Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Be Good?

In my last blog, I talked about drivers who ignore the one-way sign posted at the end of the street on which I live.  A frequent tactic of those who live on the street to discourage this flouting of the rules is to shout “WRONG WAY”, at cars failing to adhere to these rules.  I suppose this will alert someone who was not aware they were driving in the wrong direction to their misdeed, but mostly it will make them aware that people are watching.

If we see morality as rule following is there a danger that we only follow the rules when someone is watching, or when someone can catch us.

Plato asked what we would do if we could do what we liked without anyone finding out?  In The Republic, he gave the example of a magic ring that made the wearer invisible. (1)  An ancestor of Gyges of Lydia was said to have used this ring to kill the king and take his place on the throne, without anyone finding out what he had done.  Plato pondered whether anyone with such power that he could not be caught would do the right thing.  So we have to ask ourselves if we just follow rules because we are afraid of getting caught or if we had Gyges’s ring would be do what we want?

To take a more contemporary example, imagine, on a dark night, a car hitting a pedestrian on a deserted road and driving off.  If no one sees the incident, and assuming that the driver successfully conceals or explains away other evidence such as damage to the car, should the driver stop and help and put himself or herself in possible legal jeopardy?

Would the driver’s actions be bad even if he was not caught or otherwise found out?  I would say that whether or not he or she faced any consequences his or her actions would still be bad.  If that is true, then something is bad even if you don’t get caught. Even in the ring of Gyges the point is not that the ring makes his actions good, the problem presupposes that there is a good and a bad way to act, but rather why we should do what is good?

However, what about those who don’t get caught?

We could respond by stating that most people don’t “get away with it”.   We have police and justice systems designed to make sure that the guilty are punished.  But in a world with this much corruption and selfish ambition, can we say that no one gets away with it?  Moreover, if someone were truly successful in getting away with their crimes, we would never really know what they had done.

It seems to me that unless there are consequences for wrong actions, then there is no reason to do the right thing if one can get away with it.   Since, it is likely that there are some at least who get away with things, take a moment to reflect on unsolved crimes, it would seem to follow that there would be no reason to do what is good if one can "get away with it".

This is indeed a great problem.  We could try to solve it by better policing and a fairer judicial system, but will we ever reach perfection, or even near perfection?  That is to say, that it is likely that we will never see complete justice in this world.  Perhaps if all of our actions were watched or recorded all of the time, we might achieve such justice.  However, not too many would find that to be a palatable solution, and our experience of human nature would lead us to believe that instead of using total surveillance to achieve total justice, it would be used to perpetuate total forced submission.  Moreover, we might distrust that the judicial parts of that system would act fairly and impartially.

What we would need is a fair, impartial judge who observes everything, and carries out a just punishment, so that no one “gets away with it” in the end.  Further, this judge would need absolute power to see every crime and be able to punish all of the guilty, while at the same time be above corruption.  If such justice is to have existed throughout history and to extend into the future, this person must have endured throughout human history and must continue to do so for as long as we exist, or else this perfect and powerful person, would need to be replaced from time to time with no gap between such powerfully, perfect persons.

It is clear that if such a person does exist, he or she would be morally perfect, supremely powerful, all-knowing, be everywhere at the same time.  If you think about it, this sounds a lot like God.

(1)             Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 47-49.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Reversing Forward – Is Morality Just Rule Following?

I live on a one-way street.  However, I frequently observe cars going the wrong way up the street.  But even more interestingly, some people go the wrong way up the street in reverse.  Does this make it O.K.? 

Isn’t that the human condition, we know the right thing to do, but it can be inconvenient or painful, so we try to do something else?  But we have a nagging feeling that we need to do the right thing so we try to renegotiate the rules.  If I can’t drive forward in that direction, maybe driving the forbidden direction in reverse is a little better.  Not perfect, but then we are only human – right?

If we see doing the right thing as following the rules, there is a temptation to try to modify the rules so they are easier for us to comply with.  Further, if being ethical or living a morally good life merely involves following the rules, then our motives for doing so are of no consequence.  That is to say, we don’t drive the correct way down the street because it is the right thing to do but because we are just following a rule.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Some "Thoughts on Mind & Cosmos" by Thomas Nagel

I have been a fan of Thomas Nagel since I first read his essay “What It’s like To Be a Bat”.  His lucid, common sense analysis was striking to me as an undergraduate philosophy student.  I was therefore intrigued about his latest book – Mind and Cosmos, especially since there was such a furor surrounding it.  There has been much talk, well in certain circles, about Mind and Cosmos.

In the debates between theists and non-theists, Nagel’s book has lauded by the theist side for championing their cause, and treated as a dangerous betrayal by nontheists. (1)  But I think the book is neither.  Sure the subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, may lead you to think that he has landed firmly in the camp of theism, but I think that would be to go too far.  We have to keep in mind that just because Nagel holds neo-Darwinism to be false doesn’t mean that he believes theism is true.  Nagel makes it more than clear that he is not a theist, he just doesn’t want to base his atheism on something he considers to be false.  And that indeed is laudable. 

So what has caused all the fuss?  Nagel claims in Mind and Cosmos that the dominant naturalistic worldview, which holds that a blind process of natural selection is responsible for our existence, is fundamentally flawed.  It should also be noted that he mentions his doubts on the likelihood the ability of purely physical laws to explain the origin of self-reproducing life forms, and the likelihood of natural selection producing the life forms we see today in the available geological time. (2) However, the first sticking point for Nagel comes in his area of specialty – philosophy of mind. Essentially, he holds that the project to reduce the mind to physical properties has failed because of the intractable problem of explaining consciousness.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Religion and Violence

“Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.” – Christopher Hitchens (1)
We are often told that religion, including Christianity, is the cause of great evil in the world. That in the words of Christopher Hitchens - “religion poisons everything”. It is claimed that if religion is removed violence will be greatly diminished. In his book, God Is Not Great, the late Hitchens outlined in the second chapter entitled “Religion Kills” various conflicts and atrocities that he blamed on religion. (2)

I’m leaving aside the question of whether one can be good without God. I’m also not going to counter with the argument that atheist belief systems have been responsible for a greater share of evil and death, or enter the debate over whether communist states were atheist. I’m also going to avoid bringing up the thorny issue that if an atheist claims religion is evil they are committing themselves to a system of absolute moral standards.

Instead, let’s do a thought experiment. What if you had a magic ray gun that could remove someone’s religious beliefs instantly? Imagine further that you had a way to spread the effects of this ray gun over the entire earth, so that every person on the planet was struck, and no longer had any religious belief.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Waiting for an invitation that never came 
Cocooned in my complaints 
As events passed me by 

But was it lying step-crinkled on the carpet 
The something else 
Ignored as nothing more 

The opening of space just wide enough 
But I missed my cue 
I didn’t see how I could fit on through.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sporting Morality

I was listening recently, as I often do, to a sports call in show.  The sport in question was football, or soccer as it is known in my current abode.  Callers were discussing professional fouls – e.g., deliberately sticking out a leg out to trip an opponent who has beaten you. A professional foul makes no legitimate attempt to win the ball.  Everyone can excuse a tackle intended to win the ball back that was either not properly executed or a tackle that fails because the other player successfully avoided it.  A professional foul contains an element of intention.

One of the presenters of the show, a former pro, complained that a particular player should have professionally fouled an opponent who went on to score.  The rationale being that a deliberate breaking of the rules was permitted if it stopped the other team scoring.  Indeed, the former pro opined that, the referee would punish the professional foul with a free kick or a yellow or red card.

For those who don’t know, a yellow card is a caution, a red card sends a player off for the remainder of the game.  Two yellow cards automatically mean a red card.

But, I was struck by a caller who said that he coached kids and who stated that he would voluntarily punish his own underage players by substituting them if they committed a professional foul.  That is, the coach would punish them beyond any punishment handed out by the referee. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Through a Glass Darkly

For much of the past couple of years the majority of my posts at Songs of a Semi-Free Man have considered the idea that we are haunted by the sense we were meant for something more, or even that something else is going on in the background. In the words of St. Paul we see “through a glass darkly”. (1)

We grope for meaning in love, work, education, art, sport, family. We want to do great things; we want to be part of great things. It is not enough to live, mate, procreate, work and die. If this is our fate we reject it (even as we give intellectual assent to philosophical and scientific dogmas that promise such a pointless existence). Death pains most of all.

We dream of utopia but live in the shadow of the waking nightmare of Doomsday. We want to scream out – “I am and I matter.” Sometimes we even dare scream – “they matter too.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Certain enough
To point the finger
To condemn
To hate
Certain enough to scream
With our eyes closed
We can’t hear anyone else