Category Archives: Philosophy
When you think about it on a mathematical and a psychological level karma must exist. Psychologically we all maintain an approximate balance so that we cannot be too happy or too miserable in perpetuity. This can be seen in the difference between people who live in first world nations and those who live in third world nations. Those of us who are blessed to have computers and electric, houses to live in, etc have different things to feel bad about, we can have bad days, we can even feel suicidal. Those who live with none of these benefits, no house, no electric, no food, etc can have good days; they find their joy elsewhere. If someone who is in a 1st world country will kill themselves out of misery then they obviously feel worse than someone in a third world country who is not miserable enough to kill themselves. The result of this internal balance which draws our feelings and sensations back towards a central stable area will mean that anyone who takes advantage of others for their own gain will achieve nothing because their experience will always pull back towards that central average.
It is similar in action to the way a drug user will gradually feel less joy at using their drug and will always want more an more. There is never any way in which a person can have more than others on an internal experiential level on any lasting basis. In fact there is also no way that a person can maintain an average feeling of sensation unless they are mentally damaged in some way because their experience will always be fluctuating either side of the central average or else the highs will have no lows to contrast against in order to be able to recognise the difference in them.
This psychological tendency to always aim for balance works in tandem with the mathematical tendency for numbers to always balance out. If you roll a dice millions of times you will ultimately find that any particular number will have approximately the same chance as any other number coming up. Life may be more complex than a six sided die but the same principle will apply. Over time things will have a tendency to average out. You may have a number of good days but you will also have a number of bad days in how fate tends to treat you. One day you will find a penny and on another day you will lose a penny. If you work harder you will earn more but if you work less hard you will earn less.
Most of the time this principle is very easy to see in action. The outliers are the problem in this theory. Human experience could be represented on a bell curve where most experience will be in the centre of the bell curve and at the edges there will be a few who seem remarkably lucky or remarkably unlucky. I have already pointed out that these outliers will have their experience drawn to a central stable set of feelings so the appearance of good luck or bad luck is merely an appearance as it seems to those viewing their experience from outside. The homeless person has advantages in some manners and, believe it or not, the wealthy person also has disadvantages. For instance, when you can afford anything you want instantly, then where is the joy of anticipation? You move from one purchase to another experiencing a fraction of the joy any of those purchases would give one of us. Likewise, if you are cold and wet then the sheer pleasure you can feel from the occasions when you step into the warm and put on dry clothes are unimagineable to someone who has never had that experience. So once again we see the action of the psychological manifestation of karma combining with chance to always see that balance is achieved.
When it happens that someone seems to experience misery or joy for longer than seems natural then it is usually because they have imposed that upon themselves. Someone who has done something bad to another person will often feel guilty about it and that sensation of guilt will force them to judge themselves badly, while someone who has brought joy to others will go away with a warm feeling of having done the right thing. This has been proven in experiments where people were given money and told to go out and spend it. At the end of the day their feelings of happiness were compared to the beginning of the day and it was discovered that those who had helped others with the money felt far more happiness than those who had spent it on themselves. This is probably an evolutionary mechanism that is inbuilt by the mutual protection we gain from living in groups above the danger that individuals would have felt if living alone in the wild. This nature of cooperation and sharing would have greatly facilitated communal living and seen reciprocaton from others, which of course is a far more obvious manifestation of karma achieving balance between individuals.
The obvious exception to this would be sociopaths who feel little compulsion to help others due to their limited empathy. Hoever even sociopaths have been shown to have emotions, although on a greatly reduced level, so even they will be able to feel unhappiness or happiness in response to their actions. Additionally the greatly diminished state of their emotional level could be considered by those who have a typical experience of joy to be a punishment in itself. Plus the sociopath will often have had to have been through a horrific experience to damage their mind in that way so the loss of emotion is once again a way in which the psyche tries to achieve the central balance and withdraw from the extreme of the horror that they have already experienced.
In essence it ultimately becomes impossible for anyone to ever experience any joy over and above their fellow humans, no matter how much they take advantage of them, but similarly as karma dictates, noone is able to experience more misery than their fellow beings. Balance will always be achieved in the end.
However I am certain that everyone reading this will be uncertain about this conclusion. Everyone knows of somebody, or is somebody who has suffered a terrible life changing incident that has greatly reduced their overal happiness. There is certainly evidence that such circumstances can impact upon a person’s ability to feel happiness in their lives. Regardless of what conclusions you draw from this evidence there still may be a way for karma to redeem itself, but to do so the conversation must pass into areas that are somewhat more philosophical. In religion the problem is easily dealt with through reincarnation or the afterlife. There are certain harshnesses to the idea of hell and heaven but karma is more likely to be associated with reincarnation.
I am not going to step into discussion of contiuity from one life to another but I will propose that in the event of reincarnation, if it does indeed exist, we are unable to retain memories from previous lives. If we did then there would be little point in reincarnating in a form to learn the lessons of the previous life as we would simply continue where we left off. Given the lack of memory actual physical continuity is not necessary as much as a mathematical continuity. Indeed the essence of spiritual issues is their detachment from the physical. The question should therefore centre around how much spiritual existence resembles physical existence. All that would be needed for the corresponding and contrasting life to come into existence following the end of our own would be the laws of averages. To put it simplistically, if at one point a person has behaved heinously and must therefore be taught the error of his ways then a corresponding life must come into existence in which those lessons can be learnt, perhaps the life of a devout monk or the life of a beggar. As there is no memory from one life to another there is a missing continuity between the death of the one and the birth of the next. Additionally there is no physical continuity. There is a ‘spiritual’ continuity but what exactly does that mean?
Essentially, do we have individual souls? The answer according to many religious and philosophical beliefs is that ultimately we are all one. We all have god within us and we are seeking for reunification, etc, etc, etc. Unsatisfying though it might seem, the only continuity necessary appears to be that the death of one with the birth of the other must both be connected by being related by both being part of the same existence. Given the perceived nature of an all powerful god it is not even necessary that the two lives should exist consecutively. The nature of us all being one, means, that in the formless nature of a fluid universe, we can in our ‘spiritual’ aspect be experiencing two contrasting lives separately and simultaneously. Such is the nature of being part of a unified spiritual embodiment that is purported to have omnipotence. To give it any limitation in that regard or to insist it follows the laws of physics misunderstands the nature of omnipotence and the power it has to be governed by physical laws, yet simultaneously not governed. Naturally this falls a little outside the previous arguments I have made but considering karma is a theory that has always been considered to fall in line with the more esoteric ways of thinking it would probably be inappropriate not to cover some of the less conventional and scientific manners in which the concept could be described.
Naturally, if we need to rely on this final hypothesis, that can be difficult to come to terms with if we do not already believe in some kind of spiritual world already. The impossibility of seeing beyond death or before birth renders any concerns academic. The logic falls into place upon certain assumptions, but even if those assumptions prove to be false it makes little difference. Similarly to a legal fiction this is a fiction that explains an idea and process, but does so in such a way that is not verifiable by material means. Unfortunately this means that we have to rely on faith alone to accept this final argument as it is a faith based argument. The positive side is that it makes no difference whether we believe it or not, so the action of faith is to simply take it for granted in the same way as Pascal might wager.
At the present our society is facing a set of problems that are unique in the history of humanity. Thanks to a limited understanding of science that we have developed over the last few hundred years we know a great deal about food production, creation of fertilisers, even genetically modifying plants to increase yields etc. No matter how one feels about all the different technologies and methods in farming it is undeniable that one of the results has been an increasing population. Combine this with our gradually improving medical knowledge and our growing reticence to send huge numbers of people into wars and you find that the global population is growing massively.
At the same time as this growth is happening we are also developing far more efficient production methods, automation, robots, vehicles, etc, that reduce the number of people needed to run many business types. Where an office worker would once have had a secretary, they now have a computer, and type themselves where they would never have dreamed of doing so in the past. Where deliveries once took days to transport across the country with the use of numerous horses and the supporting services of stables, farriers, etc, deliveries not take a day as one man in a white van drives to their destination. I need not list all the ways in which modern technology has saved us time and money in the work place because everyone probably has many more examples in their own mind than I can think of.
These developments have of course created work as well. While we have become more productive it is also obvious that this is hand in hand with massively increased production. Look back half a millennium and you will see a society where most people owned only a handful of items and most money was spent on food. Today we probably have more items in our pockets most of the time; look around the room and you will no doubt see hundreds of different things, some of which will be technological marvels that would have looked like magic to that person of half a millennium ago. Naturally if so many more things are being invented and made then there will be a lot of jobs created by their production. However, necessity being the mother of invention, there is a huge effort put into the creation of labour saving devices, with the result that we all have a lot more free time than we once did. With mankind’s constant effort to amass more wealth and safety it is natural that employers will take advantage of some of this labour saving machinery to reduce their work force and lower their costs.
The problem with this is of course the fear that led saboteurs to throw their clogs into the early machines that were taking their jobs. The spanner in the works of modern economics is rising unemployment. Humans have a need to work on a deeply hidden psychological level. While a cursory glance at nature will reveal that most animals spend a lot of time conserving energy and humans have descended from the same origins, it is a tendency towards industriousness that has enabled us to rise to the height we have as dominant mammalian species on the planet. It is improbable that evolution ever intended us to work like machines for solid days, day after day; the rise in stress related illness attests to this, but we certainly do have a deep seated need to keep busy and be industrious.
King Solomon was regarded as being a rather wise chap. In Ecclesiastes 9:10, King Solomon instructs “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Our industry is something that keeps us happy; when a person sits with nothing to do for too long it does not take long before boredom and depression set in. The fact that the quote above comes from the bible demonstrates that work is something that has been preached as being important on a moral and spiritual level. At present there is a moral crusade against the NEETS and scroungers who are not contributing to society. The seemingly endless recession hand in hand with our healthy population levels and work automation has led to a large number of unemployed people. The rigours and stresses of modern life and the many new chemicals and substances surrounding us are leading to effects on general mental and physical health that is preventing a great many people from keeping to the 40 hour schedule of the modern work week. The support that all these people need is being focussed on as being one of the drains on public finances.
Despite the fact that very little public money actually goes to people who are not contributing to society this group makes a convenient scapegoat and forcing them back into work is being touted as one of the many solutions being offered to help us back out of the recession. There are a number of points that render this approach unhelpful. Firstly it has long been acknowledged that there is no such thing as zero unemployment. Zero unemployment would not be desirable anyway as an absence of unemployed and penniless folk would lead to vendors being able to increase prices, which would lead to inflation. The only way zero unemployment would be possible is if people were not able to leave jobs, as if they did leave jobs they would become unemployed until they found another job. If people never leave jobs then there is no incentive to try and retain staff by offering a decent wage. The world where there is zero unemployment is a pipe dream inhabited by indentured servants paying high prices for their goods. As long as there are unemployed people it is possible to demonise them and use them as scapegoats for the failure of the government’s long term economic plan but in reality most of these unemployed folk are simply hopping from one job to another. These are all people who are in the process of improving their economic success by moving from inferior employment towards better situations. They are folk who have become unnecessary in one area of the world of employment but will soon become needed in another area. This is the free movement between employers that enables the system to keep running at optimum efficiency. The number of people who are actually targeted by schemes to deal with long term unemployment are a tiny number compared to the official unemployment statistics. The small amount retained to aid the economic recovery becomes so inconsequential when this is realised that it is nowhere near worth all the newsprint and publicity it generates.
The second undesirable factor in the demonization of the unemployed is the stigma surrounding unemployment. Those who become unemployed feel such an urgent need to return to the work place that they will accept jobs far sooner than they would if there was not such a stigma. The problem with this is that people will hurry themselves into jobs that do not pay their full worth. The evidence for this can be seen in the gradually drop in wage that is being experienced across the country. Newsnight has said that wages are expected to return to pre-recession levels sometime during the 2020s. It might not be the haste to return to work that is causing the wages to fall but it is certainly allowing the wages to fall. It is common for unions to call strikes in objection to the failure of wages to increase, yet here are people across the country rushing into positions with lower wages or with zero hour contracts. The employers are taking advantage of the measures being brought against the unemployed, even to the extent that employees are being sacked from their jobs and then being replaced with unemployed people who need not be paid the minimum wage. This is an obvious circumvention of employment law that should not be accepted. If people were not so eager to escape the stigma of being associated with the tiny minority who are deliberately unemployed then employers would have no other option than to offer a decent wage, and if the unemployed were not forced to work until they could find a job then they would be able to take the jobs that would not be done by the unemployed and unpaid.
The dropping wages that are supported by the increased desire people have to get back into work leads to a far more significant effect that is detrimental to society as a whole. Where there are lower wages the amount paid to tax is naturally going to be lower. A larger number of people are going to find themselves below the tax cut off and will not be paying any tax at all. A larger number of people will find themselves earning less than they would in more prosperous times and will therefore be paying less in tax than they would otherwise. The working population of the country is massive and all those of us who are earning lower wages would ordinarily be contributing vast amounts to the economy through tax. At present this money being saved in wages is money that is being retained by the employers; in most instances the employers will be using the services of accountants to find any methods available to reduce the tax they pay. It is a well known issue that large companies use many different methods to avoid paying tax, yet they are now being given a situation wherein it is becoming possible to retain more of the money they would otherwise have given to employees who pay tax, and the companies are using these methods to further reduce their tax payments.
The lower wages that are being seen around the country are leading to lower spending. Despite a few successes in the retail sector on Black Friday and Cyber Monday it was noted that spending did not reach the levels that had been expected. This was partly due to retail fatigue brought on by a glut of possessions, less available spending money and an underlying realisation that even where the public are spending the money we are so much part of the consumer equation that we are becoming products ourselves. Money that is available is being largely spent on rent and food. Food is free of VAT so is not contributing to the public coffers. There is little left over for spending on luxuries and gifts and what there is available is being sucked up by the companies that are closest to being national monopolies. VAT on luxury items is therefore not forthcoming and the appearance is that there must be a level of collusion between electric companies, gas companies, broadband companies, etc, raising prices year on year, who are all large enough to employ accountants and tax lawyers with a far higher level of skill than can be afforded by the public sector which is trying to retain some of this money.
The result is an economy in decline.
It is evident that a large number of the ‘solutions’ being offered to the problem of recession are being implemented purely for reasons of publicity. The government wish to be seen as being proactive in finding our way out of the recession. At the next election it is extremely valuable to be able to say that ideas were put in action that led to a reduction of the deficit and the national debt and greatly improved the lives of all Britons. At present it appears that the ideas are not leading to the ends that were expected. Had all the indignities of the last few years actually resulted in economic recovery I would probably feel far more magnanimous towards the current cabinet. The measures implemented look more akin to the measures of an average driver when sliding on a patch of ice, actively steering in what appears to be the right direction but is actually pushing the car into an ever more extreme skidding slide. The hands currently at the tiller of public finance are far too heavy to negotiate the delicate task of restoring balance to our economy.
It seems obvious that in an ever changing world we need ever changing ideas to find solutions to the issues that face us. Imagination and creativity are what is called for in solving the problems of an ever more automated society. We do not need to be forcing people into graft and labour just so that we can look as though we are being proactive and thereby gain enough votes for another disastrous four years of governance, we need to be nurturing the creativity and imagination of all those who do not find themselves immediately drawn into the employment situations available. It is education where we should be focussing our attention. A line from the Facebook film a few years back was that graduates from Harvard made their own employment. That is what should be expected of everyone who is at a short end. We should all be capable of spotting the gaps in the market and thinking of ways to cater to that need. There is no need to force people into working as little more than slave labourers if they are given the abilities to discover their own uses and their own jobs. Nobody wants to work for peanuts to further the success of a company that doesn’t even value their contribution enough to offer a fixed contract with adequate hours at adequate pay. Train the unemployed to make their own employment and numerous problems we are faced with will simply solve themselves.
The dogmatic adherence to the principle of free speech is in practice, taken to a point of absurdity. It is free speech that allows me to tell you that the great and famous philosopher and writer Voltaire was recorded to have said, ‘I disapprove of what you say but I would defend to my death your right to say it. In reality I doubt Voltaire would defend my right to tell you this as it is misinformation. The quote is actually one from The Friends of Voltaire written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. The context was not that Voltaire ever said it but that he held it as a state of mind at one particular time. Evelyn later identified her inspiration for saying this as being the phrase, ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.’ Whether this itself is fully accurate can also be questioned though the most legitimate sources I have uncovered include the Bibliotheque municipale de Lyon, which in turn quotes pages from the University of York. The phrase Voltaire offered which became her inspiration certainly does exist and it does not seem to suggest that he has any belief in the war of who has the loudest voice that is currently being conducted in his name.
Whilst Voltaire certainly did defend the right to expression of ideas it is unlikely that he would advocate the kind of dogmatism that has developed around this principle in the modern day. As a man of thought, he would have wished that people put thought into every principle by which they live their lives. Dogmatism is the very thing that took the beautiful sentiments offered by the world’s religions and subverted them in favour of enacting their most egregious and disruptive principles. If Voltaire were here today and he were to say, “Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” as he did in 1770 on the 6th of February in a letter to Monsieur Le Riche, I think had Monsieur le Riche written back saying, “You’re an idiot, IDIOT IDIOT IDIOT. Voltaire is a divvy spanner. Spacko Pillock.” Voltaire might have thought twice about his previously expressed sentiment.
Most people will agree when pressed that free speech must have limits. In the States where free speech is most stringently protected by the First Amendment to the constitution a legal precedent was famously set by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Schenk v the United States, that consideration should be given to the use of the words and whether they were designed to bring about evils against which the government had a right to act. Holmes complained at later times that this principle was abused to convict people for speech that should have been protected, which shows that it is a minefield picking through legal principles and precedents. This instance concerned the limit of the principle where a possibility of criminal conviction was possible. It might be questioned whether a positivist legal principle stands against absolute morality but an example offered by Holmes being that a person should not be protected for shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre shows that where very direct negative reactions may be caused speech can cross a line into becoming a form of weaponry or disruption.
A similar example might be the use of free speech to shout abuse in the ears of a child until their hearing is damaged. Anyone who would consider this acceptable would find objection from almost everyone. If someone tried doing this in a supermarket I would hope that they very quickly found democratic opinion was against them. A line will be perceived, by anyone who does not blindly hold dogmatically to the principle without thought, that there must be a point at which speech stops being protectable and starts to become problematic. Unfortunately the line is by its nature very broad. Opinions will be divided in many cases. Slipknot played 24 hours per day at full volume to break down the will of prisoners would probably be considered as something which could not be protected. Sadly at one point at least, the objectors did not include the people charged with keeping the prisoners. Leaving a 12 hour youtube video playing in the bedroom repeatedly chanting ‘badger badger badger badger mushroom mushroom’ before popping out to visit friends is far less offensive but your wife will no doubt consider it to be a serious abuse of free speech soon after you have left the house.
There are limits. What those limits are may need to be looked at individually and based upon the merits of each separate instance but those limits do exist and they can not simply be defended against by offering a mis-attributed quote purported to have been said by Voltaire. Even if Voltaire had said it, it would still not be absolute. It would need to be considered according to the context. In some quarters there is a tendency to abuse free speech in orgion expressivism that could almost be considered a weapon because it demoralises and terrorises the opponents of the speaker. If there is an area where it can be most greatly defended it is in calm and measured political debate. The instances in which the dogmatic protection of free speech should not be considered acceptable must obviously include obfuscatory marketing ploys designed to trick money out of people who are struggling to get by, surely it includes uses of speech that make people fear for their safety, libel and slander are already covered by law, as is conspiracy or the promotion of terrorism.
There are of course instances in which the law does make a stand but it should not be considered by civilians that where the law doesn’t intervene free speech is therefore sacrosanct. The lesser cousin to crime is the tort. Torts are offenses against people and property that the law does not consider to offend against the public as a whole but the individuals involved; libel and slander are two examples of this area. They have already been covered by the law but law moves at a glacial pace and simply because someone’s speech has not yet been covered does not mean that it falls under the dogmatic umbrella of free speech. There are moral standards that must be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly. Even if Voltaire was the dogmatic defender of our rights to offend and upset each other that people seem to think he was, he had no experience of Twitter, blogging, or the internet. As an intelligent and thoughtful philosopher he would certainly have re-evaluated such principles in the modern era. Considering the mis-attribution of the quote it is apparent that we should not need to wait for permission before exercising our own critical abilities.
Having just read the Guardian article ‘The tech utopia nobody wants‘ it occurred to me that laying the blame on the nerds was unfair. To some the idea of feeding the poor the artificial food stuff ‘Soylent’ in lieu of food stamps is a mark of a repellent future, just as there are people who rebel against the idea of Google glass becoming ubiquitous. The problem is not a problem with the technology though, the rapidly changing nature of technology merely highlights flaws that have existed in society since the enlightenment era began.
Certainly there are solid reasons to allow the developers of technology to have less control over our lives. Almost every piece of software I use has a feeling of being a beta version. Some software is released in permanent beta; much of the software we use is supposed to be a finished polished version but is far from perfect. Bugs and flaws are a common experience while we work on our computers; imagine if we had to put up with bugs and flaws in every aspect of our lives. In fact we do have bugs and flaws running through many aspects of our daily lives because so many things are based around very modern technology. The hidden pollutants and costs that frequently appear in our power sources, or the health problems caused by food additives are two examples of how technology exists throughout our lives and is not just the domain of silicon valley.
A very broad definition of technology would probably take in much more than the electronic world. Stephen Fry, who is known for his love of technology once gave the example of the lighter as being the most important gadget ever invented. We are so used to the lighter that we barely recognise it as something that hasn’t always existed, but almost everything around us is technology embodied. Go back a thousand years and the average person might only have owned half a dozen things. They would have had their clothing, which would have been barely more than what we might think of as a potato sack; they would have owned a bowl and maybe a knife; they might have owned a stool to sit on and a scraggy straw mattress to sleep on. Aside from that there were not a great many possessions for most people; they were lucky to own themselves. In the time since then technology has furnished almost everything around us.
When we live in what is arguably a tech utopia, or dystopia, already it cannot be fair to complain that the chaps in silicon valley are only now creating a tech utopia we don’t want. We have had it for years already. The complaint that it is only just happening now is simply fear of change.
However, it is not change in my view. It is more of the same that we have been getting throughout the last few hundred years. Many people are not happy and those who are happy are fully aware of reasons for the others to not be happy. My opinion is it all comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham was one of the most influential proponents of utilitarianism, which is basically the belief that the greatest happiness of mankind should be the ultimate aim of all effort. Naturally there are trade offs and under a strict utilitarian view it would be acceptable to sacrifice the happiness of the few in order to guarantee the happiness of the many. The cruelty of nature prevents more humanistic philosophies from being practical as we simply are not able to prevent all unhappiness, misery and harm.
Bentham’s philosophy has had a strong hand in the dominance of the free market system. According to the understanding of the free market we should be able to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people by allowing competition to bring prices down and increase efficiencies so that eventually everybody will be able to afford all the luxuries they could possibly wish for and live in nice warm houses with big screen TVs and plenty of food.
The flaw in this of course is glaringly obvious but often overlooked; the output of the free market does indeed make people happier but as anyone with the most basic understanding of physics can tell you:- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, matter and energy cannot be created from nothing, only transformed. There may be many other ways of saying it but essentially the free market doesn’t only create output, it also uses input. The output makes people happy but it is often very much overlooked how much the input can make people unhappy.
There are minorities who are unhappy about many of the effects of the free market; unregulated industries creating pollution and other environmental problems comes to mind immediately. Utilitarianism allows for the misery of the minority so long as the majority becomes happier; for this reason it takes a lot of impetus before many of the complaints against the free market are dealt with. Often the solution itself is an effect of the efficient operation of the free market in that customers deliver a message by altering their buying behaviour. There are many different and overlapping minority opinions that eventually become resolved in this way like direct democracy in action. There is an area where there seems to be an increasing problem that is being overlooked which offends against the principles of utilitarianism and the basis of why we wish to use a free market system – the input that is needed to create the output that benefits us.
When the original English economist Adam Smith travelled through Europe as a tutor he met the French economistes whose ideas inspired his later book, ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and kick-started our modern approach to economics. The economistes grew to be known as physiocrats as economics developed on account of their view that the wealth of nations depended upon the agriculture of the nation. It was agriculture that fed the horses and fed the men and thus allowed work to be done and allowed development to occur. Prior to this, wealth was largely considered to be how much gold and silver a nation possessed. Since those days, changes in technology have caused the wealth of a nation to be defined more by how much oil it can access. The more oil a nation possesses the more machines it can power and the more plastics it can manufacture. The majority of the input needed to create our output is therefore provided by oil fields and coal. The problem is that there is still a link in the chain that has more in common with the early days of economics when Smith was travelling through Europe. We may not make great use of horses anymore but production still relies a lot on people.
So while we take out all our products in the hope that we will create the greatest amount of happiness, we must still input our own efforts to produce them. We find we are not as happy as we wish because we are not producing enough wealth and enough products, and our solution is to streamline our processes, and become more efficient. We must work our factories harder and create more output in order to create this greatest amount of happiness. In theory this should work but it seems that at a most basic fundamental level the powers who oversee this process have overlooked the fact that the consumer is also the creator. The streamlining makes the overall amount of happiness decrease as men become automatons working in streamlined production lines, always aiming for greater efficiency. The reward for achieving greater efficiency is to be challenged to achieve even greater efficiency by the next appraisal.
Societal happiness decreases. The solution: push harder to be even more efficient.
This is not the approach in all nations of the world. Many countries and many companies are well aware of the absurdity of this approach, but often they only have this luxury while wealth is abundant.
To bring this blog around full circle to my beginning point I think one of the major complaints that can be levelled at a technological approach is that we have become so good at inventing and building machines and computers that we have forgotten that not everything runs like a computer. Our technology may be very advanced but our understanding of medicine, psychology, politics, and economics among other disciplines is nowhere near as advanced. Our mistake is to think that the lessons we have learnt in technology can be applied across all disciplines. The analogies do not work. Society cannot be run like a machine because the happiness we are aiming to create exists outside the physical processes of creation and consumption. Everyone is aware that as consumers we are not machines, but the thing that legislators seem to have forgotten is that as producers we are not machines either.
With the economic downturn a lot of people have been thinking it might be time to save a bit of cash so they have something for a rainy day. I have recently come to the conclusion that this is the last thing you want to be doing. I remember a while ago when talking about personal debt David Cameron had told people to simply spend less and pay their debts off. It was not long before he retracted this when someone deep in Whitehall had presumably explained to him that a British public that was not spending money was a recipe for economic stagnation. It is pretty evident that the government do not want the public to save their money and stop supporting business with their custom. All the same, a lot of people might disagree with the government point of view and decide that now is the time to begin thinking about holding something back for the future.
However the economic situation in many of our nations is really too far gone to take this very obvious and traditional way of ensuring our future prosperity. Many of our nations are experiencing levels of debt that have in the past presaged wars, revolutions and other detrimental situations. In living memory many of us have grown used to a very comfortable and stable way of life, but looking at history shows that good times always come to an end. Tropical eras are followed by ice ages; empires are followed by dark ages; boom is followed by bust; even day is followed by night and summer is followed by winter. Of course there is always the possibility that the complexity of our modern technology might present ways in which we can avoid most of the possible deterioration of society that might have occurred in a previous age, but nevertheless there will always be change.
It is possible that many of the disastrous scenarios I am privately fearing may never come to pass, but even so, it is highly probable given the modern world we now live in that none of our ancestors ever experienced, that the way in which we might wish to use our spare cash will be far more likely to change.
Those in the social stratosphere descended from medieval gentry have typically used their cash very wisely. It is easy to invest wisely when you have so much wealth that you could buy the rest of your lifetime’s meals and still be left with vast sums weighing you down. For the rest of us investment gets a little trickier. It is all very well taking investment advice that tells you to store your wealth in gold or perhaps buy stocks in a foreign power, but if all the gold you can afford will fit in your pocket then it is not going to do you a lot of good when you can’t pay the bills at the end of the month. For most of us there are two main ways in which we will use our extra wealth; we will spend it on shiny things, or we will put it into an ISA/pension/etc.
There seems little wisdom in either of these paths. Our own mothers would be the first to explain why it is not wise to spend it on shiny things. Maybe a few shiny things might be nice but when we are living on a shoe string but have a 50″ 3D TV then we should realise for ourselves that we are losing our sense of proportion. The second path of saving is something that we are encouraged to do with all kinds of tax advantages. It is nice to know that we have that little bit of tax free benefit in an ISA; the same goes for the incentives we are offered to put our money into a pension pot. It is a necessity to incentivise this sort of behaviour to encourage a few people not to spend their money on shiny things. For those who would have done so the pension or ISA are probably an improvement. However it is also an incentive that can prevent those who would have spent their money more wisely from doing so. Those who have their eye on the future might be discouraged from spending their money getting to that future in favour of putting it into an accumulating account that they might access when they arrive.
The returns to be had by such savings are pitiful. Those figures might have looked favourable when we were taking out our pension but considering the inflation of the last generation it is likely that we would reach our retirement to discover that our cash had been doing the fiscal equivalent of treading water and trying to keep its nose above the surface. Any money put into savings of any sort may well be there to spend in the future but what use is spending money at an age where we might possibly have had a heart attack and died many years before.
Those with a fair amount of wealth know exactly what to do. When you have enough wealth it is only a tiny percentage that need be spent on getting the kind of advice that will allow investments to double in a matter of years or even months. The figure for such advice is more likely to be several hundred per cent of whatever we might be able to afford to put away. That is why we stick it into various tempting schemes, but the problem is we can not even afford the level of advice that will tell us which of these schemes might offer the best return.
Where should a person with almost no money invest the few pennies they have. Considering the level of financial woe that recent years have given us, the first answer many people will think of is investing it in beer, wine and spirits. Drowning our sorrows has been one of the ways in which the British public has long sought to support the noble efforts of the brewers and publicans. The way in which it might be more practical to invest money is in the things that are so evidently going to be needed in the probable future. If money is tight then it makes sense to invest our money in ways of avoiding that problem. D.I.Y., tools, sugru, solar panels, allotment gardening, sustainable transport, repair networks, recyclables, thread, needles, yarn, education. These are the things that green movements have been trying to talk us into for the sake of the planet for a long time. It is ironic that what may ultimately push us in that direction is the selfishness of preserving our immediate comfort that has kept us away from that lifestyle for all these years.
Spending money is what the economists want us to do to keep things moving. Forgetting economics for a while, it is spending money that we need to do to prepare for the failings of the economists. At present we are spending plenty but it is not sustainable spending. DVDs, TVs, PS3s the list of things that we buy to take our minds off our woes is extensive but if things do get worse then we will need to be developing practical skills, we will need to be buying useful items, we will need the materials and infrastructure of creators and fixers, not consumers. The market will adjust to supplying these different desires and our confidence will grow. Those industries might also be the best places for the greater investment of setting up businesses.
We need not spend less to save money for the future, we can spend as much as the economists hope we do but lets spend that money on the things that will enable us to create better lives rather than allowing the possibility of failing markets to leave us with lives that no one would want.
I remember a Hawkwind album I used to listen to years ago that is probably somewhere in my mother’s garage now. In it a disaster was being described and the advice to those fleeing was that if they thought about their own safety first then their chances of survival would be heightened. This does make sense, in daily life I have on numerous occasions had to try and find a happy median to choose a course of action in the light of everybody trying to accommodate each other and nobody being fully happy with the result. What would have given everyone the greatest happiness would be another course of action that they would have hit on immediately if they had not been trying to do the best for another.
In this way it can be seen that thinking selfishly as suggested by the theories of Ayn Rand can sometimes be a good idea. I have not read more than a paragraph or two of Ayn Rand’s writings but I have read a lot of commentary on them and she believed that where there was risk to one’s own self then it was immoral to take that risk for the benefit of others. I am not going to take a polemical stance against this as I am sure that in many instances she is right. When a house is on fire I am certain that there are often times when rescuers put themselves into harm by seeking to save someone who had already left at the first sign of smoke or had never been there in the first place. In this scenario Ayn Rand’s philosophy works perfectly for the utmost benefit. However if there is someone in the house and they can be saved and the risk may be great but the actual damage that is fated to occur to a rescuer will never materialise then Ayn Rand’s philosophy is seriously flawed.
This is the problem with the promotion of selfishness as a philosophy, it is like all other philosophies, a great idea but not necessarily practical. Marx had a fantastic philosophy but no practical plan of how it could work; the result is that Russia decided to make use of his philosophy themselves and what they created was not a utopian society but rather a massive and costly sociological experiment that proved what looks good on paper might be a complete shambles when exposed to the variety of real life.
Likewise the free market is a brilliant philosophy. It is so simple, the ultimate form of democracy, the public pay for what they want and the public will get it at the cheapest possible prices with the ultimate efficiency. The problem as any economist will be able to tell you is that it relies on perfect competition to live up to the textbook ideal. Perfect competition can only exist with total knowledge of the value of what is being purchased. Many of the average people out there might have very good knowledge of who the probable killer in the latest drama series is but they will not possess total knowledge of all the factors that are relevant to the decisions they would need to make a fully informed choice on buying so much as the bare staples needed to remain alive.
The customer might know that a loaf of bread from one shop is £1 and from the shop down the road it is £1.10. They may also know how tasty one is compared to the other, and nowadays they might have relative ideas about how healthy one loaf is compared to another. However, when you start to put dozens of loaves on the shelves then it is not so easy to draw accurate distinctions between them. Looking a little more deeply it is impossible to know the effect on the product due to things like genetic modification as the tests needed to know this sort of thing have not even been taken to conclusive enough a result as to satisfy the scientists performing the tests. Further what sort of effect will this have on the environment in which the materials are grown? What effect will this have on the greater environment? What about relative effects of transportation policies? Side investments made by the producers? The list of variables needed to make a fully informed decision is so great that if we were to objectively analyse the purchase of a loaf of bread we would be dead a long time before we had worked out which one we should buy.
Listening to Leonard White of Duke University’s medical department the other day I was led to thinking about the frontal lobes within the brain. Leonard White discussed historical cases in which this area had been damaged. One of the functions of this area of the brain is the making of decisions and people who had become damaged there would find the greatest difficulty in making decisions. They might have all pertinent facts but still be unable to weigh their worth. This area is also responsible for many emotional reactions and it is therefore probable that the ultimate factor to take into account when making a decision is an instinctive one based upon what feels right emotionally. It occurred to me that this was the area of the brain in which the third eye is located; the area that is focussed upon in many meditations and the area that tends to become stimulated in many meditations even though they may have another focus. It further struck me that those who do spend all their time meditating are not necessarily wealthy or leaders of business but they are often envied by so many other people because this is not an issue. They seem happy; those who meditate seem to make all the right decisions to get what they need to create happiness within themselves. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in material things, if you are not happy then it is not worth much to you. Whereas it does not matter how poor you are materially, if you are happy then you have won.
Priests and holy people who stimulate this area with their meditation seem to spend a lot of their time helping others. This is immoral where there is any risk to their own welfare according to Ayn Rand but then Rand’s philosophy only works adequately where knowledge is mythically complete. In the absence of complete knowledge, far beyond our current level of intellectual evolution, it is necessary to fall back on other brain functions that can process the available information more efficiently that surface consciousness. Those functions have been shown to be covered by the frontal cortex.
In 2005 the Ayn Rand institute began an appeal against helping Tsunami victims as according to Rand’s philosophy this would be the wrong approach. Of course this appeal was based upon incomplete information because there is no way to know what effect on future international trade and national prosperity could be had from getting that country back on its feet as soon as possible. In fact there is no way of knowing how much information the subconscious brain uses to make its decisions beyond conscious thought. Those who look into paranormal and other esoterica might even consider that the subconscious brain of some individuals may even be privy to the knowledge that one individual who could be helped by a handout may go on to be the discoverer of a cure for cancer. Even if this is pushing such potential foresight too far to be feasible it is nevertheless an undeniable possibility in the modern global world.
Ultimately this has all been a very long way of saying that when making decisions about the effect that your actions and beliefs may have on the world it is impossible to make these decisions consciously. By all means learn as much as you can consciously as every extra bit of information aids decision making but ultimately the most successful and honest decisions are the ones made with the greatest aid by the one organ that has been shown as essential to decision making, the frontal cortex. Essentially you should do what you feel is right. No matter how clever you are by the standards of our ultimate potential you are an idiot; by the standards of how clever we need to be to make important decisions you are an idiot; as has been shown by the inability of those with damaged frontal cortexes, by the standards of your own brain sans emotional decision making parts, you are an idiot. That is why you should do what you feel and know and believe to be right, not what you think is right.
I think a big part of the problem with modern drug use/abuse is that in order to grow we must test boundaries to discover what is safe and what is not. We must experiment. I do not mean specifically pertaining to drugs but just in general. While we are at a young age we experience. We learn the meaning of things by testing the boundaries. We live in a world of dualities. We reach towards pleasure naturally but often find that this causes the consequence that we are pushed towards pain. Drug misuse many would say, is a choice, it is the choice to follow our natural evolutionary instinct to learn about our environment. When drugs take hold of you you no longer have that choice, then I think it has many parallels with disease in that it disrupts the ease with which one approaches life. It fits the etymology of the word and can legitimately be characterised as a disease.
There are solutions of course. In our youth we are seeking sensation, we wish to go to the boundaries of pleasure and pain because we have a need built into us by evolution to map the limits of experience. People can tell us what they are but we cannot understand by being told, we can only understand by experiencing. In older age, maturity, we are far more willing to take things on faith. Someone will tell us something and we will be able to compare it to analogous experiences we have had and understand it through analogy and metaphor. We do not need experience so much then. We do not need the heights of ecstasy we were seeking earlier. We would be content to just be, but we are not. Either we have become habituated to the use of drugs or there is something that is preventing us achieving our natural equilibrium.
Psychological discomfort is something that the mature drug user is constantly trying to combat. The cause of psychological discomfort is the discordance between the world in which the biology of his brain has evolved and the world in which his brain now inhabits its body. People are not built to fit into the modern world. Drug use has been heavy for centuries and perhaps millennia into totally different worlds but it is becoming more widespread the further we move from our original state of nature.
People who ‘abuse’ drugs are not drug abusers. They are self medicators trying to find a solution for not fitting into the modern world. For not understanding it. In every environment we have entered throughout hundreds of thousands of years we have always lived according to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest. The human population becomes trapped in an environment with certain conditions and the maladjusted cannot deal with the change in their natural environment with the result that the strongest survive and the weak die out. The modern world of bureaucracy and forms and pollution, etc, is one of the most extreme environments that we have ever found ourselves placed in during our entire evolution on this planet. It is a world created by this new organ we have been developing, the sentient brain. As a construct of the sentient brain it is naturally the sentient brain that is the tool that is needed to negotiate it, but being a new organ in evolutionary terms it is still evolving.
There is nothing wrong with the maladjusted brain. It is not broken, it is merely suitable for a different environment but the problem is that the well adjusted brains are creating the environment and they are creating an environment in which they will flourish. evolution does not promote the survival of the fittest whilst killing of the unfit in humans anymore. Our humanity causes us to care for our maladjusted members and thus they survive. Unfortunately while their bodies are given the opportunity to live within tolerable limits their brains are the issue and brains are not well understood so these member of our society self medicate with drugs. Drugs that are illegal only on account of the tendency to be habit forming or open to abuse due to their nature of creating extremes of sensation that are the reason for their potential to cause addiction.
Those who do not ‘abuse’ drugs live their life without ‘abuse’ for two reasons. 1) they are the well adjusted inheritors of the world. Or 2) they do not self medicate because a doctor prescribes alternative drugs that do not have the unfortunate side effect of creating extremes of sensation. This is what most mature people want. They do not want extremes of sensation. They just wish to avoid the knowledge that they are living in a world that has been created by determined, intelligent, mercenary people when they would rather be living in a natural world that had not been reformed by human will. There are huge amounts of drug users being given mind altering prescriptions by the medical services. The only difference between those on these substances and the mature users of illicit substances is that one is prescribed by a doctor and the other is prescribed by a lost soul in a world not of their making. One is no more or less an abuser than the other.
Of course it is plain that these people who do not fit into the modern world love many of the features of the modern world. I.e., computers, televisions, etc. Who wouldn’t love these things? However, if you were to take all these thing away and eradicate the memory of them and place those people in a peaceful 18th century country side environment then they would find themselves psychologically far more easily adjusted to their environment. It is true there were many physical hardships in those times but in general people’s minds had greater strength back then. The people in the modern world if exposed to those kind of hardships would be far less able to cope due to the additional weight of all they experience in the modern day.
Teleology v Deontology.
No, this is not a legal case. These are two philosophies of ethics which one might consider in the daily conduct of your business.
The names are Greek, and just as we have a saying in England, “It’s all Greek to me”. These names aside from being Greek anyway are ‘all Greek to’ most English people who hear them. We can see straight away that they are suffixed by ‘ology’ which is the suffix we use for sciences. Not wholly helpful as science is generally thought of in the west as being the detailed techniques of analysis developed in the Age of Enlightenment.
Of course science goes back a lot further than that even if scientific methodology was less structured. The contributions made to science by monks and Arab scholars and the ancient Greeks were legendary. Largely these were considered to be philosophy and before the term science was coined in recent centuries even the use of modern categorisation, record taking, and measurement in the search for proofs of hypotheses was known as natural philosophy.
It was around 600BC that Thales, who is considered by many to be the father of natural philosophy and hence science, was said to have been the first to propose non supernatural causes for natural events. At this point the suffix would have begun its progression towards its modern use in terms such as biology, sociology, psychology and other words related to the study of natural phenomena. If we go back through this evolution we regress from science through natural philosophy to pure philosophy which is of course where Teleology and Deontology reside.
The prefixes describe exactly what philosophies these are, but even with an understanding of their meaning it is still not clear. A modern western reader might think that teleology was the philosophy of televisions or telescopes. This is not correct but it is heading in the right direction; the tele prefix talks about distance. With a telescope you see things at a distance; with a television you see things at a distance and with teleology you make your ethical decisions based upon the eventual results that may occur at a distance in time far ahead of your action.
‘Deon’ is a not uncommon name but is fair less common as a prefix. In the case of deontology it refers to duty. If you follow a deontological concept of philosophy then you do not consider the ultimate results of your actions but simply is it the ethically correct thing to do at this immediate stage. For instance a deontological thinker might consider murder to be a terrible thing to do and the murder of a little baby would be even more heinous. However a teleological thinker might consider that knowing what he knows know perhaps it would have been a good idea to have killed a baby Adolf Hitler and thus prevent World War II and the holocaust and the genocide of six million Jews. However, if you are considering things in a teleological perspective how far forward should you look? How far forward is it possible to look?
Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books, the Foundation series. The central premise of the Foundation series was that a mathematician, Hari Seldon, had managed to calculate the events of the next thousand years. This was obviously quite difficult for him to do and as the decades and centuries went past his probabilities would get thrown out further and further. So how can a teleological thinker know that when he considers his ultimate intention in acting that his ultimate result will be positive?
Taking the example of baby Hitler; if you travel forwards half a century from Hitler’s birth without having killed him then perhaps preventing the holocaust seems like a no brainer. What happens if you travel a full century forward from Hitler’s birth? Maybe you will then find that there has been such a backlash against his actions that the whole of Europe have joined together in solidarity and pledged to prevent another war of that nature amongst their nations. Maybe you will find that their laws are undergoing a process of unification and a treaty on human rights has been created which is leading to greater acceptance of people of all races. Discrimination is outlawed and disappearing. Liberal democracies aim to promote the greatest happiness and peace that they can. The United Nations is formed and plans to try and prevent such disasters worldwide. The Jewish people after having been outcasts for centuries are accepted by the West and have been given their own homeland. All sounds pretty good maybe the teleological well-wishers shouldn’t desire his death.
Go forward a hundred and fifty years from the death of baby Hitler. Maybe land disputes around the new Jewish homeland will have caused terrible conflicts that have been going on for decades. The equality demands of human rights legislation may have led to an influx of immigration into European countries leading to the bigoted minority gaining sympathy and backing. Maybe there will be an increase in racially inspired murders and riots. Equality demands will also lead to a duty to see that the poor are given opportunities and people will realise that they don’t need to work so hard to have all they need in life. Unemployment will rise and positions will be taken by foreign visitors much to the chagrin of the unemployed working classes who don’t want to be poorer than everyone else, they just want equality. Equality between them and the rich who do not need to work in factories and shops yet still have all their desires. The riots get worse and the burdens of the welfare state threaten the exchequer. The economy collapses and the cities burn. Perhaps it was a good idea to kill the baby Hitler.
What if we go forward another fifty years again. What is happening to the world now? The cities were destroyed. The collapse of the economy has seen a retreat from capitalism and people have grown used to all the different coloured people living around them. They have all spent all their life surrounded by people with all sorts of different coloured skins. These are the people who have helped their families rebuild their destroyed homes after the cataclysm of the 2050s. Everyone is happy to accept the friendship of everyone else. They don’t even know why their grandparents behaved the way they did. The philosophies of sustainability have developed as more people have needed to farm the land to provide food due to the failures of shipping during the cataclysm. People have therefore started living largely on a diet of healthy vegetables that they work for themselves and so are far healthier and enjoy plentiful time outside with their friends and neighbours. Of course the big factories couldn’t be sustained when the power infrastructure of the country went down but the knowledge and the skills live on. Electricity is generated locally with the aid of the huge advances in technology that had been made in the decades since the old power system was created. The internet still exists as it no longer needs a direct physical connection and can be transmitted through the air. Everyone is brimming with knowledge of philosophy, science, art, music and languages. Everyone is full of energy and happy as they work to try and improve the world around them. So perhaps it all turns out alright in the end.
I decline to look further by another hundred years as I think this is a good ending point and I don’t want to see what happens next.
The point is that unless you can see the holistic picture of what a teleological approach to philosophy is then that approach is fundamentally flawed. You cannot say that you are justified in your actions by your ultimate aim because your ultimate aim is only an idea within your own head. It is only the ultimate result that should be considered as a worthy consideration on which to base a teleological approach. The problem is that no man can predict what the results of his actions are. Even Hari Seldon couldn’t predict with accuracy the thousand years he aimed for with the aid of the skills and knowledge and resources that the committee of public safety bestow upon him. What chance does the average person have? Many husbands can’t even work out how to achieve the aim of their wife being happy at the end of the evening.
The deontological approach of course is the approach of doing ones ‘deon’ – duty. One of the most famous philosophers to be accused of taking a deontological approach to philosophy was Immanuel Kant. Kant spoke of what he called the categorical imperative. According to the categorical imperative everyone should do as their will demanded of them. It was an imperative to do so. Much as the imperious curse in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling forces its victim to behave as the sorcerer wishes so the categorical imperative forces the actor to do as it demands.
The idea contrasts with teleology in that rather than focussing on the ends and taking the attitude that the ends justify the means one should instead focus on the means. It is correct motive that is the element pertinent to judging whether the action is ethical or not, the ultimate consequence of the action is not part of the conscious decision. There are those who belong to the school of absolutist deontology who believe that right actions should always be taken no matter what the consequences. It is in this group that I first heard of Kant. I like to think of this as being the ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ school of philosophy as thinking in such a way can allow terrible consequences to occur as long as the actions of the thinker himself are good by deontological standards.
The first time I heard of Kant was in a lecture by Michael Sandel, who I am saddened to report misinformed me as to the true nature of Kant. It is probable that the absolutists have grown up with Kant’s ideas and distorted them just as the followers of religious figures often distort their understanding of their leader’s words. Luckily I don’t think the believers of Kant have yet launched any crusades or jihads; I am fairly certain they are precluded from doing so by their deontology.
The story I seem to remember Sandel told was of a plane flying towards a tower block. In the wake of 9/11 this was an image to which many people could relate. As the plane is flying there are two options. One is to allow the plane to hit the tower block. If this were to happen the result would be that everybody on the plane, say 500 people, would die and the tower would collapse killing the thousand people at work in the tower and the several hundred who are around the base of the tower. The second option is to shoot the plane down while it is over empty land. The 500 people in the plane would die but the people in and around the tower would live so the death count would be far lower.
What do you do?
Now if you chose to shoot the plane down you are taking the teleological approach. This is the approach that Jeremy Bentham would have approved of. His utilitarian philosophy stated that actions should be taken to ensure that the maximum wellbeing and happiness for the maximum number of people should be the aim of action even if it resulted in unhappiness and misery for a minority. It was a value judgement necessary to make the world a better place overall. The deontological view would be to leave the plane to fly as shooting the plane down would be wrong. It cannot be justified to kill people because that is murder. It may end up with a greater number of deaths overall and a greater amount of misery in the world but it is the stain that will be created on your soul that is where the moral weight lays, not in the external event that results in the world.
Sandel used the example of Kant as a deontologist and according to Gary Banham, the Editor of the Palgrove Macmillan series Renewing Philosophy. I am quite right to consider this to be an unfair example of Kant’s views. I won’t give you too many details about what Banham says as you can read his blog yourself. Given the quality I have come to expect from Palgrove Macmillan I would be very surprised if his views weren’t of extremely high validity. Banham gave the impression that Sandel, despite being very good at what he does, had manipulated the impression he wished the audience to draw from his lecture.
Sandel spoke to two people regarding the airplane dilemma; one expert on utilitarianism and a journalist who had some knowledge of philosophy but was not an expert on Kant. Perhaps it is due to Sandel’s influence or perhaps it goes back a lot further in time but when I speak to anyone on the subject of Kant they do not respect his views and think that he was inflicted with the kind of blindness that lets certain Christian scientists do such ridiculous things as let their children have painful deaths because they believe the power of prayer to be better than an operation.
Kant’s thinking was not along these lines though. My understanding is that Kant believed that people should act the way they thought everyone should act. This is tied in with an idea of maxims which must be followed in choosing a path of action. Each maxim must be such that the actor would wish it to become a universally accepted maxim that everyone must follow. I think that rather than seeing immovable maxims these must be regarded as precedents such as are in courts of law. Until an unusual situation arises how is one to design a maxim to cover it. Maxims may cover situations like IF A = B THEN H, IF A = C THEN I, IF A = D THEN J, etc, but if eventually a situation comes up when actually A = B-1 THEN what? Until a situation occurs it is not always possible to create a maxim to cover that situation. This is the issue with the creation of legislation. Not every situation can be covered by legislation, hence the need for the system of precedent. I can guarantee that Kant never imagined the situation of an airplane flying into the side of a skyscraper so Kant never developed a maxim that would have explained his choice of action in that instance.
Kant’s self-training was much like the education of a lawyer. A lawyer does not know how every case is going to end because every case is different. This does not mean the lawyer clams up. He makes his prediction of how the case will end and leaps into action accordingly to save his client as much trouble as he can. Kant’s self-training regime was about teaching his mind how to understand the ethical way in which to take each step that came before him. His philosophy would not have permitted thinking about it; if you think about it then you consider the consequences and then you are looking at the situation teleologically. Kant trained his mind to make these decisions based upon what the correct thing to do was. Was the correct thing to do to shoot down the plane or was the correct thing to do to let it crash into the building. I could give you my choice. I cannot give you Kant’s choice.
According to Kant’s philosophy everyone must follow their own will. Not everyone’s will is the same. Everyone creates their own laws to live by, these laws are judged by them to be worthy of living by if they pass the test of acceptability for a universal rule but everyone’s universal rules will be different. It cannot be said that Kant’s view is that the plane should be allowed to continue because Kant’s view is that everyone should do what they believe to be right. Not that one person should make a rule that he believes to be right and then imposes it on everyone who should ever follow his philosophy. Everyone is different and everyone must follow their own will. Ultimately Kant wanted us all to be happy. We cannot be happy by following rules we do not accept as legitimate. They would fill us with guilt and remorse, not happiness. Kantian ethics would not permit us to follow the laws laid down by Nazi Germany. Certainly Kant thinks that we should follow rules but these rules are the rules of natural law rather than positive law. Where the two coincide there is no conflict. The important thing is that you follow your imperative. You must follow your will. You must do what you have to do. The process of thinking and studying and understanding that he proscribes trains our subconscious ability to understand our will and do as we will.
Kant would have been against laziness for instance, in that a lazy man would have been living by a maxim that stated it was ok to be lazy but as the maxim had to be made universal then he would have to accept that everyone should then also be able to live by the maxim that everyone could be lazy. Kant’s objection to this is that the lazy man would then have to rely on other people to get him food and they could only do that if they were not being lazy. The maxim could therefore not be universal; it had to be personal to only that man otherwise he would starve. Of course the way around this is if the lazy man is quite happy starving and doesn’t mind no-one bringing him food. Perhaps he is happy to pick the weeds from the ground and is quite happy for this to also be a universal maxim. In this case the man will be behaving in an ethical way.
Of course most of us aren’t like this. Most of us like people to do things from which we can benefit and in truth when we look into our hearts we like to do things ourselves. With proper knowledge these maxims develop naturally. If we know that a sedentary lifestyle is going to cause our arteries to stiffen up then our subconscious minds will force us to be active. If we know that eating too much food is going to make us feel bloated an uncomfortable then we will hold off from eating too much food. I choose these two examples because these are things that we constantly do. We cannot stop ourselves eating too much food. We have difficulty getting it together to exercise. This is because we do not fully understand the harm in our lifestyle choices. If we had the full appreciation of the harm then we would make the change.
These two examples are simple everyday things but they could apply to so many parts of life. Most people do stuff because they want to. People work for charity because they want to. People pick up litter because they want to. People volunteer as community policemen because they want to. All these people have different rules they live by. These are their universal maxims. If scriptures are to be believed then once every couple of thousand years or so a person will be born who will embody the correct universal maxims but for the most part we do our best. We can only know if we are following our maxims if we are following our will. If we are happy to be doing what we are doing then we are following our maxims.
A lot of people are not happy these days, they think they are doing what is making them happy yet they are not happy. These people should learn what it is that makes them happy and then they should do it; that is the message from Kant. An almost universally accepted idea one can hear in any number of places is that happiness comes from helping people. This is a part of what Kant was trying to teach. If that were to be put into a maxim though then you would be bound to help people who tried to commit suicide when their spouse left them. This is plainly nonsensical. When your mind has trained itself through correct thought then you will know what your will is. We have all grown up in different circumstances and had different experiences; different pleasures and different pains, personal will may well be different for everyone. Someone who loves mountain biking may go mountain biking every day. It may be one of his maxims; he may wish that everyone could experience that joy universally but the fat man who drives his car everywhere would be unlikely to wish mountain biking on the universe. Everyone is different and everyone can be a good person by following their own path. What is important is that, a) you do what makes you truly happy, you follow your will, your imperative; and b) you would be just as happy if everyone else in the world did things the same way you did. That is what I understand Kant to be saying.