All posts filed under: Philosophy

Sickness and Stoicism

In less than three months, COVID-19 has changed from a peripheral concern, barely registering in presidential debates, to the greatest global crisis since World War II. We are living in extraordinary times, and there is scarcely an industry or country that has escaped the impact of the new virus. In the United States, the Federal Reserve estimates that the unemployment rate could briefly skyrocket to 32 percent—higher than anything the country experienced during the Great Depression. People have lost their livelihoods. Many others are scared about what is to come when they develop a fever or cough. Illness, financial hardship, and loneliness are, nevertheless, well-trodden paths. One man who can guide us along the way is Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher and statesman and contemporary of Jesus. Seneca suffered from asthma, and his condition sometimes left him bedridden and gasping for air. As he grew older, he even contemplated suicide because his affliction was so severe. Seneca’s lifelong illness, as well as his background in Stoic philosophy, gave him the insight he needed to …

That Elusive Feeling We Call Love

Every writer worth reading—from the good to the great to the canonical—has, at some point or other, explored the subject of love. Yet, despite some striking insights and equally striking metaphors, none of these writers has been able to answer the question of what love is. I don’t think anyone knows. I certainly don’t. But I know what love isn’t. Getting along is not love. Being married is not love. Being married for 30 years is still not love. Raising three kids together is not love. Having common interests is not love. Warmth, affection, and tenderness are not love (praiseworthy as they are). Duty and loyalty are not love. Sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component). All of the above combined is not love. All of the above combined and raised to the power of 10 is still not love. It’s a relationship. A good relationship, solid relationship, long-term relationship. But still a relationship. And although the difference between love and a relationship is not in degree, …

Peter Singer and the Narrowing of Discourse

You might expect a row between a moral philosopher and a casino company to involve the former lecturing the latter on the ethics of profiting from gambling. But it is Peter Singer, sometimes called “the world’s most influential living philosopher,” who finds himself rebuked by SkyCity, New Zealand’s biggest promoter of poker machines. Singer had been booked to speak at a SkyCity venue as part of a ThinkInc tour to raise money for his charity The Life You Can Save, which seeks to reduce global poverty. But then an article appeared on New Zealand webzine Newshub reminding readers of Singer’s longstanding views on infanticide. “New Zealand’s disabled community is outraged a controversial Australian philosopher who justifies infanticide is being allowed to speak here,” Newshub reported. “Peter Singer, who’s been described as the most dangerous man in the world, has argued it’s ethical to give parents the option to euthanise babies with disabilities.” The report went on to compare Singer to ethnonationalists. This “wouldn’t be the first time a controversial speaker had been barred,” the site …

Is Democracy Compatible with Extreme Inequality?

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville took a 10-month trip to the United States to study the American penal system. In the resulting book—Democracy in America—he singled out one noteworthy feature: “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Although he ignored the fact of slavery, his reference to economic equality among white Americans was, at the time, accurate. According to economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, the share of national income going to the top one percent was less than 10 percent. Today, the share of national income going to the top one percent has doubled, while median wages have remained largely stagnant. In the last 40 years, CEO wages have grown nearly 100 times the rate of wages for average workers. The popularity of left-wing candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—both with significant redistributive policies at the core of their platform—reflects the moral concerns many have about high levels of income inequality. But no moral case for economic …

Confucius Got It Right: Giving in to ‘Bias’ Is Part of Living an Ethical Life

“I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” That’s what I blurted into a microphone during a panel discussion on ethics. I was laughing when I said it, but the priest sitting next to me turned sharply in horror and the communist sitting next to him raised her hand to her throat and stared daggers at me. Why was I on a panel with a priest and a revolutionary communist? Long story—not very interesting: we were debating the future of ethics with special attention to the role of religion. The interesting part, however, is that at some point, after we all shook hands like adults and I was on my way home, I realized that I meant it—I would choke them all. Well, of course, one can’t be entirely sure that one’s actions will follow one’s intentions. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. But, given some weird Twilight Zone scenario wherein all their deaths somehow saved my son’s life, I was at least hypothetically committed. …

Read Your Enemies

With the passing of the idea of the canon into the dustbin of history, the notion of a “required reading” list for all humanity has become seen as something quaint. In our “post-postmodern” condition, even the idea of revising the canon, entering new masterpieces from previously unheard voices, has largely been discarded. Instead, it is better to admit that we are all on different intellectual journeys and that no one is to say what is essential literary consumption for another. This sentiment is partly understandable—we all have but one life to live, and for even the most voracious readers, the feast is too much to consume. At some point, we know where our interests lie and which authors speak to us, so we forgo even great writers for the sake of the limited time we have on this planet. In the academic or professional sense, the need to put limits on oneself manifests itself in specialization. The age of the polymath is over. Paradoxically, the modern world requires us to know more and more about …

Work—the Tragedy of Our Age

The only text I vividly remember from my university semester in Classics is a poem by Hesiod entitled Works and Days. I read Homer, of course, and Virgil, and Ovid, and the three tragedians, but their texts have long become a blur of strange names, strange desires, inventive use of parataxis and the word “destiny.” But I remember Hesiod. Memory is a peculiar thing. Hesiod is the seventh century BC management book writer. He didn’t write about digital strategy, but his poems drone on in the earnest monotone of an old-school sociology lecturer who—after years of correcting student papers—decides to try his hand at fine letters. Hesiod is ace at conveying fact, but not at re-inventing it. This makes him a fine chronicler, but not a poet. I cannot imagine anyone reading Works and Days today for anything other than anthropological curiosity. I don’t remember all 800 lines of Works and Days—just five stanzas: one for each of the Five Ages of Men. First came the Golden Age, in which the land was bounteous, the …

Complexity and Understanding

Do humans understand each other? Any honest attempt to answer this question will need to consider some profound and important facts. The question is broad, but worth asking repeatedly. Modern writers and thinkers fail to fully appreciate the merit in marrying science and philosophy, which the great psychotherapists of the 20th century (and many great philosophers before them) did rather admirably. Their writings shed light on the under-explored depths of our humanity. Historically, the inevitable faults of humanness are recurrent; the whims of our finite, imperfect human nature. Mutual misunderstandings run deep and at times prove to be dangerous. It is neither feasible nor especially useful to pass over the various reasons we fail to understand one another. There is also nothing novel or compelling about listing the countless examples of human misunderstanding such as war, tribalism, and political polarization. It is more useful to proceed with a relatively narrow focus, in an attempt to fully articulate one specific reason why humans do not truly understand one another. That reason is complexity. In the face …

Politics and Rationality: On the Uses and Limits of Science

How rational is your politics, and how rational could or should politics be, in general? What is, and what ought to be, the role of reason and of science in policy-making or in campaigning? To answer such questions in a reasonable or scientific way, it would first be necessary to define such terms as “rationality,” “reason,” and “science.” That’s a nice Socratic-style challenge, anyway, and I’m not confident that people mean anything very clear or specific by them on most occasions. And, whatever they mean, the things themselves—conceived as faculties in people’s heads or as a series of procedures or guidelines for how to gain knowledge—have little to do with why anyone has the politics they do. People who think their own politics are rational and those of their opponents irrational (that is, more or less everybody) are engaged in a self-congratulatory self-delusion. A traditional account of the faculty of rationality might be that it encompasses the canons of deductive and inductive reasoning and perhaps the scientific method (which it then is incumbent on the …

Common-Good Capitalism: Populism With a Twist

“Despite three years of robust economic growth, millions are unable to find dignified work; they feel forgotten and left behind. We are left with a society with which no one is happy.” This is Senator Marco Rubio’s assessment of our current socioeconomic situation as a nation—and it’s bleak. Rubio believes that most Americans today have lost sight of the American Dream. They are struggling to find dignified work; a direct result of a modern economic system that no longer serves its people. Rubio contends that many Americans feel alienated by our current economic system, as evidently reflected by rising suicide rates, declining birth and marriage rates, and the opioid epidemic. This unhappy society was the subject of a speech that Rubio gave earlier this month at the Catholic University of America. There can be no doubt, based on the content and tenor of his speech, that Rubio certainly fears for the fate of our nation and its people; it’s clear in his earnest presentation of the issues as he sees them. His love of country shines through, as does his fear …