Roger Ebert On Kindness And Death

The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).

The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salonreads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.

Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From Seneca

What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?

— Seneca

Ideally, these reflections would be part of everyone’s daily  routine. We should begin everyday with the mindset that there may be some injustice that we must remedy, a flaw or problem that we must work on, an internal or external challenge that we must persevere against. We should end everyday reflecting on what we did or did not do, what we learned, what we changed for the better. Being a good, productive, and life-affirming person requires constant effort and mindfulness; it means making ethical conduct a habit, something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day activities, interactions, and decisions, big and small.

This is of course difficult to do on a consistent basis; it requires effort and force of will. And certainly, anyone with the time and mental clarity to devote themselves to thinking deeply about how they live and behave is likely in a position of socioeconomic privilege — financially stable, able to enjoy a certain amount of downtime, etc. But that just means we have all the more reason to make the most of our fortuitous circumstances, to apply ourselves in a meaningful way in the lives of others. It not only makes the world a better place, it makes us happier and more well-adjusted people.

Each day that we can count some measure of progress in some area of our lives — in our personal goals, moral character, etc. — is a day of gratification, of life affirmation, of hope that the next day will bring more opportunity, growth, and meaning in our lives. And if you are unable to cite any instance in which you did right by others or for yourself, then ask yourself why and learn from it. None of this is easy to do consistently, but few good things worth doing are.

What are your thoughts?

 

The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.

This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.

[…]

The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?

— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus

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Philosopher Convicts

One of the nation’s finest debate teams lost to a group of New York inmates. It reads like something from a feel-good movie, but it happened back in October, and I had only recently heard the news. According to The Guardian:

The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.

One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.

The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.

“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.

Aside from Harvard, the team has beaten rivals from West Point and the University of Vermont.

Launched in 2001, Bard Prison Initiative is a privately funded program by nearby Bard College that offers inmates over sixty courses in the liberal arts; it has already expanded to six prisons. Anyone with a GED or equivalent can apply, and there is so much interest in it that each available spot has almost ten applicants.

While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.

Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.

“We have been graced with opportunity”, Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves”.

Indeed, only 2 percent of Bard’s graduates return to prison within three years (the usual assessment period) — compared to 40 percent statewide. It is amazing what an education, particularly in the humanities, can do for the human spirit. Here’s hoping more programs like this emerge around the country.

Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading

How Morality Shapes Personal Identity

What makes us who we are? Is it the experiences we have, the memories we hold, or the behaviors we display? Is it a combination of these factors? These fundamental questions of identity and self have concerned humans across all cultures for millennia. Psychologist Nina Strohminger at Aeon offers an intriguing answer: moral character. Continue reading

Short Film: The Human Cost of War

The tragedies of war have been is endlessly discussed, debated, and lamented about since the dawn of humanity. But in this collaborative short film presented by The Atlantic, photojournalist Kate Brooks teams up with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to add yet another powerful and poignant contribution to our understanding of warfare.

In this short film, producers Leandro Badalotti and Simon Schorno powerfully weave together an interview with the photographer and images from over the course of her career. Brooks discusses the motivation behind her work, the moral dilemmas photojournalists face, and the importance of documenting the non-military lives that are affected by these wars. “One of the things that I love about the greater Middle East is that it’s the birthplace of ancient civilizations and world religions”, says Brooks, “but over the past decade it’s become a region of rubble and broken lives”. While many of the photographs can be difficult to view, the film serves as an ever-important reminder of the consequences of war, and the accompanying cycle of violence that many politicians seem to forget.

The film is well worth nine minutes of your time, so check it out here. You can visit Brooks’ website here, or producer Badalotti’s here, for more great work.

The Power of Stoic Indifference

The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

— Lary Wallace, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, Aeon

If you want to better your understanding of one of the world’s most enduring and influential philosophies, then read the rest of the article here. It dispels the myth that Stoicism is an apathetic and dispassionate mindset, and unveils the versatility of the Stoic approach to almost every circumstance. Even slaves and prisoners of war have been counted among its adherents and promoters.

The real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.

Of course, you do not have to be a POW or human chattel to appreciate the merits of Stoicism. No matter your lifestyle or circumstances, the Stoic response is applicable. Difficult to maintain, yes, but nonetheless beneficial and life affirming.  Continue reading

Think Like a Philosopher With Daniel Dennett

Big Think has a collection of five short videos featuring Daniel Dennett, a renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist who addresses how humans can be better thinkers — and thus better people. They offer a quick and digestible guide to avoiding logical pitfalls and exploring the world with more clarity. If you can spare a little less than thirty minutes, I highly recommend checking them out by clicking the above hyperlink.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone). Continue reading