Selected Questions

Here I address some of the open questions of philosophy.

Good and Evil

Religious people occasionally mention good and evil in a supernatural context, but there is nothing supernatural in general (certainly metaphysics is not supernatural), and there is nothing supernatural about good and evil.

First we must define the terms. The best definition of evil I have found is this:

Evil is unnecessary harm.

This is an important definition that underpins a lot of other discussion so it's important to understand it clearly. A harm is anything detrimental that we want to avoid. There can be harms to individuals and larger harms to societies or nations. The necessity of the harm is the key as to whether it is evil or not. A necessary harm is one that can't be avoided in some way.

For example, if a tornado picks up a tree and hurls it into a house, destroying it, that's a harm that could not be avoided, so it's not evil. On the other hand, if a city is flooded during a hurricane because its levees weren't reinforced, even though the government knew of the need to reinforce the levees for many years yet took no action, that's a harm that could have been avoided, so it's an evil.

Another example is a childhood vaccination shot. The physician injects vaccination serum into a child, causing him pain and possible inflamation. The physician also knows there is some small chance that the child will become ill from the shot itself. However, in the physician's judgement, the harm of vaccination pain and risk are more than outweighed by the safety against disease conferred by the shot. The pain and slight injury of vaccination is therefore a necessary harm, not an evil. In fact, it could be argued it would be evil not to give the shot.

Socrates once asked a youth what good was. The youth responded that good is helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies. That's not too far off the mark. Just as harms are things we try to avoid, goods are things we try to acquire.

So an "evil" person is one who performs or allows unnecessary harms, either out of malice (hate or other form of mental illness) or (more commonly) neglect. A "good" person is one who understands good and evil and works to promote good and avoid evil. Now that you understand good and evil, I hope you will become a better person, just as I (following Baba Ram Dass) continue to "work on myself."

Note that by my definition, all evils are of human origin. Young children and animals are not capable of evil. As a child develops toward adulthood, he assumes more and more responsibility for his own actions, and is therefore more and more potentially culpable for allowing or committing unnecessary harms. Juvenile courts are certainly well acquainted with these issues.

Free Will

A professional philosopher might think that only an idiot would enter into the debate about free will. It might be a bit like wrestling with a pig: you get dirty and the pig has fun. I used to think it was a pointless argument that neither side would ever win. However, new thinking has tilted the battlefield to the free will side.

First we need to determine if there is a default winner. That is, is there a side that has the burden of proof, without which the other side wins by default?

I have taken to saying that the "slave will" (the not free will) side has the burden of proof. Here's why.

  1. In introspective moments people tend to feel that they are free to choose among alternatives of prospective actions.

  2. If one's decisions are not free then they must be determined by some other agency. There is no evidence of this.

  3. There was nothing to argue about until the slave willers brought the argument. Let them prove their case.

I assume, of course, that my intrepid adversary (possibly you) will not concede that the slave will side has the burden of proof. In which case, I am prepared to carry the battle forward thusly:

The Argument from Effort:

If there were no free will, life would be effortless because we would have no choice. Because the things we want require effort, the very fact of our choosing to exert effort is an expression of our free will.

The Argument from Chaos:

Our brains may be deterministic, but they are unpredictable. That is, they are chaotic, and as a consequence, there is no algorithm that will predict the action a human will take. Therefore, we are free because if our behavior were dictated by any algorithm, it would be predictable, and there exists no algorithm for predicting human behavior (akin to Turing unpredictability).

The Argument from Infinite Regress:

A person can want something, such as the improved health benefits of physical exercise. He can observe himself wanting the thing, and conclude that it is good that he want it, and further that he therefore wants to want it. He can observe himself wanting to want it, and conclude that it is good that he can want to want it, and further that he therefore wants to want to want it. And so on. We have established an infinite regress. Therefore, the charge that a person can't want what he wants can be escaped from without limit, and man is therefore free.

That just about nails it!

What part of "proof" don't you understand? But you and I know that these arguments will never "convince" the free will deniers. They think they are suppored by science, but even if the universe were deterministic, the above arguments prevail. Free will does not depend on indeterminism in physics. And slave will can exist in an indeterminate world. Take the example of a robot based on a Turing complete machine. Such machines are buildable in a quantum mechanically indeterminite world. So any questions of randomness are irrelevant to the question of free will. Chaos (see my argument above) does not require indeterminism.

This state of affairs reminds me of the plight of Spinoza. He offered many proofs of his philosophical positions, very much in the spirit and tradtion of mathematics. However, he was dealing with "philosophers," who couldn't seem to understand the phrase "what part of 'proof' don't you understand?"

Spinoza proved that if divinity existed in the universe, then pantheism was the case. If one accepts the definition of God as being "that which there is nothing greater", then one must also accept that the universe cannot be separate from God because the union of God and the universe would be greater than God, a contradiction. However, not accepting logic is a perversity, and Spinoza was exiled from his community as a result of the so-called philosophers' non-acceptance of his correct arguments.

A Counter-Argument

The argument from infinite regress shows that we can want what we want. I can think that wanting something is fine, and continue to want it on that basis. However, it has occurred to me recently that belief is not necessarily subject to our will. That is, some people can believe what they want, and others, such as myself, cannot.

Because for me, as an amateur philsopher, knowing the truth is more important than anything else, and belief is an important part of knowing, I am unable to believe things that I don't know are true. This is in contrast with religious people, some of whom pride themselves in being able to believe things in spite of evidence to the contrary.

So the best among us, if we assume that knowing things is good, are less free than the worst. In fact, it can be argued, the truth seekers are slaves to their values, while everyone else is demonstrably free. This, I suppose, is somewhat like saying that the inmates of the asylum are free (because they are not constrained by reality) while their psychiatrists are not.

So what's the bottom line on free will? Is a commitment to believing only true things an impediment to freedom? No. It would be like saying that eating only non-poisonous things is an impediment to nutrition.

Egalitarianism versus Authoritarianism

"Liberty, Fraternity, Egality" --motto of the French revolution

I don't think so-called "conservatives" really understand what they purport to advocate. I sometimes tell them that they're not really as conservative as they think they are. Real conservatives want:

If you don't want all those things, then you might not be as conservative as you think you are.

So doesn't it seem to you that the whole sweep of history is a progression from the authoritarianism and hierarchical structure of strong individual leaders to equal rights for individuals and democratically elected leadership?

Anarchy tends to degenerate into feudalism. With no law, the strong will take for themselves whatever they can, lackeys will serve the leaders and establish a hierarchical pecking order, and the weak will become slaves with no rights whatever. So that's really the object of the Repugligan* aim of destroying government. From a lack of enforcement of the rule of law, individuals and corporations can rule as they see fit, driving wages down to a subsistence level (which is the moral equivalent of slavery), and provide no security or guarantees for the bulk of the population. We must fight authoritarianism wherever it is encountered, especially in the Repugligan Party.

Morality and Private Property

Private property ownership is currently restricted by law. For example, a person can own horses but not people. A person can own land, but its use is regulated by zoning laws. Except for those limititations, however, we generally regard the right to private property as fundamental.

Today we look back at the slave economies of the past and wonder how they could have been so immoral as to allow that practice. In the future, our descendants may look back at us and wonder how we could have allowed people and corporations to actually own pieces of the Earth. This was certainly an alien concept to the Native Americans before they were forced onto reservations. Perhaps they were actually way ahead of their time.

Stewardship of the Environment

Perhaps it bears repeating that the Earth is a finite resource and that we have arrived at a point in time in which human activity can swamp (otherwise) natural processes. Thus, rampant libertarian capitalism must be regulated in the interest of stewardship of the environment. The negative consequences of neglect are manifold. Species extinctions, clearing of forests, mountaintop removal mining, pollution of rivers, oceans, and the atmosphere.

One would think that protecting the environment would be in the "rational self-interest" (as an "objectivist" might call it) of everyone. But left to their own devices, individuals will exploit the commons (forests, mountains, air, and sea), leaving the Earth completely raped. Thus it is left to governments, acting in the peoples' collective interest, to save the environment.

Therefore, fair trade should be the policy of every nation. Nations should charge import tariffs on goods produced without environmental protections or without labor organizational rights for worker safety and wages. That will stop "offshoring" or "outsourcing" to get around internal environmental and labor laws.

* I coined the term "Repugligan" in much the same way that C. S. Lewis chose the name of "Screwtape." It's a conglomeration of "repugnant ugly thugs and hooligans." It's meant to convey the blatant disregard of society and culture of contemporary Republicanism in the USA. President Eisenhower wouldn't have recognized it. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, would have, however, because he started the trend with his "southern strategy" and his disregard for the truth and the Constitution ("When the President does it, it isn't illegal").

This hand-crafted HTML file was created August 14, 2009, by Rick Wagner, and last updated August 18, 2010 by Rick Wagner.
Copyright © 2002-2010 by Rick Wagner, all rights reserved.