The Ethics of Growth, Part I: Disorganized Thoughts

Today is the first official day of sabbatical, and I will make it a point to write at least a little bit every day. The summer was good. Not terribly productive, but not unproductive. I took some much-needed time to recover from the school year and my school persona, read a lot of books, continued my violin lessons, made good progress in running, saw many music shows, and had a long visit with my family. Now it’s time to write.

Some disorganized thoughts on the sabbatical project, “The Ethics of Growth.”
I don’t know if it is new, but the major goal of the book is to explore a version of ethics that I don’t think is very common in ethics.

In most ethical systems, some definition of “the good” or “the bad” is needed. Simply saying, “To be good means to be kind to each other,” simply begs the question as to what is meant by “kind.” Do we mean gentle? Sometimes, a bit of sternness and rigidity is the best way to help another, and being too gentle can sometimes lead to disaster. So, we want to examine the repercussions of different definitions of “good.” A few examples, stated very simply:

For Plato, “The Good” for people and cities meant “justice,” and justice meant a certain kind of harmony.

For Aristotle, “The Good” meant pursuing one’s happiness, which included living among friends and cultivating one’s virtues.

For Kant, “The Good” meant a human’s will that strived to do good, and a universal rule that could be followed in any situation.

For Mill, “The Good” meant happiness, and happiness meant pleasure.

I think there is something fascinating about each of these definitions, and others. Part of this year’s project is to explore both more modern versions and versions of this from other parts of the world.

My own ethical system therefore draws on some of these other systems, but mine has an emphasis on growth. In it’s simplest formulation, it holds that “the good” is best understood as growth, and “the bad” is best understood as decay. However, there are many caveats to this, because on its own, this formulation is rife with problems. Perhaps my first goal in the weeks ahead is to describe and respond to these caveats. Here are just a few of the things I’m talking about:
–I am not simply talking about biological growth. There is, for example, the growth of ideas, knowledge, diversity and complexity. Too much biological growth hinders other types of growth.
–There are different kinds of growth, and they are not equal. Some things that look like a lot of growth can actually contribute to more decay. Growing a business and an industry can seem good to those who benefit from that growth. But industrial growth can lead to environmental decay. This isn’t to say that all industrial growth is bad, either: there is a lot of industrial growth that has allowed for growth in many dimensions. As a small and obvious example, computers and the internet have given us great potential to exchange ideas, to educate ourselves, and to positively affect the world on a much larger scale than was possible prior to these innovations. But, of course, computers and the internet have also been used for the opposite affect: spreading misinformation, manipulating opinions, sabotaging knowledge. And these actions should still be considered “bad.”

More tomorrow…

Sabbatical Journal: Building a Foundation of Habits. Part I.

The Need for Reliable Habits

My 9-month sabbatical technically runs from August 2018 to May 2019. But with three-month summer breaks on both ends of that, it is practically a 15-month sabbatical that started as soon as I submitted Spring 2018 grades.

I have accomplished some things that took a lot of work and discipline, but the deadlines were always imposed by an institution, the same institution also imposed a lot of useful structure, and the stakes–both positive and negative–were always high. I have had a few summer breaks where my ambitions were high, but I have never used them well. So there is certainly a possibility that I waste away a lot of time this year.

To make the best of this time, I have thought a lot about the cultivation of my habits. I have nearly turned Aristotle’s theory of virtue-building into my personal non-theistic code. The basic idea is that rather than focusing on goals and accomplishments, I first consider what habits are needed to work toward those goals, then go about focusing on the cultivation of those habits until they are firm and require relatively little effort to maintain.

What Habits Should I Cultivate?

Most of my habits in the past few months have been alright in some areas, and problematic in others. On the one hand, I am very satisfied with my habits of violin practice. Coming up on the first year anniversary of my first lesson, this is something that has had a lot of ups and downs. But since early March, I have had consistent practice and have improved a lot. The violin habit is a model for what my good habits should be: it was not institutionally imposed. Although I had a violin instructor that could often tell when I wasn’t practicing, I could have walked away or stopped practicing at any time without any real consequence. My chief motivation was simply to work on cultivating my skills, and that was enough. Thinking back on how I began, the causes of my failures and the causes of my successes, serves as my chief model for how I can build good habits at this stage of my life.

Writing: My biggest project over sabbatical is to write a draft of a book. Unfortunately, my writing habits of the past year have been very poor this past year. In fact, this blog post is one of the longest things I’ve written in the past six months, second only to my sabbatical proposal. That was an 8-page single-spaced document that came out like an explosion over the course of two or three hours with a few hours the next day of review. But that sabbatical proposal was not evidence of a habit: merely evidence that I can write a satisfying draft of a few pages if I put my mind to it. It’s not the sort of writing that will get me to a 200 page draft though.

Reading: Although my primary project is to write, reading lots of difficult books is essential to that goal. And I should be spending much more time on reading books than on writing. My recent habit of reading is at odds with this, and has been the worst it has been in a very long time. By the nature of my job, I often read. But I don’t always read whole books or challenging academic essays. I have read plenty of longer essays and excerpts from challenging books. But the only two full-length books I have read cover-to-cover since New Years were a couple of action science-fiction novels. There are times of my life where I am compelled to read: I find joy in it, it is easy to focus, and it is painful to set down a book. But my current state is quite the opposite: it feels like an unpleasant chore. The moment I pick a book up, I start to think of other things I could be doing.

More Violin: It’s been great, and there’s so much more to do. Enough said.

Running, lifting, going to the gym: It’s embarrassing how rarely I’ve gone to gym these past couple years. It’s even more embarrassing that I’m still paying for it. I have been better at running, and at home doing squats, curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. But I am always strongest and feel best when I have a good gym habit. I have gone both yesterday (first time in months) and today. My goal is to make it there every day for the next month–even if I don’t do anything.

Study Latin: About four or five years ago, I took it upon myself to start learning Latin. I want to be able to read Spinoza’s Ethics in the original, which is a sort of revived classical Ciceronian Latin with Dutch influences. I was pretty good in my studies for awhile, going through ups and downs for 18 months similar to learning violin. But then it came to a halt. There is no better time to get this going again.

As an aside, I want to spend a lot of time this year reading and thinking about the philosophy of language. Which means I should think about language. As someone who is basically a monolinguist, this is difficult. I’ve found studying Latin is useful in thinking about how language affects our thinking.

Study Farsi (Maybe): A language that I’ve known a little bit of for my entire life. I would love to get this into the mix, but for now it is not my priority.

Study Logic (Maybe): Likewise, I have always wanted to take my study of logic further and deeper. I’m going to focus on the other goals first and see how it goes.

In tomorrow’s post, I will write a bit about how I am planning to instill these habits into myself. For now, I’m headed to a coffee shop (a supporting habit I want to start) to start cultivating my reading and Latin habits.

The phrasing of a question

“The way in which a problem or question is formed determines the sort of answer and insights that will follow. The answer, to some extent, is already imbedded in the question. The right and well-won answer to a mis-constructed question will yield illusions.”

This is something I’ve believed for a long time, and there are many examples that have satisfied me. But should they be satisfying? I have not sufficiently examined this belief, and certainly have not argued it well.

Returning to the Blog

I have had some important life transitions lately that will allow me to focus exclusively to reading, writing, and teaching. Among these changes is the deactivation of my Facebook page. Over the past years, I have been very active in posting my thoughts to Facebook. We had a lot of good discussions too. But there is an obvious limit to what Facebook allows, and it is not a great medium for longer or more stable writing. There are a few reasons I left Facebook, but one important one was to avoid the indulgence of rambling off some small thought, then never developing it beyond that.

So, this blog is now the only place on the internet that is mine and where I have a personal writing platform. Expect this to become active once more.

Among the immediate changes: I’ve added a page on the right column for periodicals. My own periodical reading habits are fairly poor, and I tend to only check the NY Times, Atlantic, and Chronicle of Higher Education with any regularity. I want to fight against that habit and keep my reading diverse and thought provoking. One great thing about Facebook included all my friends who posted interesting articles from sources I don’t usually read. One of my last posts on FB asked my friends to recommend things they read, and they gave a lot of good suggestions. The periodical page includes anything they recommended. For now, I’ll leave it the way it is. In the future, I’ll edit it to reflect what I have actually found interesting.

The Confucius Assignment

Every once in awhile, I write an assignment that I’m especially pleased with. This is one that I wrote for my Ethics’s students’ first paper, and I received the the papers today. I like it for two reasons: first, because it provides an important lesson on the use of texts in a community, and second, because it requires students to use Confucius’s Analects to deal with a problem that is personal and for which they are the true expert.

Ethics Essay # 1: A Letter to a Community Leader

The Common Text

A “common text” is the name we give to a book (or other text) that nearly everyone in a designated community has read, is expected to read, and gives some kind of value. The community may be a small one: your family may its favorite movies or books that everyone is familiar with, and members of the family may gently reinforce morals or lessons by referring to those texts. A workplace or other institution may have a “creed,” plus it’s policies and inside jokes. Some colleges assign a “common text” to all of its first-year students, to encourage all students to have conversations about ideas.

An “authoritative common text” is like a common text, but with the additional feature that more or less everyone in the community is expected—and sometimes required—to believe in or accept the truth and morality of the text. This text, and how a community uses it, can often define a culture. The value of the text is to provide a common worldview, a place to agree even when people disagree on other things, a tool for law and education, a context to build stories, a sense of cultural identity…

Since the formal acceptance of Christianity into the Roman Empire in 313 ad, the Holy Bible served as the authoritative common text throughout most of Europe for more than 1400 years. After that, many European nations (and former European colonies, such as the United States), adopted constitutions that were based on “human rights” and divorced themselves from the authority of the Bible. Even still, most citizens considered the Holy Bible as an authoritative text, even if people should now be granted the right to choose which religion they ascribe to.

With the first Islamic State, founded by Muhammad in Medina in 622ad, the Quran has come to serve as the authoritative common texts for nearly all Arabic nations. The influence of the Arabic text expanded as well, being adopted by former Arabic colonies or through trade throughout northern and eastern Africa, Persia, India, and Malaysia. Today, many nations still hold the Quran as its authoritative common text.

Most nations today have adopted human-rights based constitutions, largely based on the constitutions of France and the United States. Not everyone believes these texts are flawless, but everyone understands that the law is based on this text above all others. All authoritative common texts need to derive their authority from some source, whether real or fictional. So long as the people believe the source, it is authoritative. It the case of the Holy Bible and Quran, this authority comes from God. In the case of most constitutions, this authority comes from “We the People,” and requires validation through a vote.

Enter Confucius: Since The Analects were composed about 2,500 years ago, many Confucian dynasties have adopted the Analects as an authoritative common text. Every Emperor was expected to know and follow it. Every government official, such as their versions of mayors, governors, senators, and so forth, were chosen not based on a vote, but based on how well they understood The Analects and how well they could apply it to real-life problems. The Emperor’s advisors were all the best Confucian scholars in the country, and they provided advice to the Emperor by writing papers and giving speeches that were based on the teachings of the Analects. “Confucianism” is not a religion. It is a set of political and moral beliefs with a few mystical elements. However, the Chinese civilization has treated the Analects with at least as much reverence as the Quran or Holy Bible ever has been by Islamic and Christian nations.

Your Assignment: A Letter to your Community Leader.

Your assignment is to write a letter, from you to one of your community leaders. Your goal is to provide respectful advice on how they could be a better and more moral leader. This should be someone to who you are acquainted—perhaps a church leader, a parent, a neighborhood spokesperson, your manager at work, or a teacher. An alderman is probably too distant, unless you have met them. Unless you have special connections, someone like Mayor Emmanuel or Presidents Obama and Trump are certainly too distant. We are adding one fiction to this scenario: we’re going to pretend that Confucius’ Analects are the authoritative common text for your community and the nation, and that both you and your reader (1) have read the Analects, (2) believe that a effective and moral person follow the Analects above all other texts, and (3) desires to be effective and moral. Consider the community leader’s behaviors and actions, and consider the text of the Analects. Using specific passages of the Analects¸ your assignment is to teach the community leader how they have failed and how they can improve

My Oath as a Philosophy Teacher

I know nothing. But I want to know. And I want to instill this paradigm in my students.

If I have faith in anything, it is in the validity of conditional statements: if this is true, then that is true. But the conditional statement, too, should be examined and questioned.

I also have faith in the power of critically reading difficult texts, writing, and discussion, in the cultivation of a broad, sharp, and developed mind. This too should be examined and questioned.

But to be a philosopher is to retain faith in these, even while they are doubted.

I will take no positions and advocate no beliefs beyond this.

I will pursue knowledge. I will investigate what my students believe, and work with them to discover the logical conclusions of those beliefs. I will assist my students in their pursuit of knowledge.

I will not accept or reject any of their conclusions, no matter how lovely or repulsive, no matter how right or wrong they seem to me–so long as they pursue them calmly and reflectively with the goal of knowledge and good judgment in mind. I will only make judgments on whether their conclusions follow from their premises, whether they follow necessarily or probably, whether they have been honest with the validity or strength of their conclusions, and whether their starting point began with a critical questioning of their initial positions.

This is my philosophy teacher’s oath. And it too should be questioned.

 

Playing and Experimenting

What is the difference between playing and experimenting? The first is what children do, and the second is what scientists do. But we can talk about a child experimenting, sometimes at the same time that we can describe them as playing. And we can talk about a scientist playing, at the same time that they are experimenting, or preparing to experiment.

When we experiment, we are trying to see what things lead to what. And we experiment on something for which we do not have complete control or knowledge: something that keeps its secrets hidden until we do the right thing. When we play, our goal is perhaps indefinable. But when a child keeps playing at the same thing for too long, they get bored. Why do they get bored? “Because they have been doing it for so long” is not an explanation: that is merely a statement of fact. What was it about the length that ended their interest? Perhaps that they no longer could see how they could learn.

Perhaps the difference is this. An experiment is pre-meditated. Play is improvised.