September 2008


When discussing the possibility of selfless motivation in ethics classes, the students usually have a hard time thinking of any example of an action that escapes from self-interest. They are not always happy with this conclusion, for part of them, at least, would like to think that there are selfless people out there. However, every instance of what looks like a generous action, turns out to be explainable as merely self-interest. Even Mother Theresa of Calcutta, they say, got a good feeling out of caring for others: that’s really why she spent her life helping them.

Immanuel Kant agrees with the students. He does not think that it is possible ever to give an example of an action that is unambiguously “for the sake of the other.” So it seems that on empirical grounds Hobbes and Hume are right: every moral action is one of self-interest or direct inclination (what Hume called benevolence). Every thing we do is guided by passion, whether to satisfy our desire for domination or to gratify our feelings of being kind and helpful. “If we attend to the experience of men’s conduct, we meet frequent and, as we ourselves allow, just complaints that one cannot find a single certain example of the disposition to act from pure duty” (Fundamentals of the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section, tr. Thomas K. Abbott [LLA, 1949], p. 24). But if this is true, how do we escape relativism? People’s feelings differ from those of others and even from their former feelings. If actions are based on feelings, then they are not based on moral principles. We may think that some actions are better than others, but it seems in the end that we are wrong.

Kant’s response to this apparent collapse into moral relativism is to deny that the empirical process of verifying moral actions is morality. Morality is about what we ought to do, not what we do. Describing our behavior is empirical psychology, which may be an important science but has nothing to do with moral obligation. Morality is concerned with ideal human choosing. “Even though there might never have been a sincere friend, yet not a whit the less is pure sincerity in friendship required of every man” (p. 25).

David Hume is famous for his argument against deriving moral obligation from the way things are. As I understand it, he makes a simple logical point when he argues that arguments with exclusively “is” statements in the premises cannot validly conclude to an “ought” statement. (It is invalid to have something in the conclusion that appears nowhere in the premises.) Thus if we take scientific method as the only way to arrive at true propositions (as do Hume and Hobbes, and also the utilitarian Bentham), then we can make no pronouncements about what we ought to do, in short about moral obligation.

There is something quite odd, however, about Hume’s point. There’s nothing wrong with his logic, but it does seem that for him to say that one cannot derive “ought” from “is” (obligation from fact) he must know the difference between the two. That is, he must know that “ought” means something different from “is”. Since science cannot say what this difference is, there must be another origin for this knowledge. Kant, of course, says that there is—practical reason. Reason can tell us what we ought to do as well as describe what we do through sciences of chemistry, biology, psychology, etc.

The moral realm is the realm of practical reason. Its principles are ideals—what we ought to do, rather than what we all too often do. We ought always to treat people as ends in themselves, even it we rarely do. The moral ideal is to live in a “kingdom of ends” (p. 50) in which each human being’s dignity is recognized, and each human being is treated, not as a thing to be used for some other purpose of self-interest or satisfaction, but with the appropriate respect due to every person. This is the moral law whether or not any individual action measures up to it. It is a law of obligation, whose origin is reason—immediately accessible to each of us—not imposed by external forces of any kind.

Podcast of the 2008 Olaf Tollefsen lecture

September 23, 2008

Prof. Christopher Tollefsen , University of South Carolina

“Disability and Social Justice”

Click on the link above to listen.

Dr. Tollefsen is a graduate of Saint Anselm College and is this year’s recipient of the Alumni Academic Award. He has recently published three books: Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, co-authored with Robert George, Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry, and Artificial Nutrition and Hydration: The New Catholic Debate.

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Podcast of Philosophy Colloquium

September 9, 2008

Prof. Martha Beck of Lyon College , Batesville AR

Paideia: Educating for Wisdom in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.”

Click on the link above to listen.

Professor Beck has written six books on Ancient Philosophy, including a three volume study:  Tragedy and the Philosophical Life.

The Philosophy Department podcast series can be found at:
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Sometimes it’s hard to get things started. Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was reported by Aristotle to have argued that it was impossible. Before you can cover the first half of a journey, you have to cover the first fourth, and before that the first eight, and the first sixteenth, and so on . . . (Though Zeno’s argument is aimed at the difficulty of reaching the end of the journey, Alfred North Whitehead has pointed out that the real difficulty is ever getting started.) It would seem that even getting started requires an infinite number of finite tasks. With such a daunting task in front of us, one can see how we might get discouraged.

You might think that just doing anything, including lying in bed, will make a start of things, albeit not a good one. Every journey begins with a single step, and it doesn’t even have to be in the right direction. But this is really not right either. Another of Zeno’s paradoxes,  the Arrow in its Flight, shows why. If we look at an arrow at any instant of its flight, as in a single frame of a motion picture, there is no motion. At each instant it is just what it is and where it is. It isn’t anything or anywhere else. At the next instant it is something and somewhere else, as when you advance the film one frame at a time. The motion seems to have occurred between the frames or between the instants. Where does the change lie, and how can it begin?

Zeno was right to think that if time were a series of discrete frozen instants, then change would be impossible. To change you have to start being something different from what you are. But if at any moment you are just what you are, how can you do this? The existentialists were wrong to think that you are just your existence at this instant; just as their opponents were wrong to think that our essence was a finished frozen thing that precedes us. If the past, or the present, were just itself, how could it ever be any more. But all things are in motion. All things fall,  tumbling through time. The rhythm and timbre and tone of a thing’s travels are its very nature. We never start from a dead stop, and Zeno was right to say it was impossible.

We always find ourselves in the midst of many natural motions. Beginning is always just a matter of nudging and channeling the momentum we already have into a new pattern. We find ourselves already moving to the beats of our bodies, to the waves of the seasons, and the revolutions of night and day. The impetus of our past actions, our habits, and desires drive us forward, constrained by our connections and commitments. A beginning simply guides these forces to converge into patterns that have a new type of unity, an integrity distinct from the flux from which it arose..

Without even thinking about it, you can be swirled into action of this semester, your life guided by the schedules, habits, and assignments that will swallow you up if you let them. Something is beginning, even if you aren’t the one starting it. And when those beginnings, and all of your beginnings, have reached their end, the world will still be starting anew. It can’t help it. It will go on without you. Streams of the world’s flux will converge in you and then part again. The questions is how much of you will remain as it flows away from you. On the one hand you must exert enough guidance on the momentum of your habits and circumstances so that you become a separate little stream with a beginning and ending of your own. Yet you must also harmonize your ends and your rhythms to leave a mark on the streams that run along side you and that will endure beyond you. Every beginning sees to its end and aims beyond it. If you can guide the momentum of each day to come to an end that you create, and if that end aims at empowering a new day to its own end, then the day will have been well begun. And well begun is more than half done; well begun implies a good end.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Matthew Konieczka is the fifteenth profile in the series.

Interview with Matthew Konieczka conducted September 1, 2008

Click on the link above to listen.

Matthew Konieczka joined the Philosophy Department in Fall semester of 2008. In this interview, Professor Konieczka talks about how he became interested in philosophy and about his interests in the philosophy of religion and in ethics.

The Philosophy Department podcast series can be found at:
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