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

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.

Propaganda is at the Heart of Democracy

Democracy might be the least bad form of government there is, but that only means that it is no less vulnerable to certain weaknesses than the alternatives. Take for example propaganda, typically viewed as the staple of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though it is utilized across all political cultures, it is perhaps most pernicious in democratic forms of governance, ironically enough because of the principles of freedom enshrined in such societies.

As Quartz explains:

Democracy is susceptible to propaganda … because liberty protects free speech and so propagandistic statements can’t be banned. But, as [Jason] Stanley writes in his book How Propaganda Works, humans have “characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation”, and so are vulnerable to spin. This is not a recent discovery: As Stanley notes, Aristotle recognized that demagogic propaganda posed the biggest threat to democracy.

Stanley argues that there are two kinds of propaganda. The most obvious kind, typically present in times of emergency such as war, uses fear mongering and nationalism to garner support through appeals to emotion.

But there’s also a more subtle form of propaganda, which Stanley defines as when an affront to a certain ideal is presented as though it’s an embodiment of that very ideal. For example:

“How do you defend bigotry against gays? You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We hate gays’, so you evoke religious liberty. Package anything in liberty and you’ve got yourself a deal”, he tells Quartz. As this uses the ideal of liberty to curtail another’s liberty, it meets Stanley’s description of this kind of propaganda.

I plan on reading Stanley’s book at one point, as it seems to offer a new and perhaps controversial way to look at propaganda. Many Americans tend to imagine propaganda to be a lot more overt and old fashioned than it really is — vitriolic radio broadcasts, colorful posters, organized rallies adorned with party paraphernalia. But more often than not, especially in a 21st century inundated with stimuli and signaling at all directions, propaganda can seep into our consciousness in the most subtle and seemingly mundane ways. One need only frame an idea a certain way, and communicate with a degree of pizazz, for it to seem substantive and true.

What are your thoughts?

The Case for a Universal Basic Income

By now, it is well established that capitalism is fundamentally built upon threats of force. As libertarian philosophers Robert Nozick and Matt Zwolinski have explained, the only way to turn unowned natural resources (such as land, minerals and other goods) into privately owned property is by violently preventing all others from using them. This one-sided exclusion destroys freedom of movement and cuts many people off from the things that they need to survive.

When the physical resources necessary for production are privately held in the hands of very few, as in the United States, the majority of the population is forced to submit itself to well-financed employers in order to live. The precarious position of most workers in this position — desperate for employment but aware that they could lose their jobs at any time — is coercive on its face and susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

Labor protection in the form of safety laws, collective bargaining and prohibitions against harassment and discrimination have helped cut down on many of the worst employer abuses. But no amount of labor regulation can ever undo the fact that workers are confronted daily with the choice between obeying a supervisor or losing all their income. The only way to break the coercion at the core of the employment relationship is to give people the genuine ability to say no to their employers. And the only way to make that feasible is to guarantee that working-age adults, at least, have some way to support themselves whether they work or not….

….True freedom requires freedom from destitution and freedom from the demands of the employer. Capitalism ensures neither, but a universal basic income, if successful, could provide both.

— Matt Bruenig, “Tired of Capitalism? There could be a better way“. The Washington Post.

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

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

The Different Notions of Self

Over at Quartz, Tim Urban offers a fairly fun and comprehensive rundown of all the theories of self — what makes you, you. It is an often maddening topic that has been reflected upon and debated by philosophers and average folks alike for about as long as we’ve been capable of higher thought.

Though it is a long read, it is well worth your time if you want to understand, in an often humorous and digestible way, the different arguments for what makes our identity and how. I am especially fond of this excerpt.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.

For my part, I think the self is an amalgamation of different elements, namely continuity of narrative combined with data. Of course, no concept is without its shortcomings and gaps, which is what makes the discussion about self so timeless. As the author alludes towards the end of that snippet, there is just something fundamentally intangible about the self, something many of us just know without any explanation.

What do you think?

Lessons from Benjamin Franklin on Business Success

Ultimately, for Benjamin Franklin, the question of how to succeed in business could not be divorced from how to succeed in life and, therefore, the ends to which one should live. To live like a king seemed distinctly un-American. To live for no one else seemed unimaginable. If Americans view things differently today, perhaps that says less about how we succeed in business than what we believe it means to lead a life well lived.

—  John Paul Rollert, “How America Lost Track of Ben Franklin’s Definition of Success”, The Atlantic

Listen Freely to John Rawls’ Lectures on Modern Political Theory

One of history’s most cited and influential thinkers, American moral and political philosopher John Rawls is responsible for introducing some of the most seminal concepts in modern political theory. His many books and essays, in particular his magnum opus A Theory of Justice (1971), remain standard in many courses of political science and law.

While I do not have the time to highlight the many Rawlsian ideas that have deeply impacted me — namely public reason and the veil of ignorance — I invite you to learn more for yourself by checking out these full lectures made freely available by the Harvard Philosophy Department via Open Culture. 

In these talks, Rawls explains and expands on his core principles: equality of opportunity and the “difference principle”, which states that any and all inequality should benefit the least well-off members of a society. Rawls’ brand of political liberalism (also a title of one of his books) has influenced presidents, judges, and legislators with arguments directly contrary to some of the right’s ideological architects, many of whom in fact wrote in reaction to Rawls. We are free to accept his claims or not, but Rawls’ significant contribution to the terms of modern political discourse is inarguable.

See them here or get them all here. These lectures are well worth your time, especially if you are among the millions of people living in democratic societies who are concerned about where society and politics are headed. Please feel free to weigh in or share your reactions.