ourselves are complicated and imperfectly understood by all of us means that again and again our choices will cause harm.

The second truth is closely tied to the first: Often the unintended harm we do, not only cannot be remedied, but it cannot even be apologized for, forgiven, or recompensed. In Atonement, Briony struggles with the problem of how to fulfill the interpersonal obligation to atone for the harm she causes her sister and her sister’s beloved when that fulfillment is impossible because both are dead. The novel (and movie) has a pretty and artistic solution to the problem, though not one available to the rank and file of humanity. Most of us cannot write novels, much less best-selling novels, and transform the real victims of our decisions into imaginative characters who find goodness and happiness nonetheless. Thus, in many instances the mess we create is a mess that we can do nothing about.

Evidence that literature does not convey truth is that many readers and viewers of Atonement may not see the above truths. They do not see them, because the truths are not anywhere in the novel or film. Rather, they are recognized only by examining our own and others’ experience of the human situation. But even though literature does not convey truth as many people maintain, perhaps a mark of some great literature is that it is an impetus to investigation, reflection, and recognition.

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.


-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

http://www.amazon.com/Inquiry-Concerning-Human-Understanding/dp/002353110X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103665&sr=1-3


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.



-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

http://www.amazon.com/Euclids-Elements-T-L-Heath-Translation/dp/1888009195/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103502&sr=8-1

Albert Camus- The Stranger

http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Camus/dp/0679720200/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222102515&sr=1-2



-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

http://www.amazon.com/Augustine-Confessions-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0192833723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104161&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Englishconfessions.html


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

http://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Penguin-Classics-Marcus-Aurelius/dp/0140449337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104796&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html

Slavoj Zizek

Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books

http://www.amazon.com/Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books/dp/0312427182/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222283299&sr=1-1


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-monologium.html

Proslogium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html



-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

http://www.amazon.com/Problems-Philosophy-Bertrand-Russell/dp/160597899X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104969&sr=8-3

Online edition

http://books.google.com/books?id=33jP5wdnt7YC&dq=the+problems+of+philosophy&pg=PP1&ots=iYnhLWaJnI&sig=IsMx9A1hbcpsZWLGZFZ40Ihs56Y&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA3,M1


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

http://www.amazon.com/Oedipus-Rex-Literary-Touchstone-Sophocles/dp/1580495931/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105258&sr=8-1



-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Wordsworth-Classics/dp/1840224533/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105435&sr=1-3

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

http://www.amazon.com/Josef-Pieper-Anthology/dp/0898702267/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222282616&sr=8-2


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

http://www.amazon.com/Belief-Unbelief-Self-Knowledge-Michael-Novak/dp/1560007419


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

http://www.amazon.com/Gorgias-Penguin-Classics-Plato/dp/0140449043/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222106429&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/gorgias.html

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

One way that the human mind gains clarity about an object is by approaching it from it opposites.  Thus, often a meaning of a word is apprehended more easily through its antonym, an idea is more adequately understood in view of what conflicts with it, and a positive reality is better grasped thanks to its negation.  Hope is an example of something, as previous blogs have indicated, that is rightly accessed by the indirect means of considering what are its contraries.

Hope is not despair.  Whereas despair is the abandonment of what is not yet achieved and still remains difficult to achieve, hope holds fast in spite of difficulties ahead.  Hope is also not wishful thinking.  Whereas wishful thinking is merely the expression of the dreamy desires of one’s heart, hope implies stick-to-itiveness or sustained commitment.  Likewise, hope is not presumption.  Whereas presumption mistakenly assumes all good things will come to oneself, hope recognizes their true nature.  In addition, hope, at least insofar as it is a positive attribute or virtue, is about the good.  That the virtue of hope is about the good is evident by considering its opposite vice: hoping for evil.

That hoping for evil is morally bad may not be obvious.  What is wrong with attitudes like “Death to America,” “Go to hell,” “I hope you get ass cancer,” “I want to die,” and the like?  Their wrongness cannot lie in their consequences, since they need not lead to any.  They need not even lead to action, and they need not ever be vocalized.  People can simply remain in idle and silent hope that evil befall themselves or others.  Instead, hoping for evil –like desiring to do evil, deliberating about evil, and fantasizing about evil– is itself evil, not because bad consequences result from such hope, but because such hope constructs the moral self.  In fact, all free movements of the will construct the moral self.  The moral self is that part of ourselves which we control and thus we are responsible for.  Moreover, when the will wills, its identity –and thus a person’s identity– is constructed by what it inclines toward or away from.  To will the incineration of innocent human beings, for example, is to become a certain kind of person –the kind who wants to incinerate innocent people.  Thus, when one wills good, good becomes part of one’s identity, and when one wills evil, evil becomes part of one’s identity.  As a result, hope is a virtue only when what is hoped for is genuinely good, and hope is a vice when what is hoped for is good’s opposite.

An extra payoff of considering the vice of hoping for evil is that the Christian conception of hope becomes more intelligible and perhaps more plausible.  Christians, no doubt, hope for many things.  We hope for life after this life, reunion with loved ones, resurrection of the body, the communion of saints, friendship with God, peace, perfect love, and so forth.  We also hope for the healing of the brokenness of this world, especially the self-created brokenness of our very selves through moral evil.  We do not simply want the memory of our earthly brokenness obliterated or ignored.  We do not want the sands of time to flow in reverse and to erase our former selves.  We want genuine restoration and renewal.  But to be truly mindful of the reality of our own moral selves is to recognize that the restoration and renewal desired would seem to be impossible tasks.  How can moral evil ever be made right?  The prospects are more bleak if moral evil includes even the multitude of minute perturbations of our will like hoping for evil.  Out of that bleakness comes the need for the virtue of religious hope.  None of us knows whether the brokenness of human beings will ever be made right.  None of us knows how such healing might be carried out.  Nonetheless, those of us who believe hope that it shall be so somehow.

Why sport?  One of the great loves of my life (and many other people’s lives) is sport.  Whether it is professional football, Saint Anselm hockey, town youth soccer, pickup basketball games, or nerdy homeschoolers’ gym games, I enjoy them all.  I take great delight in playing, watching, and coaching.  But why?  I don’t think the history of philosophy is very helpful on providing insight into the value of sport.  Sport is typically viewed, from that vantage point, as the stuff of children, or as a preoccupation of the ill-bred, or a positive distraction for the rest of us.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution was required to free human beings from their painful awareness of the mind-numbing, exhausting, endless toil that their survival theretofore required and then to reveal the positive value of sport.

In any case, I think that sport is one of the great delights in life because excellence in bodily activity simply for the sake of that excellence is one of the great values in life.  It is a value up there with friendship, knowledge, beauty, health, and life itself.  It is not for the sake of health and fitness, though it can serve those purposes.  It is not for the sake of building character traits such as courage, teamwork, and time-management skills, though it can serve those purposes too.  It is not merely to build friendships or to cement business deals.  It is not merely to amuse ourselves after more weighty affairs have worn us down and before we return to the real business of life.  Rather, it is simply worth doing, observing, and teaching for its own sake.

Why sport is worth doing is something of a puzzle.  I suspect that the solution lies in an anti-Cartesian, non-dualism.  We are not minds in bodies.  We are bodily willing minds, or willful mindful bodies, or minding bodying wills.  Thought, decision, and movement are difficult to orchestrate, and their orchestration itself can be an object of beauty, delight, and admiration.

The objections to this assessment of sport are, of course, commonly heard.  They occur to all of us.  “Not everyone likes sports.”  Oh, really?  I have never met such a person.  When people say they do not like sports, what they really mean is that they do like certain (usually team) sports.  Who does not like some form of bodily activity, whether it is skipping rocks on a pond, sledding in the snow, or shooting an arrow at a target?  “The surfer dude and ski bum are hardly worthy of our admiration.”  Insofar as he surfs or she skis and do so well, he or she is, but insofar as he is a dude and she is a bum, perhaps neither is.  “Surely many things are more important in life –feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, surviving threats to our national identity, and coping with our own mortality.”  No doubt, many things are by many measuring sticks more something or other –more urgent, or more irretrievable when lost, or more necessary, or more profitable, and so forth.  But were everyone fed, sheltered, secure, and well adjusted, what then?  What would we do?  Play sports, among other things.  Moreover, measured by other standards, sports score quite high.  They are especially accessible, for example.  The young, the old, the physically disabled, and the mentally deficient can all play.  Some open space, perhaps a ball, and the game is on.  They are also easily recognized and appreciated.  Witness the throngs and smiles at sporting complexes as opposed to the sparse crowds and blank faces at museums of fine art.  They are especially humanizing, as well.  The funny-looking person from a strange place who does not even speak my language immediately becomes my trusted teammate or worthy opponent when we play the game.

So, play the game, practice a skill, be a fan, instruct a kid, or coach a team.  Just do it.

The debate between Platonists and Aristotelians is one of the most ancient of philosophic issues. This is an informal panel discussion of the basic issues, featuring four members of the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College.

Click here to download or you can listen directly at the Philosophy Podcast site.

Participants

From the Philosophy Department at Saint Anselm College

Robert Anderson
Professor Anderson’s homepage

David Banach
Professor Banach’s homepage

Tom Larson
Professor Larson’s homepage

Kevin Staley
Professor Staley’s homepage

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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