John Locke — Far From the Paragon of Classical Liberty

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).

Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.

As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.

Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.

— , “John Locke Against Freedom

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

Better People and Better Societies Through Philosophy

But a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn’t benefit from being able to think something through clearly.

— Shannon Rupp, Be employable, study philosophy

While widely viewed as the purview of ivory tower academics and haughty intellectuals, philosophy — which broadly studies every matter of human concern from morality and values to the nature of reality — has plenty of everyday, practical applications. We come across dilemmas or issues everyday that can be addressed with philosophical values of critical analysis, open discourse, and rational argument.

We may not see the mundane decisions we make on a regular basis as a form of philosophical engagement — again, there’s that image problem of philosophy being too esoteric or aloof — but any time you must make a choice, learn about something, or interact with someone on either a professional or personal level, you benefit from knowing how to think better and how to justify your decisions.

Philosophy allows you to choose the more virtuous path when facing a moral dilemma (how should I resolve this conflict with my friends? How best to respond to an injustice I witnessed?), what is true and why (which source should I trust? why should I trust it?), and even how to live (what is a meaningful life? Where do I find my purpose? How can I be a good person?).

And just imagine how beneficial it would be if society as a whole was comprised of individuals who not only care about thinking and acting better — a value instilled by philosophy — but who have the tools and approaches necessary to ensure that end?

Scott Samuelson at The Atlantic touches on this when defending against the common refrain that philosophy, and humanities in general, are at best secondary and at worst worthless when compared to more “practical” subjects like business or applied science.

Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominantly offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only”.

That is because being a free person means making decisions — in our interactions with one another and in our participation in political and civil institutions — that are best done with a clear and rational mind. Other skills and fields of knowledge are important too of course, but anything and everything you do involves a thought process that can and should be refined by philosophical values.

Obviously, teaching people philosophy is not, on its own, going to solve society’s problems. On both an individual and collective level, humans will always be susceptible to vice, lapses in judgement, poor thinking, and the like. There is no avoiding that (at least for the foreseeable future), but it can be mitigated by instilling into generations of people the principles, tools, and mindsets that help us to resolve problems, both internal and external, more effectively.

What are your thoughts?

Why Study Philosophy?

The Atlantic has a great interview with philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, which among other things discusses the relevance and importance of philosophy as a discipline (Goldstein is well known for promoting the benefits of philosophy to moral progress and advancing the human condition).

I recommend reading the whole interview hyperlinked above, but the following excerpt most stood out to me. It addresses the rather common claim that philosophy has not changed or progressed much throughout history.

There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.

It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

It is interesting to see how many arguments, claims, and philosophical concerns of today have existed throughout history, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks (and no doubt other civilizations for which we have no records). Many of the issues and considerations we struggle with are timeless and inherently human in nature, but that does not mean we do not progress in both how we think about these things and what we do about it.

Improving our moral framework and understanding of the world are each continuous and long-term projects, and once we see the bigger picture and take the long view, we come to better appreciate why philosophical discussion and inquiry are so vital in the grand scheme of things.

What are your thoughts?

The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

Is Math Discovered Or Invented?

Mathematics is one of those things that deeply fascinates me but that has always gone over my head no matter how much I try to study it. Among its most intriguing qualities is whether it has any independent existence outside of human observation or thought, or whether it is wholly or largely an artificial concept.

The following five minute video briefly covers this intriguing question. I found it fairly easy to digest despite my ignorance of the subject.

If anyone out there is well versed in mathematics, feel free to weigh in with your knowledge?

Bayanihan

Bayanihan is a concept in the Philippines that refers to a spirit of communal unity and cooperation, usually centered on members coming together to help one of their own. It has its origins in rural towns, where members help a family move to a new place by volunteering to physically transport the entire house to a specific location. This is usually followed by a celebration to express gratitude to the volunteers.

Bayanihan practiced in its original form. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Bayanihan persists to this day in both rural and urban communities, especially in slums. Examples include raising money to help one member pay for medical treatment, helping new arrivals get situated, and rebuilding any homes lost to natural disaster. Even the poorest citizens manage to pool their resources and capital together to ensure one of their own is looked after.

In its most dramatic manifestation, bayanihan was utilized in the capital city of Manila to form a successful grassroots movement, which influenced the government to help establish better housing and infrastructure for poorer residents.

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.