Sunshine Recorder

Link: Saying no! to Jack Bauer: Mainstreaming Torture

Rebecca Gordon is the bad-ass philosopher who argues that Jack Bauer is wrong to use torture. She is an applied ethicist who is engaged all the time with forging a dialectical relationship to the rest of the world, with current political realities, with torture as a government supported institution hidden in plain sight, with torture and Alisdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, with torture as a practice, about what Obama should do, about ‘enhanced interrogation’, why Jack Bauer is wrong, why Anscombe thinks certain thought experiments can erode ethical thinking, about whether her approach is universal, about rival approaches and whether there are reasons for optimism around this depressing reality. Come gather round people…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Rebecca Gordon: It was an accident. I’d spent the previous 30-odd years as an activist in a variety of political movements, supporting myself as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 2000, it seemed that many of the movements I’d worked in (for women’s liberation, for LGBT in solidarity with people in Central America, against apartheid in South Africa and for racial justice in the United States) had reached a kind of stasis. A long phase of my personal life was also drawing to a close; my partner and I had been caring for my mother for some years; now she was dying. It seemed like a good moment to do something new. Naturally, I thought, “I’ll go back to school.”

Next question: What to study? Mathematics? History? Small particle physics? I decided I might as well do something that encompasses the whole shebang and study theology. So I wandered over to the Graduate Theological Union, where I thought I’d spend a couple of years and emerge with an M.Div. from Starr King School for Religious Leadership. Once you’re enrolled at GTU, you can take classes at any of the nine schools, and U.C. Berkeley. So I did. And, against all my expectations, I fell in love with scholarship.

The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California gave me a full ride for the first two years of a doctoral program in Ethics and Social Theory. As I worked on the dissertation, I began teaching in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Now I had something entirely new to learn about: how to teach. For the last nine years I’ve had the privilege of talking with an economically, racially, and nationally diverse group of young people about their own deepest values — at the time in their lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be in the world.

The work that became Mainstreaming Torture began as my dissertation at the GTU.

3:AM: You say that the world of philosophical ethics is divided into two very distinct segments – theoretical and applied ethics and that in the academy the theoretical is more esteemed. But you are an applied ethicist – so are you out to change the world – and do you think the academy should be too?

RG: I would never presume to seek to “change the world” as an individual actor. That is a project for many people thinking, deciding, and working together in organized ways. My goal for the students in my classes is that they emerge thinking of themselves as citizens – not necessarily, or only, of a single nation, but of the world. Do I think the academy should be out to change the world? I think that much of its work inevitably does change the world, and not always for the better. I think that those of us located in the academy have a responsibility to recognize that our institutions are embedded in a larger society, and that, as is true for any institution, we exist in dialectical relationship to the rest of the world.

3:AM: You’ve recently engaged with the highly topical issue of torture. Was the motivation political awareness of what’s happening recently?

RG: Yes, and no. Yes in that I began thinking and writing about state torture within two months of the terrible attacks of 9/11. And no, in the sense that I had long known that my own government supported torture regimes in many places, including Greece, the Philippines, and large parts of Latin America.

In 1984 I spent six months in the war zones of Nicaragua. There I met survivors of torture at the hands of the counter-revolutionary force the Reagan administration was (at that time illegally) training, arming, and supporting, known as the contra. The contra had an intentional strategy of terrorizing civilians in rural areas, torturing them to death and leaving mutilated bodies to be discovered by others. I met at least one torturer as well.

A few years later, I served as interpreter for a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, just a few weeks before the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroaméricana in San Salvador. At that time, the Salvadoran government enjoyed military and political support from United States. During our two weeks in El Salvador, one of our key contacts in the labor movement there was arrested. We were able to visit him in prison, where he described how he had been tortured. Not for information, but as a matter of course.

Within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear to anyone who wanted to know that one result was that people were going to be tortured. Of course this wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has been involved with torture, but September 11 did mark a real change. Almost overnight, a question that many people believed had been resolved – whether or not torture is wrong – was reopened. In November of 2011, Jonathan Alter, a mainstream liberal columnist, wrote in Newsweek, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture.” He wondered whether it might be a good plan to deport the Muslims living in the United States whom the FBI had rounded up to “Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings.” Americans who weren’t thinking about new methods to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history” had failed to recognize that they lived in a transformed world. “Some people still argue,” wrote Alter, “that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.”

The people the FBI had rounded up turned out to have nothing to do with 9/11, but some of them were held for more than half a year in cells in Brooklyn, NY, where they were subjected to treatment that has since become very familiar: 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight.

The more I think about institutionalized torture, the more I realize that it is hidden in plain sight all around us – in U.S. jails an prisons, and even in institutions for people with disabilities. So yes, it is topical. And it has been going on for a long time.

3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?

RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.

The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on 24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.

Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.

The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.

So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits. (I’ll say more about how MacIntyre’s approach in answer to a later question.) The “cardinal” virtues have been around in “western” philosophy since Plato and Aristotle (although the latter’s catalogue of virtues was more varied and variable.) These virtues are courage, justice, temperance or moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming, I describe ways that each of these is distorted by the practice of torture. ‘

Courage becomes not the ability to withstand fear and pain, but the ability to overcome instinctive squeamishness and inflict it.

Justice is tricky to define, but one thing is clear, which is that torture subverts the usual temporal order of legal justice. Ordinarily, trial precedes punishment. In torture, the order is reversed, and in many cases, no trial ever occurs.

Temperance can be thought of as a properly measured response to the joys and pleasures of life. In torture, what is prized is moderation in enjoyment of causing suffering. That is, interviews with torturers suggest that they have little respect for peers who torture because they like doing it. Thomas Aquinas includes the subsidiary virtue of humility within the category of temperance. Torture belies the humility that allows us to recognize that no human being can know the contents of another person’s mind. We cannot identify with certainty the “really bad guys,” who may in fact turn out to be unlucky men scooped up and sold on an Afghan battlefield.

The wisdom I am concerned with is practical wisdom, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and Thomas prudence, right reason about things to be done. It is the intellectual virtue, that allows us to think properly about moral questions. In Mainstreaming, I said,

“In commenting on the perpetrators of great evil, including torturers [Hannah Arendt] observed that the one thing they appeared to have in common was “something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Elsewhere she writes, “Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what happened.” The inability to think about what is happening around one, or to make a moral judgment about it, is a dangerous habit indeed.

The practice of institutionalized state torture requires precisely this “quite authentic inability to think” both in people directly involved, and in a public that learns not to think too hard about what is being done in our name for our supposed protection. I sometimes think it’s useful to talk about “culpable ignorance,” the failure to acknowledge something we could know if we chose to. Not that we haven’t had help getting there. I’ve argued that in the case of the “war on terror” the government’s “rhetoric of denial, the theater of fear with its manipulation of threat levels and [what William Cavanaugh calls] the ‘striptease of power,’ the apologias for torture by present and former government officials: All these serve to diminish ordinary citizens’ capacity to think clearly about moral questions.

Read more.

Link: After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?

Abstract: Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.


Severe abnormalities of the fetus and risks for the physical and/or psychological health of the woman are often cited as valid reasons for abortion. Sometimes the two reasons are connected, such as when a woman claims that a disabled child would represent a risk to her mental health. However, having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus. This could happen in the case of a woman who loses her partner after she finds out that she is pregnant and therefore feels she will not be able to take care of the possible child by herself.

A serious philosophical problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth. In such cases, we need to assess facts in order to decide whether the same arguments that apply to killing a human fetus can also be consistently applied to killing a newborn human.

Such an issue arises, for example, when an abnormality has not been detected during pregnancy or occurs during delivery. Perinatal asphyxia, for instance, may cause severe brain damage and result in severe mental and/or physical impairments comparable with those for which a woman could request an abortion. Moreover, abnormalities are not always, or cannot always be, diagnosed through prenatal screening even if they have a genetic origin. This is more likely to happen when the disease is not hereditary but is the result of genetic mutations occurring in the gametes of a healthy parent. One example is the case of Treacher-Collins syndrome (TCS), a condition that affects 1 in every 10000 births causing facial deformity and related physiological failures, in particular potentially life-threatening respiratory problems. Usually those affected by TCS are not mentally impaired and they are therefore fully aware of their condition, of being different from other people and of all the problems their pathology entails. Many parents would choose to have an abortion if they fi nd out, through genetic prenatal testing, that their fetus is affected by TCS.

However, genetic prenatal tests for TCS are usually taken only if there is a family history of the disease. Sometimes, though, the disease is caused by a gene mutation that intervenes in the gametes of a healthy member of the couple. Moreover, tests for TCS are quite expensive and it takes several weeks to get the result. Considering that it is a very rare pathology, we can understand why women are not usually tested for this disorder. However, such rare and severe pathologies are not the only ones that are likely to remain undetected until delivery; even more common congenital diseases that women are usually tested for could fail to be detected. An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only the 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that, considering only the European areas under examination, about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease had been diagnosed before birth.

Link: Excerpt from William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy"


What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the ques- tion in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

Suppose you can identify your grand goal in living. Suppose, too, that you can explain why this goal is worth attaining. Even then, there is a danger that you will mislive. In particular, if you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it. Thus, the second component of a philos- ophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living. This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.

If we want to take steps to avoid wasting our wealth, we can easily find experts to help us. Looking in the phone book, we will find any number of certified financial planners. These indi- viduals can help us clarify our financial goals: How much, for example, should we be saving for retirement? And having clari- fied these goals, they can advise us on how to achieve them.

Suppose, however, that we want to take steps to avoid wasting not our wealth but our life. We might seek an expert to guide us: a philosopher of life. This individual would help us think about our goals in living and about which of these goals are in fact worth pursuing. She would remind us that because goals can come into conflict, we need to decide which of our goals should take precedence when conflicts arise. She will therefore help us sort through our goals and place them into a hierarchy. The goal at the pinnacle of this hierarchy will be what I have called our grand goal in living: It is the goal that we should be unwilling to sacrifice to attain other goals. And after helping us select this goal, a philosopher of life will help us devise a strategy for attaining it.

The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department of the local university. Visiting the faculty offices there, we will find philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics. We might also find philosophers specializing in the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of feminism, and even the philosophy of philosophy. But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn’t always been this way. Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, not only thought philoso- phies of life were worth contemplating but thought the raison d’être of philosophy was to develop them. These philosophers typically had an interest in other areas of philosophy as well— in logic, for example—but only because they thought pursuing that interest would help them develop a philosophy of life.

Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life. Different schools offered different advice on what people must do in order to have a good life. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, founded the Cynic school of philosophy, which advocated an ascetic lifestyle. Aristippus, another pupil of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school, which advocated a hedonistic lifestyle. In between these extremes, we find, among many other schools, the Epicurean school, the Skeptic school, and, of most interest to us here, the Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium.

The philosophers associated with these schools were unapologetic about their interest in philosophies of life. According to Epicurus, for example, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.” And according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, about whom I will have much to say in this book, “He who studies with a philosopher should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder.”

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow, I focus my attention on a philosophy that I have found useful and that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both mean- ingful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.

In other words, this book offers advice on how people should live. More precisely, I will act as a conduit for the advice offered by Stoic philosophers two thousand years ago. This is something my fellow philosophers are generally loath to do, but then again, their interest in philosophy is primarily “academic”; their research, that is to say, is primarily theoret- ical or historical. My interest in Stoicism, by way of contrast, is resolutely practical: My goal is to put this philosophy to work in my life and to encourage others to put it to work in theirs. The ancient Stoics, I think, would have encouraged both sorts of endeavor, but they also would have insisted that the primary reason to study Stoicism is so we can put it into practice.

Another thing to realize is that although Stoicism is a philos- ophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They therefore became acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at preven- tion failed. Even those readers who are leery of philosophical speculation should take an interest in these techniques. Who among us, after all, would not like to reduce the number of negative emotions experienced in daily living?

Although I have been studying philosophy for all my adult life, I was, until recently, woefully ignorant of Stoicism. My teachers in college and graduate school never asked me to read the Stoics, and although I am an avid reader, I saw no need to read them on my own. More generally, I saw no need to ponder a philosophy of life. I instead felt comfortable with what is, for almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. My philosophy of life, in other words, was what might charitably be called an enlightened form of hedonism.

In my fifth decade of life, though, events conspired to intro- duce me to Stoicism. The first of these was the 1998 publica- tion by the author Tom Wolfe of A Man in Full. In this novel, one character accidentally discovers the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and then starts spouting his philosophy. I found this to be simultaneously intriguing and puzzling.

Two years later I started doing research for a book about desire. As part of this research, I examined the advice that has been given over the millennia on mastering desire. I started out by seeing what religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and Buddhism (and in particular, Zen Buddhism), had to say about desire. I went on to examine the advice on mastering desire offered by philosophers but found that only a relative handful of them had offered such advice. Prominent among those who had were the Hellenistic philoso- phers: the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics.

In conducting my research on desire, I had an ulterior motive. I had long been intrigued by Zen Buddhism and imag- ined that on taking a closer look at it in connection with my research, I would become a full-fledged convert. But what I found, much to my surprise, was that Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it. Furthermore, I came to realize that Stoicism was better suited to my analytical nature than Buddhism was. As a result, I found myself, much to my amazement, toying with the idea of becoming, instead of a practicing Zen Buddhist, a practicing Stoic.

Before I began my research on desire, Stoicism had been, for me, a nonstarter as a philosophy of life, but as I read the Stoics, I discovered that almost everything I thought I knew about them was wrong. To begin with, I knew that the dictionary defines a stoic as “one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaf- fected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.”I therefore expected that the uppercase-S Stoics would be lowercase-s stoical—that they would be emotionally repressed individuals. I discovered, though, that the goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions.

When I read the works of the Stoics, I encountered indi- viduals who were cheerful and optimistic about life (even though they made it a point to spend time thinking about all the bad things that could happen to them) and who were fully capable of enjoying life’s pleasures (while at the same time being careful not to be enslaved by those pleasures). I also encountered, much to my surprise, individuals who valued joy; indeed, according to Seneca, what Stoics seek to discover “is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.” He also asserts that someone who prac- tices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarilybe attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus tells us that if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow.

Rather than being passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice, the Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked hard to make the world a better place. Consider, for example, Cato the Younger. (Although he did not contribute to the liter- ature of Stoicism, Cato was a practicing Stoic; indeed, Seneca refers to him as the perfect Stoic.) His Stoicism did not prevent Cato from fighting bravely to restore the Roman republic. Likewise, Seneca seems to have been remarkably energetic: Besides being a philosopher, he was a successful playwright, an advisor to an emperor, and the first-century equivalent of an investment banker. And Marcus Aurelius, besides being a philosopher, was a Roman emperor—indeed, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. As I read about the Stoics, I found myself filled with admiration for them. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined—traits I would like to possess. They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans—values I happen to share.

In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability. There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. This seemed to be an important insight, but it left open the question of how, exactly, we could accomplish this. The Stoics, I was delighted to discover, had an answer to this question. They developed a fairly simple technique that, if practiced, can make us glad, if only for a time, to be the person we are, living the life we happen to be living, almost regardless of what that life might be.

The more I studied the Stoics, the more I found myself drawn to their philosophy. But when I tried to share with others my newfound enthusiasm for Stoicism, I quickly discov- ered that I had not been alone in misconceiving the philosophy. Friends, relatives, and even my colleagues at the university seemed to think the Stoics were individuals whose goal was to suppress all emotion and who therefore led grim and passive lives. It dawned on me that the Stoics were the victims of a bum rap, one that I myself had only recently helped promote.

This realization alone might have been sufficient to moti- vate me to write a book about the Stoics—a book that would set the record straight—but as it happens, I came to have a second motivation even stronger than this. After learning about Stoicism, I started, in a low-key, experimental fashion, giving it a try as my philosophy of life. The experiment has thus far been sufficiently successful that I feel compelled to report my find- ings to the world at large, in the belief that others might benefit from studying the Stoics and adopting their philosophy of life.

Readers will naturally be curious about what is involved in the practice of Stoicism. In ancient Greece and Rome, a would-be Stoic could have learned how to practice Stoicism by attending a Stoic school, but this is no longer possible. A modern would-be Stoic might, as an alternative, consult the works of the ancient Stoics, but what she will discover on attempting to do so is that many of these works—in particular, those of the Greek Stoics—have been lost. Furthermore, if she reads the works that have survived, she will discover that although they discuss Stoicism at length, they don’t offer a lesson plan, as it were, for novice Stoics. The challenge I faced in writing this book was to construct such a plan from clues scattered throughout Stoic writings.

Although the remainder of this book provides detailed guidelines for would-be Stoics, let me describe here, in a preliminary fashion, some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life.

We will reconsider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire— most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought is not the kind of tranquility that might be brought on by the ingestion of a tranquilizer; it is not, in other words, a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

We will study the various psychological techniques devel- oped by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control. We will also recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore practice Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us.

Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to iden- tify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.

Practicing Stoicism will obviously take effort, but this is true of all genuine philosophies of life. Indeed, even “enlight- ened hedonism” takes effort. The enlightened hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy of life, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. The enlightened hedonist will then devise strate- gies for maximizing the amount of pleasure he experiences. (Unenlightened hedonism, in which a person thoughtlessly seeks short-term gratification, is not, I think, a coherent philos- ophy of life.)

The effort required to practice Stoicism will probably be greater than that required to practice enlightened hedonism but less than that required to practice, say, Zen Buddhism.

A Zen Buddhist will have to meditate, a practice that is both time-consuming and (in some of its forms) physically and mentally challenging. The practice of Stoicism, in contrast, doesn’t require us to set aside blocks of time in which to “do Stoicism.” It does require us periodically to reflect on our life, but these periods of reflection can generally be squeezed into odd moments of the day, such as when we are stuck in traffic or—this was Seneca’s recommendation—when we are lying in bed waiting for sleep to come.

When assessing the “costs” associated with practicing Stoicism or any other philosophy of life, readers should realize that there are costs associated with not having a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned one such cost: the danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.

Some readers might, at this point, wonder whether the practice of Stoicism is compatible with their religious beliefs. In the case of most religions, I think it is. Christians in partic- ular will find that Stoic doctrines resonate with their religious views. They will, for example, share the Stoics’ desire to attain tranquility, although Christians might call it peace. They will appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s injunction to “love mankind.”And when they encounter Epictetus’s observation that some things are up to us and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will focus our energies on the things that are up to us, Christians will be reminded of the “Serenity Prayer,” often attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Having said this, I should add that it is also possible for someone simultaneously to be an agnostic and a practicing Stoic.

The remainder of this book is divided into four parts. In part 1, I describe the birth of philosophy. Although modern philos- ophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordi- nary people live better lives. Stoicism, as we shall see, was one of the most popular and successful of the ancient schools of philosophy.

In parts and 3, I explain what we must do in order to prac- tice Stoicism. I start by describing the psychological techniques the Stoics developed to attain and subsequently maintain tran- quility. I then describe Stoic advice on how best to deal with the stresses of everyday life: How, for example, should we respond when someone insults us? Although much has changed in the past two millennia, human psychology has changed little. This is why those of us living in the twenty-first century can benefit from the advice that philosophers such as Seneca offered to first-century Romans.

Finally, in part of this book, I defend Stoicism against various criticisms, and I reevaluate Stoic psychology in light of modern scientific findings. I end the book by relating the insights I have gained in my own practice of Stoicism.

My fellow academics might have an interest in this book; they might, for example, be curious about my interpretation of various Stoic utterances. The audience I am most interested in reaching, though, is ordinary individuals who worry that they might be misliving. This includes those who have come to the realization that they lack a coherent philosophy of life and as a result are floundering in their daily activities: what they work to accomplish one day only undoes what they accomplished the day before. It also includes those who have a philosophy of life but worry that it is somehow defective.

I wrote this book with the following question in mind: If the ancient Stoics had taken it upon themselves to write a guidebook for twenty-first-century individuals—a book that would tell us how to have a good life—what might that book have looked like? The pages that follow are my answer to this question.

Link: Philosophy of Sex

Sex raises fundamental philosophical questions about topics such as personal identity and well-being, the relationship between emotion and reason, the nature of autonomy and consent, and the dual nature of persons as individuals but also social beings. This article serves as an overview of the philosophy of sex in the English-speaking philosophical tradition and explicates philosophical debate in several specific areas: sexual objectification, rape and consent, sex work, sexual identities and queer theory, the medicalization of sexuality, and polyamory. It situates these topics in a framework of shifting cultural attitudes and argues for the importance of the philosophy of sex. It ends with some suggestions about future research, particularly with regard to the changing nature of pornography and sexual justice in legal theory.


This article is about the ‘sex’ that people have, not the ‘sex’ that they are. Sex is of obvious philosophical significance: around the world, no other personal activity is simultaneously so important to us as individuals, so widely moralized about, and so highly regulated by the state. For reasons of space and specificity, this article discusses philosophy of sex only as it’s been understood in the English-speaking philosophical tradition, focusing just on the associated culture of North America and the UK. In that philosophical tradition, sex is an understudied topic. This is striking, since the questions and issues sex raises are intertwined with the most central topics in philosophy, including those of personal identity and well-being, the relationship between emotion and reason, the nature of autonomy and consent, and the dual nature of persons as individual but also social beings.

Though philosophers of Ancient Greece discussed sex alongside other matters of everyday life, for centuries philosophers in the Western tradition generally had little or nothing to say about sex (though as we will see below, Kant was a notable exception). In the modern period and before the 20th century, cultural attitudes about sexual ethics were framed largely in terms of appropriateness and chastity: sex between a man and woman who were married was appropriate, other sex was not, and chastity meant governing one’s sexual impulses in a way appropriate to those norms. In the wake of the social changes of the 1960s, there was a surge of theorizing about the philosophy of sex, much of which concerned the contrast between views based on traditional norms and newer views dissociating sex from them. In this phase, several topics came to seem particularly salient: the question of ‘perverted’ versus ‘normal’ sex; the ethics of homosexuality, masturbation, abortion and casual sex; problems concerning rape and sexual harassment; and issues surrounding pornography and prostitution (the fourth edition of Alan Soble’s edited collection, Philosophy of Sex, published in 2002 and highly revised from the third, represents this phase of the field well.)

Social and cultural developments since then have led to substantive changes in views about which topics should be taken to be important and how those topics should be understood. First, it has become clearer that outside of a religious context, reasons for necessarily associating sexual ethics with chastity and family life are obscure; the traditional framework has thus receded as a reasonable one in a secular context (for an exception, see Scruton 1986). This recession has had several implications. For many scholars, it is no longer philosophically plausible to say that sexual activity is morally wrong simply in virtue of being homosexual or that some kinds of sex are simply ‘perverted’. While homosexuality and same-sex marriage are controversial cultural and political topics, they are not controversial in philosophical discourse. Masturbation is not thought to raise deep ethical issues simply in virtue of being solitary sex for pleasure. While abortion is more controversial than ever, it is now discussed more in general philosophical terms, as a debate over personhood and our ethical obligations, than as something particularly related to the philosophy of sex.

As the traditional framework has receded, other values and theoretical approaches have gained in importance and salience. The rise of feminism as a cultural phenomenon and theoretical tool has led to increased interest in questions about how sex impacts women’s lives, particularly in understanding the ways that being valued or viewed primarily as sex objects harms them and the ways cultural attitudes affect our judgments about rape, consent, and the law. Sex is increasingly seen as a site of potential conflict between the rights of individuals and the good of communities, for example in the debate over sex work and pornography. The rise of queer culture and post-Foucauldian theory has meant increased attention to questions about the nature of sexual identities, the ways these may be biological, socially constructed, essential or chosen, and the resulting implications for the political struggle for equality and liberation. The rising involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in sexuality means complex cultural and bioethical questions about the medicalization of our sexuality are rapidly becoming pressing. Because sex can result in children, it is widely thought that the state appropriately takes some interest in the sexual lives of citizens, e.g., in its prohibition on adultery, but there is deep disagreement over what form this interest should take and over whether the common romantic model of monogamy in coupledom is right for everyone.

In these topics, there are several common threads. Is it possible, or desirable, to try to distinguish a ‘healthy’ kind of sexuality beyond simply saying that whatever consenting adults choose to do is their own concern? Do certain forms of sexual expression in the media, in sex markets, and in hook-up culture lead to the harm and mistreatment of women and to the commodification of persons more generally? When it comes to non-sexual domains, much of North American and European legal structures and cultural attitudes employ an almost-Millianism: everyone is free to do as they please as long as they are not harming anyone else. But many people fail to apply this attitude to sex. Is there something about sex that indicates a need for differential treatment, or is this a holdover from the traditional view?

In this entry, I discuss in more detail several specific topics of particular interest in the contemporary study of the philosophy of sex. Because the topic of objectification raises broad foundational issues and is connected with many others, I start with a substantial discussion of this. I follow with discussions of three areas that have inspired significant philosophical attention and disagreement: rape and consent, sex work, and sexual identities and queer theory. Toward the end, I give brief overviews of two emerging areas likely to be the subject of much theorizing in the years to come: the medicalization of sexuality and polyamory. I end with a few suggestions about the future.

Sexual Objectification

Over the past few decades, ‘sexual objectification’ has gone from a relatively technical concept deployed by feminist theorists to one frequently used in many disciplines and in everyday discussion (Nussbaum 1995: 249). Though it is used in a wide range of contexts including discussions of media representations and fashion, in the philosophy of sex, it is often appealed to in debates over pornography, sex work, and what I call ‘commodified casual sex’, which is sex undertaken for the explicit purposes of an exchange of sexual pleasure and excitement – without other elements such as love. It is often understood to implicate the way a society harms women by treating them only, or primarily, as objects of actual or potential sexual appeal.

Though the specific terminology of objectification is relatively recent, sex has long been thought to be connected to a problematic using of a person or treating them as an object. In some passages, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) seems to suggest that all sex involves people using others as mere means to their ends: ‘In loving from sexual inclination,’ he says, ‘they make the person into an object of their appetite. As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it (1997: 156).’ Because of the nature of the appetite, this thinking goes, sexual desire drives us to ignore the humanity of our partners and to use them for our own purposes; our drive to do this is so strong that we are willing to be used as objects ourselves in return for the chance to use another. But this reciprocity, Kant thought, could not itself make objectification, and thus sex, moral. Kant’s proposed treatment of this problem of making sex morally permissible rested on the way uniting in legally protected, monogamous marriage could make people permanently and formally committed to caring for one another’s ends (see Herman 1993). Sex outside of marriage would thus be morally wrong; though as Helga Varden (2008) explains, this does not mean it should be made illegal.

Feminist theorists of the 1970s and 80s, such as Andrea Dworkin (1987) and Catherine MacKinnon (1987), approach the problem in a different, gender-focused way: in their view, the problem isn’t sex itself but rather the way our society treats women only as sexual objects, which harms them in profound ways. Pornography, in particular, dangerously reinforces men’s mental habit of regarding women as mere objects for their enjoyment and not as full persons with thoughts, feelings, and desires of their own. Marriage, with its historical connections to gender inequality and female dependence, only exacerbates the problem. Ultimately, this view maintains that the only way to overcome these difficulties is to fight contemporary gender inequality, in part through the eradication of pornography.

More recently, philosophers such as Sandra Bartky (1990) and Susan Bordo (1993) have extended the concept of objectification to analyze sexist pressures for women’s appearances and bodies to conform to societal ideals; Bartky invokes Marx’s idea of a false consciousness to explain women’s felt desire for participation in their own objectification. In contrast, much recent work in this area focuses more squarely on the twin problems of properly characterizing what, exactly, sexual objectification is, and in understanding its complex ethical aspects. Noting that sometimes focusing on one’s sexual partner as an object of sexual pleasure can be a wonderful part of sexuality, philosophers try to tease apart the problematic aspects of objectification from those that we should welcome and enjoy.

For example, Martha Nussbaum’s widely cited (1995) essay ‘Objectification’ distinguishes various kinds of objectification: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity, and argues that these present varying ethical aspects in varying situations. Drawing on literary examples, Nussbaum argues that when it comes to people, some forms of sexual objectification can be joyous and wonderful even while others are obviously immoral. In the work of D. H. Lawrence, for example, she finds people who experience a ‘surrender of autonomy and even of agency and subjectivity’ in sex yet are treating one another with respect because the surrender is mutual and symmetrical and there is a certain kind of caring relationship among the participants. Sinister examples of objectification occur in Story of O, in which female O is a sexually submissive slave to a male master, pornographic depictions of women, and sex that aims to demean or violate. Ultimately, she concludes that instrumentalization – or using a person as a mere means to one’s purposes – is the kind of objectification that is the central moral problem. But as long as it’s in the context of the right kind of mutual and respectful relationship, she says, one can use a lover as a means without using them merely or primarily as means.

Other attempts to avoid a purely negative view of objectification can be found in my own work (Marino 2008) as well as that of Ann Cahill (2011). In my view autonomy, rather than instrumentalization, is the crux of the matter ethically. One can, I claim, choose to be used, and when the choice to do so is fully autonomous, the objectification is unproblematic. Because social and cultural pressures can make autonomous choices impossible – for example, in a world in which women are valued only as sex objects, they have no choice about the matter – social context is essential to determining the ethical aspects of an act of objectification. In her book, Overcoming Objectification (2011), Ann Cahill argues for getting rid of the concept of objectification altogether. The problem with ‘objectification’, she says, is that it is rooted in a narrow Kantian conception of people as rational autonomous agents; this fails to appreciate the way people are embodied, and sex is an essentially bodily activity. The problems we encounter have to do not with objecthood but rather with the way female sexuality is defined in relation to, and as a projection of, male sexuality – this is ‘derivatization’ and is the real difficulty. In derivatization, women are harmed because they are not recognized for the full and complex people that they are.

But the attempt to explicate the concept of objectification in a broad and inclusive way have been criticized on the grounds that divorcing objectification from its negative connotations may weaken the fight against problematic forms, and this would be a bad consequence. For example, Evangelina Papadaki (2010) argues that Nussbaum’s concept of objectification is too broad; if using a person as a means, but not a mere means, is objectifying them, then we are objectifying one another constantly: when we employ people, go to restaurants, and so on. If this is so, how can we make sense of the way that objectifying women in dehumanizing ways is genuinely problematic in virtue of objectifying them? Papadaki says that objectification should be understood as that which fundamentally denies a person’s humanity; objectification is thus always morally problematic.

Rape and Consent

Although rape is generally understood as sexual penetration by force in the absence of consent, there is disagreement about this characterization. What is force? What is consent? Are both necessary to say a sex act was rape? Reflecting the scholarship, most of my discussion in this section focuses on rape of women by men. But in general the theoretical remarks are relevant for other contexts such as same-sex rape.

Traditionally, rape was characterized as sex by force and against a woman’s will (by, e. g., the foundational Commentaries of William Blackstone (1723–1780)). Before the mid-twentieth century, rape laws were structured so that obvious signs of vigorous and even extraordinary physical resistance were required as evidence for prosecution because it was widely assumed that a woman would always offer token resistance and that it was the man’s proper role to overcome this. In many areas, reforms removed these resistance requirements, acknowledging that a woman being threatened should not have to risk serious injury and death to establish that she was raped (see Schulhofer 1992: 37).

But many North American jurisdictions still require evidence of both force and non-consent, and often, ‘force’ is interpreted as physical force. This gives rise to several problems. Here, even a woman’s clearly stated ‘no’ would not suffice to establish that sex was rape, as long as physical force is absent, a result that strikes many people as counterintuitive. Also, forms of coercion and deception beyond physical force often seem relevant. In one US case, a foster father threatened a child in his care with being sent back to a detention home unless she submitted to sex. A Pennsylvania court found she had not been raped because there was no physical force; but isn’t such coercion just as wrong (Schulhofer 1992: 48)? Furthermore, it is often assumed that lack of consent must be manifested, but in many rapes, the victim is silent or passive out of fear. Finally, rape convictions typically require showing mens rea – that the accused intended to rape, and this means making judgments not only about whether the victim consented but also about whether the accused believed she consented – or, more commonly now, had a reasonable belief that she did. This reliance on the reasonableness of a man’s beliefs can be problematic, however, in a culture in which many people still think a woman can ‘ask for it’ merely by dressing or acting provocatively (Schulhofer 1992: 40; see also Pineau 1989).

One model for further reform focuses on ‘“No” means no’. In this model, whenever a woman does not consent, it is rape; force is not required (see, e.g., Estrich 1987). In addition to an intuitive simplicity, this model might seem apt for the very common situation of date-rape, in which rape occurs between people who know one another and are spending time together on purpose. But critics point to several difficulties. First, in many cases, including many date-rape situations, women are silent or passive, out of fear or other mental distress, or their responses are equivocal; the ‘“no” means no’ framework does not address this (Schulhofer 1992; Anderson 2005). Second, there are many ways a ’yes’ can be coerced, as with the foster child mentioned above. Finally, what should we say about a ‘no’ followed by a ‘yes’? Much depends on the intervening activity: there is a difference between badgering and harassment and a fun evening with conversation and laughs; ‘“no” means no’ does not say much about what, exactly, ‘no’ rules out and when (Schulhofer 1992; see also Soble 1997).

Other reform models focus on requiring affirmative consent. In an influential 1989 article, ‘Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis,’ Lois Pineau argues that our common ‘contractual’ model, in which a woman can be interpreted as having ‘asked for it’ through certain behaviors, rests on false myths about male and female sexuality. Pineau proposes a ‘communicative’ version of an affirmative model, in which the burden would be on all participants to have positive reason to believe their partner was enjoying themselves or have reason to believe they were wanting to continue despite not enjoying themselves. (The sexual offense policy of the now-defunct Antioch College specified a verbal yes was required for every new activity on every occasion. For analysis, see Soble 1997).

Stephen Schulhofer criticizes the communicative model for setting itself ‘the difficult and probably undesirable goal of settling by collective decision and legal enforcement the content of “healthy relationships” and “good” sex’ (1992: 70). He argues that a focus on respecting sexual autonomy should ground reforms; coercion and deception are wrong not because they are a kind of ‘force’ but because they violate the victim’s autonomy in unacceptable ways. With respect to the question of consent and silence in particular, Schulhofer says that just as silence would not be treated as consent in, say, surgery, it should not be treated as consent for sexual intercourse; instead only an affirmative ‘crystallized attitude of positive willingness’, should count as consent (1992: 76). But Michelle Anderson argues that Schulhofer’s emphasis on autonomy fails to take into account the utterly dehumanizing effect of rape.

Some philosophical questions about rape concern rape’s particular harms and effects and more broadly the nature of the crime itself. In the 1970s, Susan Brownmiller proposed that rape is fundamentally a crime of violence rather than sex: rape harms a victim much as other assaults do, and through rape, men use violence to exert dominance and control over women. Cahill (2001) and others have challenged the idea that sex is like other assaults, on grounds that rape has specifically sexual meanings and harms (for more on the particular harms of rape, see Brison 2002). In these views, it is partly because rape is special in this way that where it is prevalent it functions to keep women in a state of fear.

Sex Work
Sexual Identities and Queer Theory
Medicalization of Sex and Desire

Link: LRB · Edward Said · Diary: an encounter with J-P Sartre

(Source: infinite-iterations)

Link: The Enchiridion by Epictetus

1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

2. Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

3. With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

4. When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.

5. Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

6. Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.

11. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

12. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

13. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice,” but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.

15. Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.

16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

19. You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

20. Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.

21. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you win never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.

22. If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,.” He is returned to us a philosopher all at once,” and ” Whence this supercilious look?” Now, for your part, don’t have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.

23. If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be contented, then, in everything with being a philosopher; and, if you wish to be thought so likewise by anyone, appear so to yourself, and it will suffice you.

24. Don’t allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours, then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you may be of the greatest consequence? “But my friends will be unassisted.” — What do you mean by unassisted? They will not have money from you, nor will you make them Roman citizens. Who told you, then, that these are among the things in our own control, and not the affair of others? And who can give to another the things which he has not himself? “Well, but get them, then, that we too may have a share.” If I can get them with the preservation of my own honor and fidelity and greatness of mind, show me the way and I will get them; but if you require me to lose my own proper good that you may gain what is not good, consider how inequitable and foolish you are. Besides, which would you rather have, a sum of money, or a friend of fidelity and honor? Rather assist me, then, to gain this character than require me to do those things by which I may lose it. Well, but my country, say you, as far as depends on me, will be unassisted. Here again, what assistance is this you mean? “It will not have porticoes nor baths of your providing.” And what signifies that? Why, neither does a smith provide it with shoes, or a shoemaker with arms. It is enough if everyone fully performs his own proper business. And were you to supply it with another citizen of honor and fidelity, would not he be of use to it? Yes. Therefore neither are you yourself useless to it. “What place, then, say you, will I hold in the state?” Whatever you can hold with the preservation of your fidelity and honor. But if, by desiring to be useful to that, you lose these, of what use can you be to your country when you are become faithless and void of shame.

25. Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

26. The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, “This is a human accident.” but if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is presently, “Alas I how wretched am I!” But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.

27. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

28. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

29. In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war. Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too. Consider first, man, what the matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher? That you can eat and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, don’t come here; don’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.

30. Duties are universally measured by relations. Is anyone a father? If so, it is implied that the children should take care of him, submit to him in everything, patiently listen to his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is you naturally entitled, then, to a good father? No, only to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, keep your own situation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature. For another will not hurt you unless you please. You will then be hurt when you think you are hurt. In this manner, therefore, you will find, from the idea of a neighbor, a citizen, a general, the corresponding duties if you accustom yourself to contemplate the several relations.

31. Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them, as existing “I and as governing the universe with goodness and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is not possible for this to be effected any other way than by withdrawing yourself from things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son, when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children, revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.

32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don’t, therefore, bring either desire or aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you., of whatever sort it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder; then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned. When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the diviner should forewarn you that the victims are unfavorable, this means no more than that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering him.

33. Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

Don’t allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

Avoid public and vulgar entertainments; but, if ever an occasion calls you to them, keep your attention upon the stretch, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners. For be assured that if a person be ever so sound himself, yet, if his companion be infected, he who converses with him will be infected likewise.

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

As far as possible, before marriage, keep yourself pure from familiarities with women, and, if you indulge them, let it be lawfully.” But don’t therefore be troublesome and full of reproofs to those who use these liberties, nor frequently boast that you yourself don’t.

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ” He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

It is not necessary for you to appear often at public spectacles; but if ever there is a proper occasion for you to be there, don’t appear more solicitous for anyone than for yourself; that is, wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from declamations and derision and violent emotions. And when you come away, don’t discourse a great deal on what has passed, and what does not contribute to your own amendment. For it would appear by such discourse that you were immoderately struck with the show.

Go not [of your own accord] to the rehearsals of any
authors , nor appear [at them] readily. But, if you do appear, keepyour gravity and sedateness, and at the same time avoid being morose.

When you are going to confer with anyone, and particularly of those in a superior station, represent to yourself how Socrates or Zeno would behave in such a case, and you will not be at a loss to make a proper use of whatever may occur.

When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you; that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say [to yourself], ” It was not worth so much.” For this is vulgar, and like a man dazed by external things.

In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance. Approaches to indecent discourse are likewise dangerous. Whenever, therefore, anything of this sort happens, if there be a proper opportunity, rebuke him who makes advances that way; or, at least, by silence and blushing and a forbidding look, show yourself to be displeased by such talk.

34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.

35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?

36. As the proposition, “Either it is day or it is night,” is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.

37. If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.

38. When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

39. The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

40. Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of “mistresses” by the men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place ill their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of decent, modest and discreet behavior.

41. It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be long in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally and slightly, and our whole attention be engaged in the care of the understanding.

42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”

43. Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

44. These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don’t say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don’t say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.

46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

47. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small price, don’t pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every occasion, “I drink water.” But first consider how much more sparing and patient of hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don’t grasp statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and spurt it out and tell nobody.

48. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

49. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I don’t understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret them.” So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.

50. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

51. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

“Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”

“I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.”
Euripides, Frag. 965

And this third:

“0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.”
Plato’s Crito and Apology

Link: "Useless Knowledge" by Bertrand Russell

Francis Bacon, a man who rose to eminence by betraying his friends, asserted, no doubt as one of the ripe lessons of experience, that ‘knowledge is power’. But this is not true of all knowledge. Sir Thomas Browne wished to know what song the sirens sang, but if he had ascertained this it would not have enabled him to rise from being a magistrate to being High Sheriff of his county. The sort of knowledge that Bacon had in mind was that which we call scientific. In emphasising the importance of science, he was belatedly carrying on the tradition of the Arabs and the early Middle Ages, according to which knowledge consisted mainly of astrology, alchemy, and pharmacology, all of which were branches of science. A learned man was one who, having mastered these studies, had acquired magical powers. In the early eleventh century, Pope Silvester II, for no reason except that he read books, was universally believed to be a magician in league with the devil. Prospero, who in Shakespeare’s time was a mere phantasy, represented what had been for centuries the generally received conception of a learned man, so far at least as his powers of sorcery were concerned. Bacon believed – rightly, as we now know – that science could provide a more powerful magician’s wand than any that had been dreamed of by the necromancers of former ages.

The renaissance, which was at its height in England at the time of Bacon, involved a revolt against the utilitarian conception of knowledge. The Greeks had acquired a familiarity with Homer, as we do with music hall songs, because they enjoyed him, and without feeling that they were engaged in the pursuit of learning. But the men of the sixteenth century could not begin to understand him without first absorbing a very considerable amount of linguistic erudition. They admired the Greeks, and did not wish to be shut out from their pleasures; they therefore copied them, both in reading the classics and in other less avowable ways. Learning, in the renaissance, was part of the joie de vivre, just as much as drinking or love-making. And this was true not only of literature, but also of sterner studies. Everyone knows the story of Hobbes’s first contact with Euclid: opening the book, by chance, at the theorem of Pythagoras, he exclaimed, ‘By God, this is impossible’, and proceeded to read the proofs backwards until, reaching the axioms, he became convinced. No one can doubt that this was for him a voluptuous moment, unsullied by the thought of the utility of geometry in measuring fields.

It is true that the renaissance found a practical use for the ancient languages in connection witht heology. One of the earliest results of the new feeling for classical Latin was the discrediting of the forged decretals and the donation of Constantine. The inaccuracies which were discovered in the Vulgate and the Septuagint made Greek and Hebrew a necessary part of the controversial equipment of Protestant divines. The republican maxims of Greece and Rome we’re invoked to justify the resistance of Puritans to the Stuarts and of Jesuits to monarchs who had thrown off allegiance to the Pope. But all this was an effect, rather than a cause, of the revival of classical learning which had been in full swing in Italy for nearly a century before Luther.T he main motive for the renaissance was mental delight, the restoration of a certain richness and freedom in art and speculation which had been lost while ignorance and superstition kept the mind’s eye in blinkers.

The Greeks, it was found, had devoted a part of their attention to matters not purely literary or artistic, such as philosophy, geometry, and astronomy. These studies, therefore, were respectable, but other sciences were more open to question. Medicine, it was true, was dignified by the names of Hippocrates and Galen; but in the intervening period it had become almost confined to Arabs and Jews, and inextricably intertwined with magic. Hence the dubious reputation of such men as Paracelsus. Chemistry was in even worse odour, and hardly became respectable until the eighteenth century.

In this way it was brought about that knowledge of Greek and Latin, with a smattering of geometry and perhaps astronomy, came to be considered the intellectual equipment of a gentleman. The Greeks disdained the practical applications of geometry, and it was only in their decadence that they found a use for astronomy in the guise of astrology. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,in the main, studied mathematics with Hellenic disinterestedness, and tended to ignore the sciences which had been degraded by their connection with sorcery. A gradual change towards a wider and more practical conception of knowledge, which was going on throughout the eighteenth century, was suddenly accelerated at the end of that period by the French Revolution and the growth of machinery, of which the former gave a blow to gentlemanly culture while the latter offered new and astonishing scope for the exercise of ungentlemanly skill. Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, men have questioned more and more vigorously the value of ‘useless’ knowledge, and have come increasingly to believe that the only knowledge worth having is that which is applicable to some part of the economic life of the community.

In countries such as France and England, which have a traditional educational system, theu tilitarian view of knowledge has only partially prevailed. There are still, for example, professors of Chinese in the universities who read the Chinese classics but are unacquainted with the works of Sun Yat-sen, which created modern China. There are still men who know ancient history insofar as it was related by authors whose style was pure, that is to say up to Alexander in Greece and Nero in Rome, but refuse to know the much more important later history because of the literary inferiority of the historians who related it. Even in France and England, however, the old tradition is dying, and in more up to date countries, such as Russia and the United States, it is utterly extinct. In America, for example, educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. Basic English, a British invention, goes still further, and reduces the necessary vocabulary to eight hundred words. The conception of speech as something capable of aesthetic value is dying out, and it is coming to be thought that the sole purpose of words is to convey practical information. In Russia the pursuit of practical aims is even more whole-hearted than in America: all that is taught in educational institutions is intended to serve some obvious purpose in education or government. The only escape is afforded by theology: the sacred scriptures must be studied by some in the original German, and a few professors must learn philosophy in order to defend dialectical materialism against the criticism of , bourgeois metaphysicians. But as orthodoxy becomes more firmly established, even this tiny loophole will be closed.

Knowledge, everywhere, is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or as a means of creating a broad and humane outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. This is part of the greater integration of society which has been brought about by scientific technique and military necessity. There is more economic and political interdependence than there was informer times, and therefore there is more social pressure to compel a man to live in a way that his neighbours think useful. Educational establishments, except those for the very rich, or (in England) such as have become invulnerable through antiquity, are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. This is part and parcel of the same movement which has led to compulsory military service, boy scouts, the organisation of political parties, and the dissemination of political passion by the Press. We are all more aware of our fellow-citizens than we used to be, more anxious, if we are virtuous, to do them good, and in any case to make them do us good.We do not like to think of anyone lazily enjoying life, however refined may be the quality of his enjoyment. We feel that everybody ought to be doing something to help on the great cause(whatever it may be), the more so as so many bad men are working against it and ought to be stopped. We have not leisure of mind, therefore, to acquire any knowledge except such as will helpus in the fight for whatever it may happen to be that we think important.

There is much to be said for the narrowly utilitarian view of education. There is not time to learn everything before beginning to make a living, and undoubtedly ‘useful’ knowledge is very useful.It has made the modern world. Without it, we should not have machines or motor-cars or railways or aeroplanes; it should be added that we should not have modern advertising or modern propaganda. Modem knowledge has brought about an immense improvement in average health,and at the same time has discovered how to exterminate large cities by poison gas. Whatever is distinctive of our world as compared with former times, has its source in useful’ knowledge. Nocommunity as yet has enough of it, and undoubtedly education must continue to promote it.

It must also be admitted that a great deal of the traditional cultural education was foolish. Boys spent many years acquiring Latin and Greek grammar, without being, at the end, either capable or desirous (except in a small percentage of cases) of reading a Greek or Latin author. Modern languages and history are preferable, from every point of view, to Latin and Greek. They are not only more useful, but they give much more culture in much less time. For an Italian of the fifteenth century, since practically everything worth reading, if not in his own language, was in Greek or Latin, these languages were the indispensable keys to culture. But since that time great literatures have grown up in various modern languages, and the development of civilisation has been so rapid that knowledge of antiquity has become much less useful in understanding our problems than knowledge of modern nations and their comparatively recent history. The traditional schoolmaster’s point of view, which was admirable at the time of the revival of learning, became gradually unduly narrow, since it ignored what the world has done since the fifteenth century. And not only history and modern languages, but science also, when properly taught, contributes to culture. It is therefore possible to maintain that education should have other aims than direct utility, without defending the traditional curriculum. Utility and culture,when both are conceived broadly, are found to be less incompatible than they appear to the fanatical advocates of either.

Apart, however, from the cases in which culture and direct utility can be combined, there is in direct utility, of various different kinds, in the possession of knowledge which does not contribute to technical efficiency. I think some of the worst features of the modern world could be improved by a greater encouragement of such knowledge and a less ruthless pursuit of mere professional competence.

When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder.The men who directed German policy during the war made mistakes, for example, as regards the submarine campaign which brought America on to the side of the Allies, which any person coming fresh to the subject could have seen to be unwise, but which they could not judge sanely owing to mental concentration and lack of holidays. The same sort of thing may be seen wherever bodies of men attempt tasks which put a prolonged strain upon spontaneous impulses. Japanese imperialists, Russian Communists, and German Nazis all have a kind of tense fanaticism which comes of living too exclusively in the mental world of certain tasks to be accomplished. When the tasks are as important and as feasible as the fanatics suppose, the result may be magnificent; but in most cases narrowness of outlook has caused oblivion of some powerful counteracting force, or has made all such forces seem the work of the devil, to be met by punishment and terror. Men as well as children have need of play, that is to say, of periods of activity having no purpose beyond present enjoyment. But if play is to serve its purpose, it must be possible to find pleasure and interest in matters not connected with work.

The amusements of modern urban populations tend more and more to be passive and collective,and to consist of inactive observation of the skilled activities of others. Undoubtedly such amusements are much better than none, but they are not as good as would be those of a population which had, through education,a wider range of intelligent interests not connected with work.Better economic organization, allowing mankind to benefit by the productivity of machines,should lead to a very great increase of leisure, and much leisure is apt to be tedious except to those who have considerable intelligent activities and interests. If a leisured population is to be happy, it must be an educated population, and must be educated with a view to mental enjoyment as well to the direct usefulness of technical knowledge.

The cultural element in the acquisition of knowledge, when it is successfully assimilated, forms the character of a man’s thoughts and desires, making them concern themselves, in part at least, with large impersonal objects, not only with matters of immediate importance to himself. It has been too readily assumed that, when a man has acquired certain capacities by means of knowledge, he will use them in ways that are socially beneficial. The narrowly utilitarian conception of education ignores the necessity of training a man’s purposes ns well as his skill. There is in untrained human nature a very considerable element of cruelty, which shows itself in many ways, great and small.Boys at school tend to be unkind to a new boy, or to one whose clothes are not quite conventional.Many women (and not a few men) inflict as much pain as they can by means of malicious gossip. The Spaniards enjoy bull-fights; the British enjoy hunting and shooting. The same cruel impulses take more serious forms in the hunting of Jews in Germany and kulaks in Russia. All imperialism affords scope for them, and in war they become sanctified as the highest form of public duty.

Now it must be admitted that highly educated people are sometimes cruel, I think there can be no doubt that they are less often so than people whose minds have lain fallow. The bully in a school is seldom a boy whose proficiency in learning is up to the average. When a lynching takes place, the ringleaders are almost invariably very ignorant men. This is not because mental cultivation produces positive humanitarian feelings, though it may do so; it is rather because it gives other interests than the ill-treatment of neighbours, and other sources of self-respect than the assertion of domination. The two things most universally desired are power and admiration.Ignorant men can, as a rule, only achieve either by brutal means, involving the acquisition of physical mastery. Culture gives a man less harmful forms of power and more deserving ways of making himself admired. Galileo did more than any monarch has done to change the world, and his power immeasurably exceeded that of his persecutors. He had therefore no need to aim at becoming a persecutor in his turn. Perhaps the most important advantage of ‘useless’ knowledge is that it promotes a contemplative habit of mind. There is in the world too much readiness, not only for action without adequate previous reflection, but also for some sort of action on occasions on which wisdom would counsel inaction. People show their bias on this matter in various curious ways. Mephistopheles tells the young student that theory is grey but the tree of life is green, and everyone quotes this as if it were Goethe’s opinion, instead of what he supposes the devil would be likely to say to an undergraduate. Hamlet is held up as an awful warning against thought without action, but no one holds up Othello as a warning against action without thought. Professors such as Bergson, from a kind of snobbery towards the practical man, decry philosophy, and say that life at its best should resemble a cavalry charge. For my part, I think action is best when it emerges from a profound apprehension of the universe and human destiny, not from some wildly passionate impulse of romantic but disproportioned self-assertion. A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity in misfortune and peace of mind among worries. A life confined to what is personal is likely, sooner or later, to become unbearably painful;it is only by windows into a larger and less fretful cosmos that the more tragic parts of life become endurable.

A contemplative habit of mind has advantages ranging from the most trivial to the most profound. To begin with minor vexations, such as fleas, missing trains, or cantankerous business associates. Such troubles seem hardly worthy to be met by reflections on the excellence of heroism or the transitoriness of all human ills, and yet the irritation to which they give rise destroys many people’s good temper and enjoyment of life. On such occasions, there is much consolation to be found in out of the way bits of knowledge which have some real or fancied connection with the trouble of the moment; or even if they have none, they serve to obliterate the present fromone’s thoughts. When assailed by people who are white with fury, it is pleasant to remember the chapter in Descartes’ Treatise on the Passions entitled ‘Why those who grow pale with rage are more to be feared than those who grow red.’ When one feels impatient over the difficulty of securing international co-operation, one’s impatience is diminished if one happens to think of the sainted King Louis IX, before embarking on his crusade, allying himself with the Old Man of the Mountain, who appears in the Arabian Nights as the dark source of half the wickedness in the world. When the rapacity of capitalists grows oppressive, one may be suddenly consoled by the recollection that Brutus, that exemplar of republican virtue, lent money to acity at 40 per cent, and hired a private army to besiege it when it failed to pay the interest.

Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant. I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin source as the word ‘precocious’, because the apricot ripens early; and that the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

About a hundred years ago, a number of well-meaning philanthropists started societies `for the diffusion of useful knowledge’, with the result that people have ceased to appreciate the delicious savour of ‘useless’ knowledge. Opening Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy at haphazard on a daywhen I was threatened by that mood, I learnt that there is a ‘melancholy matter’, but that, while some think it may be engendered of all four humours, ‘Galen holds that it may be engendered of three alone, excluding phlegm or pituita, whose true assertion Valerius and Menardus stiffly maintain, and so doth Fuscius, Montaltus, Montanus. How (say they) can white become black?’ In spite of this unanswerable argument, Hercules de Saxonia and Cardan, Guianerius and Laurentius, are (so Burton tells us) of the opposite opinion. Soothed by these historical reflections,my melancholy, whether due to three humours or to four, was dissipated. As a cure for too much zeal, I can imagine a few measures more effective thana course of such ancient controversies.

But while the trivial pleasures of culture have their place as a relief from the trivial worries of practical life, the more important merits of contemplation are in relation to the greater evils of life, death and pain and cruelty, and the blind march of nations in to unnecessary disaster. For those to whom dogmatic religion can no longer bring comfort, there is need of some substitute, if life is not to become dusty and harsh and filled with trivial self-assertion. The world at present is full of angry self-centred groups, each incapable of viewing human life as a whole, each willing to destroy civilization rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote. The antidote, in so far as it is a matter of individual psychology, is to be found in history, biology, astronomy, and all those studies which, without destroying self-respect, enable the individual to see himself in his proper perspective. What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such knowledge as inspires a conception of the ends of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos — all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs.

Life, at all times full of pain, is more painful in our time than in the two centuries that preceded it. The attempt to escape from pain drives men to triviality, to self-deception, to the invention of vast collective myths. But these momentary alleviations do but increase the sources of suffering in the long run. Both private and public misfortune can only be mastered by a process in which will and intelligence interact: the part of will is to refuse to shirk the evil or accept an unreal solution,while the part of intelligence is to understand it, to find a cure if it is curable, and, if not, to make it bearable by seeing it in its relations, accepting it as unavoidable, and remembering what lies outside it in other regions, other ages, and the abysses of interstellar space.

Link: About the Intelligence of Bees

The other day, Ken and I had coffee with a couple of philosophers who spend their time thinking about philosophy of the mind.  What is consciousness?  Do non-human organisms have consciousness?  What is intelligence?  How do we make decisions?  What about ants?  These are hard questions to answer, perhaps even unanswerable, but they are fascinating to think about.

Our meeting was occasioned by the recent paper in PNAS about the mental map of bees (“Way-finding in displaced clock-shifted bees proves bees use a cognitive map”, Cheeseman et al.).  Cognitive maps are mental representations of physical places, which mammals use to navigate their surroundings.  Insects clearly have ways to do the same; whether or not they do it with cognitive maps is the question.

The “computational theory of mind” is the predominant theory of how mammals think — the brain is posited to be an information processing system, and thinking is the brain computing, or processing information (though, whether this is ‘truth’ or primarily a reflection of the computer age isn’t clear, at least to us).  In vertebrates some at least of this takes place in the section called the hippocampus, or in non-vertebrates in some neurological  homologs.  But, what do insects do?  

Previous work has shown that captured insects, once released, often fly off in the compass direction in which they were headed when they were caught, even if they were moved during capture and the direction is no longer appropriate.  But, they then can correct themselves, and then have no problem locating their hives. That indicates that they’ve got some kind of an “integrated metric map” of their environment.

Some theories have held that they mark the location of the sun relative to the direction they take and then later calculate ‘home’ based on a computation of time and the motion of the sun.  This by itself would be a lot of sophisticated computing, or thinking….and why not ‘intelligence’?

Cheeseman et al. asked whether instead what they are relying on is a series of snapshots of their environment, which enables them to recognize different landmarks, one after the other as they come into view, rather than a completely integrated mental map.  They experimented with anesthetizing bees and shifting their sense of time, so that they couldn’t rely on the sun to get them home.  It took some flying for the bees to recognize that they were off-course, but they always were able to re-orient themselves and get back to the hive.

Cheeseman et al. conclude that that because bees don’t rely entirely on a sun-compass for their sense of direction, they must have the apian equivalent of a cognitive map.  That is, they collect relevant spatial information from the environment with which they navigate, and use it to make decisions about how to get where they are going. That is, they take and file away snapshots; remember that insect eyes are complex, including two compound eyes and in most species three forehead-located small, simpler ocelli so this is synthesizing a many-camera pixellation and differently sensitive integration of the light-world. Then, they use a sequence of these frames, later, from a different position from that at which the photos were taken so not all landmarks might even be visible, and at a different time, which can affect shadows, colors, and so on.  Then, tiling these lined up in reverse order in mirror left-right flipped order somehow, and adjusting their angles of perspective and so on, also perhaps sound, wind direction, and even perhaps monitoring the olfactory trail (also in reverse relative position) like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, they head home for dinner.

To us, this is a remarkable feat for their small brains!  For some of us, even with a human brain, finding one’s way home without a GPS is no easy task, and deserves a nice cold drink when done successfully.  However, the philosophers we were chatting about this with did not think what Cheeseman et al. believe they discovered about bees should be called a cognitive map because, and we think we’ve got this right, they haven’t got a mental image of the entire lay of the land.  Instead it’s as though they are connecting the dots; they recognize landmarks and go from one mental snapshot with a familiar landmark to the next. So what kind of ‘intelligence’ this is becomes a definitional question perhaps.  Call it mechanical or whatever you want, we would call this ‘intelligent’ behavior.

We don’t know enough about philosophy (or the biology) of the mind to know how significantly these two models differ, or whether ‘consciousness’ is subtly underlying how these judgments about cognition are made, but in any case, that’s not what interested us about the bee story.  What is the experience of being a bee?  Whichever kind of imaging and processing they do to navigate, how do they turn the locational information into action?  It’s one thing to know that your hive is east (or the apian equivalent) of the pine tree, but getting there requires “knowing” that after you’ve collected the nectar, you then want to bring it home, and that means you have to find your way there.  Your mental map, whatever it consists of, must be made operational.  How does thathappen, in a brain the size of a bee’s? Or an ant’s?

Or bird brains?  Crows, corvids, are considered among the smartest of birds.  Their problem solving skills have been documented by a number of researchers, but crows have fascinated many non-scientists as well, including our son, who sent this observation from Lake Thun in Switzerland.

Crow found a little paper cup with some dried out dregs of leftover ketchup in the bottom. This is the sort of little paper condiment cup that would come with some french fries. We watched the crow try a couple of times to scrape some ketchup out with his beak, holding the cup down with his foot. It apparently wasn’t working enough to his satisfaction, so he flew with the cup to the edge of the water (we were at the lake). He wanted to get the ketchup wet to “hydrate” it, to make it easier to scoop out. That was impressive enough, but what he did next was even more. There were little waves lapping on the “shore” (this was actually in a harbour and the shore was concrete) and each time threatening to carry away his cup. So he picked up the cup and carried it along up and down the shore until he found a little crevasse in the concrete that he could secure the cup, and let the water wash over it without taking it away. Clever.

If that’s not intelligence, it’s hard to know what it is, then.

One view of intelligence is that it’s what’s measured by IQ tests.  Or, at least, what humans think ‘thinking’ is all about.  But this is perhaps a very parochial view.  We tend to dismiss the kind of intricate brainwork that is required by nonverbal activities, or by athletes, or artists, or artisans.  We tend to equate intelligence with verbal kinds of skills measured on tests devised by the literate segments of society who are using the results to screen for various kinds of western-culture activities, suitability for school, and the like. There’s no reason to suggest that those aspects of brainware are not relevant to society, but it is our culturally chosen sort of definition.

Philosophers and perhaps most psychologists might not want to credit the crow with ‘intelligence’, or they may use the word but exclude concepts of perceptual consciousness—though whether there are adequate grounds for that that are not entirely based on our own experience as the defining one, isn’t clear (to us, at least).  In any case, wiring and behavior are empirically observable, but experience much less so, and consciousness as a component of brain activity, and perhaps of intelligence, remains elusive because it’s a subjective experience while science is a method for exploring the empirical, and in that sense objective world.

If bees and, indeed, very tiny insects can navigate around searching the environment, having ideas about ‘home’, finding mates, recognizing food and dangers, and they can do it with thousands rather than billions of neurons, at present we haven’t enough understanding of what ‘thinking’ is, much less ‘intelligence’, to know what goes through a bee’s or a crow’s mind when they’re exploring their world….

Link: Eigenmorality

This post is about an idea I had around 1997, when I was 16 years old and a freshman computer-science major at Cornell.  Back then, I was extremely impressed by a research project called CLEVER, which one of my professors, Jon Kleinberg, had led while working at IBM Almaden.  The idea was to use the link structure of the web itself to rank which web pages were most important, and therefore which ones should be returned first in a search query.  Specifically, Kleinberg defined “hubs” as pages that linked to lots of “authorities,” and “authorities” as pages that were linked to by lots of “hubs.”  At first glance, this definition seems hopelessly circular, but Kleinberg observed that one can break the circularity by just treating the World Wide Web as a giant directed graph, and doing some linear algebra on its adjacency matrix.  Equivalently, you can imagine an iterative process where each web page starts out with the same hub/authority “starting credits,” but then in each round, the pages distribute their credits among their neighbors, so that the most popular pages get more credits, which they can then, in turn, distribute to their neighbors by linking to them.

I was also impressed by a similar research project called PageRank, which was proposed later by two guys at Stanford named Sergey Brin and Larry Page.  Brin and Page dispensed with Kleinberg’s bipartite hubs-and-authorities structure in favor of a more uniform structure, and made some other changes, but otherwise their idea was very similar.  At the time, of course, I didn’t know that CLEVER was going to languish at IBM, while PageRank (renamed Google) was going to expand to roughly the size of the entire world’s economy.

In any case, the question I asked myself about CLEVER/PageRank was not the one that, maybe in retrospect, I should have asked: namely, “how can I leverage the fact that I know the importance of this idea before most people do, in order to make millions of dollars?”

Instead I asked myself: “what other ‘vicious circles’ in science and philosophy could one unravel using the same linear-algebra trick that CLEVER and PageRank exploit?”  After all, CLEVER and PageRank were both founded on what looked like a hopelessly circular intuition: “a web page is important if other important web pages link to it.”  Yet they both managed to use math to defeat the circularity.  All you had to do was find an “importance equilibrium,” in which your assignment of “importance” to each web page was stable under a certain linear map.  And such an equilibrium could be shown to exist—indeed, to exist uniquely.

Searching for other circular notions to elucidate using linear algebra, I hit on morality.  Philosophers from Socrates on, I was vaguely aware, had struggled to define what makes a person “moral” or “virtuous,” without tacitly presupposing the answer.  Well, it seemed to me that, as a first attempt, one could do a lot worse than the following:

A moral person is someone who cooperates with other moral people, and who refuses to cooperate with immoral people.

Obviously one can quibble with this definition on numerous grounds: for example, what exactly does it mean to “cooperate,” and which other people are relevant here?  If you don’t donate money to starving children in Africa, have you implicitly “refused to cooperate” with them?  What’s the relative importance of cooperating with good people and withholding cooperation with bad people, of kindness and justice?  Is there a duty not to cooperate with bad people, or merely the lack of a duty to cooperate with them?  Should we consider intent, or only outcomes?  Surely we shouldn’t hold someone accountable for sheltering a burglar, if they didn’t know about the burgling?  Also, should we compute your “total morality” by simply summing over your interactions with everyone else in your community?  If so, then can a career’s worth of lifesaving surgeries numerically overwhelm the badness of murdering a single child?

For now, I want you to set all of these important questions aside, and just focus on the fact that the definition doesn’t even seem to work on its own terms, because of circularity.  How can we possibly know which people are moral (and hence worthy of our cooperation), and which ones immoral (and hence unworthy), without presupposing the very thing that we seek to define?

Ah, I thought—this is precisely where linear algebra can come to the rescue!  Just like in CLEVER or PageRank, we can begin by giving everyone in the community an equal number of “morality starting credits.”  Then we can apply an iterative update rule, where each person A can gain morality credits by cooperating with each other person B, and A gains more credits the more credits B has already.  We apply the rule over and over, until the number of morality credits per person converges to an equilibrium.  (Or, of course, we can shortcut the process by simply finding the principal eigenvector of the “cooperation matrix,” using whatever algorithm we like.)  We then have our objective measure of morality for each individual, solving a 2400-year-old open problem in philosophy.

The next step, I figured, would be to hack together some code that computed this “eigenmorality” metric, and then see what happened when I ran the code to measure the morality of each participant in a simulated society.  What would happen?  Would the results conform to my pre-theoretic intuitions about what sort of behavior was moral and what wasn’t?  If not, then would watching the simulation give me new ideas about how to improve the morality metric?  Or would it be my intuitions themselvesthat would change?

Unfortunately, I never got around to the “coding it up” part—there’s a reason why I became a theorist!  The eigenmorality idea went onto my back burner, where it stayed for the next 16 years: 16 years in which our world descended ever further into darkness, lacking a principled way to quantify morality.  But finally, this year, just two separate things have happened on the eigenmorality front, and that’s why I’m blogging about it now.

Eigenjesus and Eigenmoses

The first thing that’s happened is that Tyler Singer-Clark, my superb former undergraduate advisee, did code up eigenmorality metrics and test them out on a simulated society, for his MIT senior thesis project.  You can read Tyler’s 12-page report here—it’s a fun, enjoyable, thought-provoking first research paper, one that I wholeheartedly recommend.  Or, if you’d like to experiment yourself with the Python code, you candownload it here from github.  (Of course, all opinions expressed in this post are mine alone, not necessarily Tyler’s.)

Briefly, Tyler examined what eigenmorality has to say in the setting of an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD) tournament.  The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is the famous game in which two players meet repeatedly, and in each turn can either “Cooperate” or “Defect.”  The absolute best thing, from your perspective, is if you defect while your partner cooperates.  But you’re also pretty happy if you both cooperate.  You’re less happy if you both defect, while the worst (from your standpoint) is if you cooperate while your partner defects.  At each turn, when contemplating what to do, you have the entire previous history of your interaction with this partner available to you.  And thus, for example, you can decide to “punish” your partner for past defections, “reward” her for past cooperations, or “try to take advantage” by unilaterally defecting and seeing what happens.  At each turn, the game has some small constant probability of ending—so you knowapproximately how many times you’ll meet this partner in the future, but you don’t know exactly when the last turn will be.  Your score, in the game, is then the sum-total of your score over all turns and all partners (where each player meets each other player once).

In the late 1970s, as recounted in his classic work The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod invited people all over the world to submit computer programs for playing this game, which were then pit against each other in the world’s first serious IPD tournament.  And, in a tale that’s been retold in hundreds of popular books, while many people submitted complicated programs that used machine learning, etc. to try to suss out their opponents, the program that won—hands-down, repeatedly—was TIT_FOR_TAT, a few lines of code submitted by the psychologist Anatol Rapaport to implement an ancient moral maxim.  TIT_FOR_TAT starts out by cooperating; thereafter, it simply does whatever its opponent did in the last move, swiftly rewarding every cooperation and punishing every defection, and ignoring the entire previous history.  In the decades since Axelrod, running Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma tournaments has become a minor industry, with countless variations explored (for example, “evolutionary” versions, and versions allowing side-communication between the players), countless new strategies invented, and countless papers published.  To make a long story short, TIT_FOR_TAT continues to do quite well across a wide range of environments, but depending on the mix of players present, other strategies can sometimes beat TIT_FOR_TAT.  (As one example, if there’s a sizable minority of colluding players, who recognize each other by cooperating and defecting in a prearranged sequence, then those players can destroy TIT_FOR_TAT and other “simple” strategies, by cooperating with one another while defecting against everyone else.)

Anyway, Tyler sets up and runs a fairly standard IPD tournament, with a mix of strategies that includes TIT_FOR_TAT, TIT_FOR_TWO_TATS, other TIT_FOR_TAT variations, PAVLOV, FRIEDMAN, EATHERLY, CHAMPION (see the paper for details), and degenerate strategies like always defecting, always cooperating, and playing randomly.  However, Tyler then asks an unusual question about the IPD tournament: namely, purely on the basis of the cooperate/defect sequences, which players should we judge to have acted morally toward their partners?

It might be objected that the players didn’t “know” they were going to be graded on morality: as far as they knew, they were just trying to maximize their individual utilities.  The trouble with that objection is that the players didn’t “know” they were trying to maximize their utilities either!  The players are bots, which do whatever their code tells them to do.  So in some sense, utility—no less than morality—is “merely an interpretation” that we impose on the raw cooperate/defect sequences!  There’s nothing to stop us from imposing some other interpretation (say, one that explicitly tries to measure morality) and seeing what happens.

In an attempt to measure the players’ morality, Tyler uses the eigenmorality idea from before.  The extent to which player A “cooperates” with player B is simply measured by the percentage of times A cooperates.  (One acknowledged limitation of this work is that, when two players both defect, there’s no attempt to take into account “who started it,” and to judge the aggressor more harshly than the retaliator—or to incorporate time in any other way.)  This then gives us a “cooperation matrix,” whose (i,j) entry records the total amount of niceness that player i displayed to player j.  Diagonalizing that matrix, and taking its largest eigenvector, then gives us our morality scores.

Now, there’s a very interesting ambiguity in what I said above.  Namely, should we define the “niceness scores” to lie in [0,1] (so that the lowest, meanest possible score is 0), or in [-1,1] (so that it’s possible to have negativeniceness)?  This might sound like a triviality, but in our setting, it’s precisely the mathematical reflection of one of the philosophical conundrums I mentioned earlier.  The conundrum can be stated as follows: is your morality a monotone function of your niceness?  We all agree, presumably, that it’s better to be nice to Gandhi than to be nice to Hitler.  But do you have a positive obligation to be not-nice to Hitler: to make him suffer because he made others suffer?  Or, OK, how about not Hitler, but someone who’s somewhat bad?  Consider, for example, a woman who falls in love with, and marries, an unrepentant armed robber (with full knowledge of who he is, and with other options available to her).  Is the woman morally praiseworthy for loving her husband despite his bad behavior?  Or is she blameworthy because, by rewarding his behavior with her love, she helps to enable it?

To capture two possible extremes of opinion about such questions, Tyler and I defined two different morality metrics, which we called … wait for it … eigenmoses andeigenjesus.  Eigenmoses has the niceness scores in [-1,1], which means that you’re actively rewarded for punishing evildoers: that is, for defecting against those who defect against many moral players.  Eigenjesus, by contrast, has the niceness scores in [0,1], which means that you always do at least as well by “turning the other cheek” and cooperating.  (Though note that, even with eigenjesus, you get more morality credits by cooperating with moral players than by cooperating with immoral ones.)

This is probably a good place to mention a second limitation of Tyler’s current study.  Namely, with the current system, there’s no direct way for a player to find out how its partner has been behaving toward third parties.  The only information that A gets about the goodness or evilness of player B, comes from A and B’s direct interaction.  Ideally, one would like to design bots that take into account, not only the other bots’ behavior toward them, but the other bots’ behavior toward each other.  So for example, even if someone is unfailingly nice to you, if that person is an asshole to everyone else, then the eigenmoses moral code would demand that you return the person’s cooperation with icy defection.  Conversely, even if Gandhi is mean and hateful to you, you would still be morally obliged (interestingly, on both the eigenmoses and eigenjesus codes) to be nice to him, because of the amount of good he does for everyone else.

Anyway, you can read Tyler’s paper if you want to see the results of computing the eigenmoses and eigenjesus scores for a diverse population of bots.  Briefly, the results accord pretty well with intuition.  When we look at eigenjesus scores, the all-cooperate bot comes out on top and the all-defect bot on the bottom (as is mathematically necessary), with TIT_FOR_TAT somewhere in the middle, and generous versions of TIT_FOR_TAT higher up.  When we look at eigenmoses, by contrast, TIT_FOR_TWO_TATS comes out on top, with TIT_FOR_TAT in sixth place, and the all-cooperate bot scoring below the median.  Interestingly, once again, the all-defect bot gets the lowest score (though in this case, it wasn’t mathematically necessary).

Even though the measures acquit themselves well in this particular tournament, it’s admittedly easy to construct scenarios where the prescriptions of eigenjesus and eigenmoses alike violently diverge from most people’s moral intuitions.  We’ve already touched on a few such scenarios above (for example, are you really morally obligated to lick the boots of someone who kicks you, just because that person is a saint to everyone other than you?).  Another type of scenario involves minorities.  Imagine, for instance, that 98% of the players are unfailingly nice to each other, but unfailingly cruel to the remaining 2% (who they can recognize, let’s say, by their long noses or darker skin—some trivial feature like that).  Meanwhile, the put-upon 2% return the favor by being nice to each other and mean to the 98%.  Who, in this scenario, is moral, and who’s immoral?  The mathematical verdict of both eigenmoses and eigenjesus is unequivocal: the 98% are almost perfectly good, while the 2% are almost perfectly evil.  After all, the 98% are nice to almost everyone, while the 2% are mean to those who are nice to almost everyone, and nice only to a tiny minority who are mean to almost everyone.  Of course, for much of human history, this is precisely how morality worked, in many people’s minds.  But I dare say it’s a result that would make moderns uncomfortable.

In summary, it seems clear to me that neither eigenmoses nor eigenjesus correctly captures our intuitions about morality, any more than Φ captures our intuitions about consciousness.  But as they say, I think there’s plenty of scope here for further research: for coming up with new mathematical measures that sharpen our intuitive judgments about morality, and (if we like) testing those measures out using IPD tournaments.  It also seems to me that there’s something fundamentally right about the eigenvector idea: all else being equal, we’d like to say, being nice to others is good, except that aiding and abetting evildoers is not good, and the way we can recognize the evildoers in our midst is that they’re not nice to others—except that, if the people who someone isn’t nice to are themselves evildoers, then the person might again be good, and so on.  The only way to cut off the infinite regress, it seems, is to demand some sort of “reflective equilibrium” in our moral judgments, and that’s precisely what eigenmorality tries to capture.  On the other hand, no such idea can ever make moral debate obsolete—if for no other reason than that we still need to decide which specific eigenmorality metric to use, and that choice is itself a moral judgment.

Scooped by Plato

Which brings me, finally, to the second new thing that’s happened this year on the eigenmorality front.  Namely,Rebecca Newberger Goldstein—who’s far and away my favorite contemporary novelist—published a charming new book entitled Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.  Here she imagines that Plato has reappeared in present-day America (she doesn’t bother to explain how), where he’s taught himself English and the basics of modern science, learned how to use the Internet, and otherwise gotten himself up to speed.  The book recounts Plato’s dialogues with various modern interlocutors, as he volunteers to have his brain scanned, guest-writes a relationship advice column, participates in a panel discussion on child-rearing, and gets interviewed on cable news by “Roy McCoy” (a thinly veiled Bill O’Reilly).  Often, Goldstein has Plato answer the moderns’ questions using direct quotes from the Timaeus, theGorgias, the Meno, etc., which makes her Plato into a very intelligent sort of chatbot.  This is a genre that’s not often seriously attempted, and that I’d love to read more of (possible subjects: Shakespeare, Galileo, Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein, Turing…).

Anyway, my favorite episode in the book is the first, eponymous one, where Plato visits the Googleplex in Mountain View.  While eating lunch in one of the many free cafeterias, Plato is cornered by a somewhat self-important, dreadlocked coder named Marcus, who tries to convince Plato that Google PageRank has finally solved the problem agonized over in the Republic, of how to define justice.  By using the Internet, we can simply crowd-source the answer, Marcus declares: get millions of people to render moral judgments on every conceivable question, and also moral judgments on each other’s judgments.  Then declare those judgments the most morally reliable, that are judged the most reliable by the people who are themselves the most morally reliable.  The circularity, as usual, is broken by taking the principal eigenvector of the graph of moral judgments (Goldstein doesn’t have Marcus put it that way, but it’s what she means).

Not surprisingly, Plato is skeptical.  Through Socratic questioning—the method he learned from the horse’s mouth—Plato manages to make Marcus realize that, in the very act of choosing which of several variants of PageRank to use in our crowd-sourced justice engine, we’ll implicitly be making moral choices already.  And therefore, we can’t use PageRank, or anything like it, as the ultimate ground of morality.

Whereas I imagined that the raw data for an “eigenmorality” metric would consist of numerical measures of how nice people had been to each other, Goldstein imagines the raw data to consist of abstract moral judgments, and of judgments about judgments.  Also, whereas the output of my kind of metric would be a measure of the “goodness” of each individual person, the outputs of hers would presumably be verdicts about general moral and political questions.  But, much like with CLEVER versus PageRank, it’s obvious that the ideas are similar—and that I should credit Goldstein with independently discovering my nerdy 16-year-old vision, in order to put it in the mouth of a nerdy character in her story.

As I said before, I agree with Goldstein’s Plato that eigenmorality can’t serve as the ultimate ground of morality.  But that’s a bit like saying that Google rank can’t serve as the ultimate ground of importance, because even just to design and evaluate their ranking algorithms, Google’s engineers must have some prior notion of “importance” to serve as a standard.  That’s true, of course, but it omits to mention that Google rank is still useful—useful enough to have changed civilization in the space of a few years.  Goldstein’s book has the wonderful property that even the ideas she gives to her secondary characters, the ones who serve as foils to Plato, are sometimes interesting enough to deserve book-length treatments of their own, and crowd-sourced morality strikes me as a perfect example.

In the two previous comment threads, we got into a discussion of anthropogenic climate change, and of my own preferred way to address it and related threats to our civilization’s survival, which is simply to tax every economic activity at a rate commensurate with the environmental damage that it does, and use the funds collected for cleanup, mitigation, and research into alternatives.  (Obviously, such ideas are nonstarters in the current political climate of the US, but I’m not talking here about what’s feasible, only about what’s necessary.)  As several commenters pointed out, my view raises an obvious question: who is to decide how much “damage” each activity causes, and thus how much it should be taxed?  Of course, this is merely a special case of the more general question: who is to decide on any question of public policy whatsoever?

For the past few centuries, our main method for answering such questions—in those parts of the world where a king or dictator or Politburo doesn’t decree the answer—has been representative democracy.  Democracy is, arguably, the best decision-making method that our sorry species has ever managed to put into practice, at least outside the hard sciences.  But in my view, representative democracy is now failing spectacularly at possibly the single most important problem it’s ever faced: namely, that of leaving our descendants a livable planet.  Even though, by and large, reasonable people mostly agree about what needs to be done—weaning ourselves off fossil fuels (especially the dirtier ones), switching to solar, wind, and nuclear, planting forests and stopping deforestation, etc.—after decades of debate we’re still taking only limping, token steps toward those goals, and in many cases we’re moving rapidly in the opposite direction.  Those who, for financial, theological, or ideological reasons, deny the very existence of a problem, have proved that despite being a minority, they can push hard enough on the levers of democracy to prevent anything meaningful from happening.

So what’s the solution?  To put the world under the thumb of an environmentalist dictator?  Absolutely not.  In all of history, I don’t think any dictatorial system hasever shown itself robust against takeover by murderous tyrants (people who probably aren’t too keen on alternative energy either).  The problem, I think, isepistemological.  Within physics and chemistry and climatology, the people who think anthropogenic climate change exists and is a serious problem have won the argument—but the news of their intellectual victory hasn’t yet spread to the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, or cable news, or the US Congress, or the minds of enough people to tip the scales of history.  Because our domination of the earth’s climate and biosphere is new and unfamiliar; because the evidence for rapid climate change is complicated and statistical; because the worst effects are still remote from us in time, space, or both; because the sacrifices needed to address the problem are real—for all of these reasons, the deniers have learned that they can subvert the Popperian process by which bad explanations are discarded and good explanations win.  If you just repeat debunked ideas through a loud enough megaphone, it turns out, many onlookers won’t be able to tell the difference between you and the people who have genuine knowledge—or they will eventually, but not until it’s too late.  If you have a few million dollars, you can even set up your own parody of the scientific process: your own phony experts, in their own phony think tanks, with their own phony publications, giving each other legitimacy by citing each other.  (Of course, all this is a problem for many fields, not just climate change.  Climate is special only because there, the future of life on earth might literally hinge on our ability to get epistemology right.)

Yet for all that, I’m an optimist—sort of.  For it seems to me that the Internet has given us new tools with which to try to fix our collective epistemology, without giving up on a democratic society.  Google, Wikipedia, Quora, and so forth have already improved our situation, if only by a little.  We could improve it a lot more.  Consider, for example, the following attempted definitions:

A trustworthy source of information is one that’s considered trustworthy by many sources who are themselves trustworthy (on the same topic or on closely related topics).  The current scientific consensus, on any given issue, is what the trustworthy sources consider to be the consensus.  A good decision-maker is someone who’s considered to be a good decision-maker by many other good decision-makers.

At first glance, the above definitions sound ludicrously circular—even Orwellian—but we now know that all that’s needed to unravel the circularity is a principal eigenvector computation on the matrix of trust.  And the computation of such an eigenvector need be no more “Orwellian” than … well, Google.  If enough people want it, then we have the tools today to put flesh on these definitions, to give them agency: to build a crowd-sourced deliberative democracy, one that “usually just works” in much the same way Google usually just works.

Now, would those with axes to grind try to subvert such a system the instant it went online?  Certainly.  For example, I assume that millions of people would rateConservapedia as a more trustworthy source than Wikipedia—and would rate other people who had done so as, themselves, trustworthy sources, while rating as untrustworthy anyone who called Conservapedia untrustworthy.  So there would arise a parallel world of trust and consensus and “expertise,” mutually-reinforcing yet nearly disjoint from the world of the real.  But here’s the thing: anyone would be able to see, with the click of a mouse, the extent to which this parallel world had diverged from the real one.  They’d see that there was a huge, central connected component in the trust graph—including almost all of the Nobel laureates, physicists from the US nuclear weapons labs, military planners, actuaries, other hardheaded people—who all accepted the reality of humans warming the planet, and only tiny, isolated tendrils of trust reaching from that component into the component of Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe.  The deniers and their think-tanks would be exposed to the sun; they’d lose their thin cover of legitimacy.  It should go without saying that the same would happen to various charlatans on the left, and should go without saying that I’d cheer that outcome as well.

Some will object: but people who believe in pseudosciences—whether creationists or anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers—already know they’re in a minority!  And far from being worried about it, they treat it as a badge of honor.  They think they’re Galileo, that their belief in spite of a scientific consensus makes them heroes, while those in the giant central component of the trust graph are merely slavish followers.

I admit all this.  But the point of an eigentrust system wouldn’t be to convince everyone.  As long as I’m fantasizing, the point would be that, once people’s individual decisions did give rise to a giant connected trust component, the recommendations of that component could acquire the force of law.  The formation of the giant component would be the signal that there’s now enough of a consensus to warrant action, despite the continuing existence of a vocal dissenting minority—that the minority has, in effect, withdrawn itself from the main conversation and retreated into a different discourse.  Conversely, it’s essential to note, if there were a dissenting minority, but that minority had strong trunks of topic-relevant trust pointing toward it from the main component (for example, because the minority contained a large fraction of the experts in the relevant field), then the minority’s objections might be enough to veto action, even if it was numerically small.  This is still democracy; it’s just democracy enhanced by linear algebra.

Other people will object that, while we should use the Internet to improve the democratic process, the idea we’re looking for is not eigentrust or eigenmorality but rather prediction markets.  Such markets would allow us to, as my friend Robin Hanson advocates, “vote on values but bet on beliefs.”  For example, a country could vote for the conditional policy that, if business-as-usual is predicted to cause sea levels to rise at least 4 meters by the year 2200, then an aggressive emissions reduction plan will be triggered, but not otherwise.  But as for the prediction itself, that would be left to a futures market: a place where, unlike with voting, there’s a serious penalty for being wrong, namely losing your shirt.  If the futures market assigned the prediction at least such-and-such a probability, then the policy tied to that prediction would become law.

I actually like the idea of prediction markets—I have ever since I heard about them—but I consider them limited in scope.  My example above, involving the year 2200, gives a hint as to why.  Prediction markets are great whenever our disagreements are over something that will be settled one way or the other, to everyone’s assent, in the near future (e.g., who will win the World Cup, or next year’s GDP).  But most of our important disagreements aren’t like that: they’re over which direction society should move in, which issues to care about, which statistical indicators are even the right ones to measure a country’s health.  Now, those broader questions can sometimes be settled empirically, in a sense: they can be settled by the overwhelming judgment of history, as the slavery, women’s suffrage, and fascism debates were.  But that kind of empirical confirmation typically takes way too long to set up a decent betting market around it.  And for the non-bettable questions, a carefully-crafted eigendemocracy really is the best system I can think of.

Again, I think Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato is completely right that such a system, were it implemented, couldn’t possibly solve the philosophical problem of finding the “ultimate ground of justice,” just like Google can’t provide us with the “ultimate ground of importance.”  If nothing else, we’d still need to decidewhich of the many possible eigentrust metrics to use, and we couldn’t use eigentrust for that without risking an infinite regress.  But just like Google, whatever its flaws, works well enough for you to use it dozens of times per day, so a crowd-sourced eigendemocracy might—just might—work well enough to save civilization.

Link: Google and the Trolley Problem

I expect that in a few years autonomous cars will not only be widely used but they will be mandatory. The vast majority of road accidents are caused by driver error, and when we see how much deaths and injury can be reduced by driverless cars we will rapidly decide that humans should not be allowed to be left in charge.

This gives rise to an interesting philosophical challenge. Somewhere in Mountain View, programmers are grappling with writing the algorithms that will determine the behaviour of these cars. These algorithms will decide what the car will do when the lives of the passengers in the car, pedestrians and other road users are at risk.

In 1942, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov proposed Three Laws of Robotics. These are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

If the cars obey the Three Laws, then the algorithm cannot by action or inaction put the interests of the car above the interests of a human. But what if there are choices to be made between the interests of different people?

In 1967, the philosopher Philippa Foot posed what became known at “The Trolley Problem”.  Suppose you are the driver of a runaway tram (or “trolley car”) and you can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on the track you are on, and there is one man on the other; anyone on the track that the tram enters is bound to be killed. Should you allow the tram to continue on its current track and plough into the five people, or do you deliberately steer the tram onto the other track, so leading to the certain death of the other man?

Being a utilitarian, I find the trolley problem straightforward. It seems obvious to me that the driver should switch tracks, saving five lives at the cost of one. But many people do not share that intuition: for them, the fact that switching tracks requires an action by the driver makes it more reprehensible than allowing five deaths to happen through inaction.

If it were a robot in the drivers’ cab, then Asimov’s Three Laws wouldn’t tell the robot what to do. Either way, humans will be harmed, whether by action (one man) or inaction (five men).  So the First Law will inevitably be broken. What should the robot be programmed to do when it can’t obey the First Law?

This is no longer hypothetical: an equivalent situation could easily arise with a driverless car. Suppose a group of five children runs out into the road, and the car calculates that they can be avoided only by mounting the pavement, and killing a single pedestrian walking there.  How should the car be programmed to respond?

There are many variants on the Trolley Problem (analysed by Judith Jarvis Thompson), most of which will have to be reflected in the cars’ algorithms one way or another. For example, suppose a car finds on rounding a corner that it must either drive into an obstacle, leading to the certain death of its single passenger (the car owner), or it must swerve, leading to the death of an unknown pedestrian.  Many human drivers would instinctively plough into the pedestrian to save themselves. Should the car mimic the driver and put the interests of its owner first? Or should it always protect the interests of the stranger? Or should it decide who dies at random?  (Would you a buy a car programmed to put the interests of strangers ahead of the passenger, other things being equal?)

One option is to let the market decide: I can buy a utilitarian car, while you might prefer the deontological model.  Is it a matter of religious freedom to let people drive a car whose alogorithm reflects their ethical choices?

Perhaps the normal version of the car will be programmed with an algorithm that protects everyone equally and display advertisements to the passengers; while wealthy people will be able to buy the ‘premium’ version that protects its owner at the expense of other road users.  (This is not very different to choosing to drive an SUV, which protects the people inside the car at the expense of the people outside it.)

A related set of problems arise with the possible advent of autonomous drones to be used in war, in which weapons are not only pilotless but deploy their munitions using algorithms rather than human intervention. I think it possible that autonomous drones will eventually make better decisions than soldiers – they are less like to act in anger, for example – but the algorithms which they use will also require careful scrutiny.

Asimov later added Law Zero to his Three Laws: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” This deals with one variant on the Trolley Problem (“Is it right to kill someone to save the rest of humanity?”).  But it doesn’t answer the basic Trolley Problem, in which humanity is not at stake.  I suggest a more general Law Zero, which is consistent with Asimov’s version but which provides answers to a wider range of problems: “A robot must by action or inaction do the greatest good to the greatest number of humans, treating all humans, present and future, equally”.  Other versions of Law Zero would produce different results.

Whatever we decide, we will need to decide soon. Driverless cars are already on our streets.  The Trolley Problem is no longer purely hypothetical, and we can’t leave it to Google to decide. And perhaps getting our head around these questions about the algorithms for driverless cars will help establish some principles that will have wider application in public policy.

Link: Why Europeans should Reread the Stoics to Save Themselves from Resignation

In the first installment of our Spanish series on the “other” origins of Europethe legend of the wolf and the Bear put us on the trail of Mithraism. And the second installment discovered that Mithraism was born in an environment that was heavily influenced by Stoicism, if not a deliberate product of this philosophical movement. But, who were these philosophers that became so influential between 300 BCE and the imposition of Christianity in 380 CE?

Zeno was born around 334 BCE in Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant. We know that he was a disciple of Crates, one of the leading thinkers of the Cynic school. But when he was around thirty years old, he had a full-blown crisis about the teachings of his elders. In today’s terms, and in very plain words, the Cynics were degrowthers, and Zeno was a minimalist. So, he broke with Athen’s Cynical millieu and began teaching at the painted portico of the Acropolis. Portico in Greek is stoa, so Zeno and his followers started to become known as the “Stoics.”

But there was a Cynic idea that Zeno and his disciples rejected even more than the love for poverty that the former professed: That of a necessarily chaotic world, characterized by irrational principles or historical deities. That’s what sums up his famous maxim: “There is both a rational and natural order of things.” Of course, by “things,” he refers to the scope of the disciplines that we know today as Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Zeno divided the available knowledge of his time into three main branches: Logic (formal thinking), Physics (what we now call the “hard” and natural sciences) and Ethics (which formed the basis of social relationships).

For the Stoics, Nature begins and ends in itself, and in that sense it is a large network of interrelations, which can be approximated by natural “laws.” The Stoics embrace the empiricism of the Epicureans, and against the “skeptics” — a school that broadly suggested that reality was unknowable — and Platonic idealism, they defended the notion that consensus on the representations that our senses make of natural reality is enough to propose models and demonstrations. That is, they relativize the results of the natural sciences, stripping them of ultimate truth and infusing them with social and historical truth — a truth based on a consensus that may change.

In this sense, the Stoic theory of knowledge lay the foundations that would much later legitimize what we call “the scientific method” and its conception of science as an approximation of the reality of Nature, as if aiming towards a constantly moving target. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) said that truth about Nature is available through investigation, but that there always will be much to discover because “an era is not enough time for research” (ad inquisitionem tantorum una aetas non sufficit). And maybe that’s why Stoics are more interested in the social than the natural.

To begin with, given their “scientific” conception of Nature, they consider that it is not possible to conceive of any “virtue” (self-improvement) that is not based on the acceptance of natural laws and the determinism implicit in them. In other words, there is no room for comforting ourselves with thinking that gods or supernatural phenomena will suddenly show up to get us out of trouble in extreme situations. The natural world is what it is, and there are no grounds to believe in anything other than better knowledge as a tool for surviving and thriving in it. Hence the popular use of the word “Stoic” to mean resignation, a notion that came about as an interpretation and value judgment of Christianity, which succeeded Stoicism as the dominant ideology in decaying Rome.

The virtuous person, the wise person, then, is someone who, above all, accepts the materiality of existence and its subordination to natural laws. In terms of the Eastern monotheisms, the Stoic will be more of an atheist than a pagan. But because the Stoics recognize a “divine,” creative principle in every living being and nature as a whole, they will become known as “pantheistic.” And in fact, the “pantheism” of the Stoics is a bit more complicated than the usual interpretation of the term.

Zeno imagines a sort of fiery “vital principle” that is present in all natural phenomena, especially in living things. Seneca states “divinity” is synonym with “the mind of Nature”, i.e., with its laws and wonderful equilibria. And to the possibility of a body-soul dualism, he sharply retorts: “I have a body, therefore I am, and if I also have a soul, it is because it is in the body.” (orpora ergo sunt, et quae animi sunt; nam et hic est corpus est). A remarkable notion centuries before psychoanalysis or neuroscience, which contradicts the denatured version of him promoted by Christian apologists, who presented him as a proto-Christian and came up with the legend that he had corresponded with St. Paul. Actually, according to Zeno, if there is a soul, it dies with the body. There is only nothingness after death. In the words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) — another stoic that Christian historiographers have tried to “recover” through quotes taken out of context and mistranslations — “we live for a moment, only to fall into complete oblivion and the infinite vacuum.”

The Stoics withdraw the gods from Nature and place them, emptied of “superstitio,” in the social realm. Certainly not as autonomous “beings” involved in the course of history and natural phenomena, but as allegories of principles and values present in the will of each one of us. They understand the social realm in a similar manner to how they understand Nature: as a large network of interrelationships and interactions in which we have some leeway, some ability to rebalance relations unilaterally, even de facto leaving and breaking them if necessary. Epictetus (55-135), a Greek slave who ended up as one of the masters of his time, says:

Duties are universally measured by relations. Is your brother unfair? Well, keep your situation with him intact. Do not consider what he does but what you do to keep your freedom in a state consistent with Nature. Nobody can hurt you if you do not consent. You will only be hurt you if believe you’ve been hurt. In this way, therefore, applying the idea to a neighbor, a citizen or a general, you can establish the corresponding duties if you get used to consider the different relationships.

So. following the same reasoning, by cultivating the values of their choice through allegories, rituals, and ceremonies, people learn to take ownership of their own behavior and therefore become able to rationally modify social interactions and their outcomes, bringing them closer to their own way of being. For the Stoics, ethics are the basis of all action within the social realm.

This is why they became one of the main forces that transformed the Roman “religio” into an allegorical system of values for coexistence. Because the belief in supernatural autonomous beings in the style of the Asian gods, with a symbolic language of its own, seemed to them to be childish “superstitio.” As Cato famously said in a phrase later picked up by Cicero, “it is incredible that a haruspex doesn’t break out in laughter when he sees another haruspex.” But of course, the idea of transforming ancient and foreign religions into allegories is not unique to the Stoics, as it was part of the ethos of the ruling classes of the republican era. Cicero himself (106 BCE – 43 BCE), who was a colleague of Cato in the Senate and one of the most influential critics of Stoicism during the first imperial stage, openly campaigns for “rationally” creating tailor-made gods, catering to the common need of “living together”:

It is also convenient to deify human virtues such as intelligence, Pietas [self growth through community], Virtus [self improvement], and Fides [respect for the given word]. In Rome, all these virtues have officially consecrated temples, so that those who have them — and certainly, people of good faith have them — believe that in this way the gods are installed in their spirits.

It is in this sense that Marcus Aurelius, in the first book of his “Meditations,” thanks his mother for teaching him “respect for the gods” as much as his father for teaching him not bear “any superstitious fear.” Gods are allegories; having “an unfounded fear of the Gods” is “superstitio,” that is, confusing the representation of allegories with autonomous beings endowed with will and capacity to intervene in nature and history.

But for the Stoics, everything has an extra little twist. Beyond the “superstitio,” we must be careful with those values, because whichever we choose, they must not oppose nature and its laws, nor human nature. There is no virtue in pain. There is no virtue in pursuing scarcity or suffering, just as there is no virtue in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. An ethics that is not based on the naturalness of humans, in the rationality of an understanding of their role in nature, can only be “pathological” and take us away from ataraxia, the serenity on which the Epicureans had already based their ethics. As Seneca said, “secundum naturam suma vivere” — to live according to (our) nature.

That serenity is born out of a life based on safeguarding freedom and making free use of Reason. For Seneca, once again, the meaning of life is to know and learn, that’s what the “elevation” or true deification of man is all about. The Stoic sage understands virtue as reasoning, learning, and gaining knowledge in a material environment without excess or painful shortcomings. Marcus Aurelius thanks his parents for having allowed him to have private teachers instead of being sent to a public school because “for such purposes, it is necessary to spend generously,” and on the other hand, teaching him how “not to live like the rich.” Spending in knowledge is not superfluous, as it increases personal freedom by allowing him to better understand the nature of things; conspicuous consumption, on the contrary, makes us dependent on external power and takes us away from our own nature, making us less free.

Stoic “minimalism” is designed to maintain serenity, to strengthen personal autonomy over crony relationships based on authoritarian distribution of welfare. The wise should not aspire to anything that cannot be produced within a set of relationships in “accordance with Nature,” that is, voluntary, free, and based on mutually agreed rights and duties. Epictetus says:

Power is bestowed upon those who can give what others want and remove what others despise. Therefore, whoever wants to be free must get used to not holding any desire or aversion towards that which depends on alien power. Otherwise, he will necessarily be a slave.

Having defined ethics as the central concern of the Stoic, and virtue as the only reasonable goal, the political becomes subordinated to the possibility of self-improvement. In principle, again following Seneca, the Stoic shall “not fear death, nor chains, nor fire, nor the blows of fortune; for he knows that these things, though they seem evil, are really not.” But if the environment does not allow virtue, they shall not feel greater obligation towards the “polis,” they shall feel free to leave, since they are “cosmopolitans” at heart, they are not loyal to any other community than that which they freely choose for developing their virtue in the context of balanced relationships. The freedom to leave, to segregate, even to commit suicide, is the ultimate requirement for genuine liberty.

That is, the Stoic, for the first time, defines inalienable individual sovereignty on the basis of the maxim “one should fear humans just a little, but not fear gods at all”  (Scit non multum esse ab homine timendum, a Deo nihil).

In practice, what the Stoics tell us is something like “no limits for gaining knowledge and freedom, but do not burden yourself with needs that will make you dependent on others and therefore less free. And if, in any case, you keep relationships with others that provide you with useful things —customers, servants, the State— don’t let them affect you if they they fail or try to manipulate you with the threat of breaking them.” Epictetus again:

Begin, therefore, with the small things. Have you spilled a little oil? Did someone steal some wine from you? Think of this: “This is the price of serenity and tranquility, and nothing is free in this life.” If you call your servant, he may not come; and if he comes, he might not do what you want him to do. But your servant is never so important as to give him the power to upset you in any way.

And for the same reason, they condemn charity (what today we call “welfarism”) in the public realm and propose philanthropy instead, a concept created by them which differs from charity in fostering autonomy instead of dependency. The Stoic emperors will emphasize distributing lands instead of grains (although they continue doing the latter during supply crises), eliminate rents while legalizing and promoting all kinds of guilds and mutual support associations — largely liberalizing the creation of colegia and subtracting monopoly power from them — and practice philanthropy from a primitive view of the imperial apparatus as something light, underpinned by a robust society that is resilient against threats to freedom. Marcus Aurelius thanked his “brother” Severo,

for conceiving the idea of a constitution based on equality before the law, governed by fairness and equal freedom of speech for all, and a royalty that honors and respects, above all, the freedom of his subjects.

Epicureans and Stoics

But what differentiates Epicureans from Stoics? In principle, very little. In the sciences, the Epicureans insisted on their atomic theory as the basis of scientific materialism, and the Stoics on a reticular view, in nature as a large set of interconnected things. In epistemology, the Epicureans were probably more subtle and arrived in the early stages of the Empire to similar statements to those of Renaissance science. And in their ethics, both seek Ataraxia, serenity or personal sovereignty as a result of virtue.

But Epicurean serenity is based on happiness, and Stoic serenity on love for knowledge. And the difference is not a minor one. The promise of of Epicurus, another minimalist avant la lettre, of happiness through moderation, joy, and doing things, will eventually tie the Epicurean to a wider social context .

Following the models of Nature of each school, the Stoics see themselves as social atoms, individuals pursuing knowledge and Serenity. Epicureans see themselves as nodes of a network, and as such, part of a small, real community, united by happiness and fraternity.

As a result, Stoicism — individualistic, secular, balanced, lover of life — in the end, is bound and subjected to politics, as there is nothing that shields the individual from the whole of society or the State.

The Stoic — in principle alien and not interested in the State, ready to leave or commit suicide if there aren’t sufficient conditions to live as they like — ends up influencing the learning and values of the imperial elites to the point of shaping the government of at least two of the so-called “five good emperors”: Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, the latter becoming one of the last great Stoic thinkers of antiquity.

But, also, probably due to practical reasons more than Epicurean influence, they will also influence the social reality encouraging communitarian movements among the “cosmopolitan” classes (as we saw with Mithraism)

Platonics and Stoics

The core of Platonism is the theory of ideas. According to this theory, the world as we perceive it is only a representation of another, abstract world of unchanging ideas. Everything that is “real” for us is just a degraded form compared to its origin. This importance of the ideal and original nature of things (ontology) has shaped many of the ideologies that still live among us. For Christian ontological thought, the heir of Platonism, things are pure in their origin, for ideas are divine creations, and their “passage” through the world is nothing but a degradation, which only makes sense if history is understood as a road towards restoration, a return to the origin. This source would be God, as conceived by Christians, but the general template morphs into many avatars: the class emancipates itself and in turn emancipates all mankind in Marxism, the motherland that gains back its original essence through the assertion of a state of its own in a culturally “purified” identity, etc.

Stoics and Epicureans are at the opposite end of this ontological view of the world which seeks to “change men,” “improving” them according to preconceived ideals. For the Stoics, what matters is not “restoring” anything, nor does it makes sense to try to change human needs. It’s about having a full view of what is possible and acting accordingly. And for that we must align expectations with the possibilities set by the laws of nature, knowledge and the available technology at any given time. The gods will not make it rain, put an end to disease, or change the course of rivers.

And much in the same spirit, we cannot expect human nature to change, nor change it through laws and punishments. Instead, human nature must be understood as it is, and from there, virtuous “ethoses” must be encouraged. Yes, in plural. Because for the Stoics, although “human nature” has a common basis, it does not develop or manifest itself equally for every person, but takes shape based on their own experience, knowledge, and the meaning they have given to their own existence.

That is, Stoicism’s relationship with nature is primarily “technological,” since it won’t strive to go “back to the origin,” but towards an alignment, through the use of scientific knowledge, between what’s possible within the environment and what’s necessary for people.

And likewise, in the social realm it will generate a “praxology” that will develop an ethics of virtue/knowledge wherever the Stoic may act in the world, whether in a small philosophical community or in the magistracies of Empire. That praxology has to take into account “what is the nature of the whole and what is mine, and how that behaves with respect to the other, and [in turn], which whole that part belongs to,” that is, thinking in terms of communities and networks. And always, at least for Marcus Aurelius, who in the end was an emperor, without giving up the practice of speaking frankly, since “no one prevents you from always acting and saying that which is consistent with Nature, of which you are part.”

The Stoic Ethos of Learning

Discovering that “nature of things” is the permanent adventure of the Stoic. And as we have seen, it doesn’t assume that human nature is unanimous or that it functions according to a unique model. Every person standing before us is a world to decipher. So unlike the Cynic, the Stoic won’t be silent, but a “serene” listener. When Zeno was invited for the first time by Antigonus of Macedonia to a banquet, apparently the king, surprised by his silence, sent him a message asking why he was not involved in the conversation. “Tell the king that here is a man who knows how to listen,” he replied. A celebrated phrase by a character said to have joked with a disciple saying that if we have two ears and only one mouth, it is because we should listen twice as much as we speak.

But neither Zeno nor any of the great Greek Stoics, let alone the Latin ones, were in any way sparing with their speech or agraphic. They were actually defining a form of social relationships based on active listening, just as their relationship with Nature was based on practical observation. This love of listening, the first value transmitted by Stoic teachers at all levels to their disciples, will be one of the clues to follow the footsteps of Stoicism in medieval times in future posts.


The popular use of the word “Stoicism” implies resignation, endurance. But the truth is that the Stoics did not give up, they changed the world by learning to listen, and by making every act and every day a battle to be more free. They didn’t turn to politics and didn’t trust society or the state, even if many great rulers were shaped by their ideas, defended the dignity of slaves, and promoted the extension of education to the less affluent. They did not obsess with origins and essences, but embraced and defended the irreducible diversity of human nature, assuming a cosmopolitanism that extolled real, small communities, dedicated to generating knowledge; they put personal sovereignty and the serenity that characterizes it above any social convention or power structure. And they defended personal integrity and love of knowledge to the point of defending the right to secede and to leave the political community, and even life, if the environment made a virtuous life untenable.

They made up one of the threads with which the tangle of values and stories that we call Europe was was woven. And those of us who live in Europe today should reread them, lest we fall into resignation or melancholy.

Link: Young Minds in Critical Condition

It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.

Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?

Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.”

The combination of resistance to influence and deflection of responsibility by confessing to one’s advantages is a sure sign of one’s ability to negotiate the politics of learning on campus. But this ability will not take you very far beyond the university. Taking things apart, or taking people down, can provide the satisfactions of cynicism. But this is thin gruel.

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not totally without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers — or, to use a currently fashionable word on campus, people who like to “trouble” ideas. In overdeveloping the capacity to show how texts, institutions or people fail to accomplish what they set out to do, we may be depriving students of the chance to learn as much as possible from what they study.

In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. They may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in the classroom.

Once outside the university, these students may try to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school, but those points often come at their own expense. As debunkers, they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.

Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.

In my film and philosophy class, for example, I have to insist that students put their devices away while watching movies that don’t immediately engage their senses with explosions, sex or gag lines. At first they see this as some old guy’s failure to grasp their skill at multitasking, but eventually most relearn how to give themselves to an emotional and intellectual experience, one that is deeply engaging partly because it does not pander to their most superficial habits of attention. I usually watch the movies with them (though I’ve seen them more than a dozen times), and together we share an experience that becomes the subject of reflection, interpretation and analysis. We even forget our phones and tablets when we encounter these unexpected sources of inspiration.

Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities.

Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.

Liberal education must not limit itself to critical thinking and problem solving; it must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.

Link: Herbert Marcuse: "Liberation from the Affluent Society"

1967 lecture in London.

I am very happy to see so many flowers here and that is why I want to remind you that flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.

As a hopeless philosopher for whom philosophy has become inseparable from politics, I am afraid I have to give here today a rather philosophical speech, and I must ask your indulgence. We are dealing with the dialectics of liberation (actually a redundant phrase, because I believe that all dialectic is liberation) and not only liberation in an intellectual sense, but liberation involving the mind and the body, liberation involving entire human existence. Think of Plato: the liberation from the existence in the cave. Think of Hegel: liberation in the sense of progress and freedom on the historical scale. Think of Marx. Now in what, sense is all dialectic liberation? It is liberation from the repressive, from a bad, a false system - be it an organic system, be it a social system, be it a mental or intellectual system: liberation by forces developing within such a system. That is a decisive point. And liberation by virtue of the contradiction generated by the system, precisely because it is a bad, a false system.

I am intentionally using here moral, philosophical terms, values: ‘bad’, ‘false’. For without an objectively justifiable goal of a better, a free human existence, all liberation must remain meaningless - at best, progress in servitude. I believe that in Marx too socialism ought to be. This ‘ought’ belongs to the very essence of scientific socialism. It ought to be; it [p. 176] is, we may almost say, a biological, sociological and political necessity. It is a biological necessity in as much as a socialist society, according to Marx, would conform with the very logos of life, with the essential possibilities of a human existence, not only mentally, not only intellectually, but also organically.

Now as to today and our own situation. I think we are faced with a novel situation in history, because today we have to be liberated from a relatively well-functioning, rich, powerful society. I am speaking here about liberation from the affluent society, that is to say, the advanced industrial societies. The problem we are facing is the need for liberation not from a poor society, not from a disintegrating society, not even in most cases from a terroristic society, but from a society which develops to a great extent the material and even cultural needs of man - a society which, to use a slogan, delivers the goods to an ever larger part of the population. And that implies, we are facing liberation from a society where liberation is apparently without a mass basis. We know very well the social mechanisms of manipulation, indoctrination, repression which are responsible for this lack of a mass basis, for the integration of the majority of the oppositional forces into the established social system. But I must emphasize again that this is not merely an ideological integration; that it is not merely a social integration; that it takes place precisely on the strong and rich basis which enables the society to develop and satisfy material and cultural needs better than before.

But knowledge of the mechanisms of manipulation or repression, which go down into the very unconscious of man, is not the whole story. I believe that we (and I will use ‘we’ throughout my talk) have been too hesitant, that we have been too ashamed, understandably ashamed, to insist on the integral, radical features of a socialist society, its qualitative difference from all the established societies: the [p. 177] qualitative difference by virtue of which socialism is indeed the negation of the established systems, no matter how productive, no matter how powerful they are or they may appear. In other words - and this is one of the many points where I disagree with Paul Goodman - our fault was not that we have been too immodest, but that we have been too modest. We have, as it were, repressed a great deal of what we should have said and what we should have emphasized.

If today these integral features, these truly radical features which make a socialist society a definite negation of the existing societies, if this qualitative difference today appears as Utopian, as idealistic, as metaphysical, this is precisely the form in which these radical features must appear if they are really to be a definite negation of the established society: if socialism is indeed the rupture of history, the radical break, the leap into the realm of freedom - a total rupture. [quoted by Alexander Cockburn in a Dec. 2007 Nation column]

Let us give one illustration of how this awareness, or half-awareness, of the need for such a total rupture was present in some of the great social struggles of our period. Walter Benjamin quotes reports that during the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city of Paris there were people shooting at the clocks on the towers of the churches, palaces and so on, thereby consciously or half-consciously expressing the need that somehow time has to be arrested; that at least the prevailing, the established time continuum has to be arrested, and that a new time has to begin - a very strong emphasis on the qualitative difference and on the totality of the rupture between the new society and the old. [audio excerpt ends here]

In this sense, I should like to discuss here with you the repressed prerequisites of qualitative change. I say intentionally ‘of qualitative change,’, not ‘of revolution’, because we know of too many revolutions through which the continuum of repression has been sustained, revolutions which have replaced one system of domination by another. We must become aware of the essentially new features which [178] distinguish a free society as a definite negation of the established societies, and we must begin formulating these features, no matter how metaphysical, no matter how Utopian, I would even say no matter how ridiculous we may appear to the normal people in all camps, on the right as well as on the left.

What is the dialectic of liberation with which we here are concerned? It is the construction of a free society, a construction which depends in the first place on the prevalence of the vital need for abolishing the established systems of servitude; and secondly, and this is decisive, it depends on the vital commitment, the striving, conscious as well as sub- and un-conscious, for the qualitatively different values of a free human existence. Without the emergence of such new needs and satisfactions, the needs and satisfactions of free men, all change in the social institutions, no matter bow great, would only replace one system of servitude by another system of servitude. Nor can the emergence - and I should like to emphasize this - nor can the emergence of such new needs and satisfactions be envisaged as a mere by-product, the mere result, of changed social institutions. We have seen this, it is a fact of experience. The development of the new institutions must already be carried out and carried through by men with the new needs. That by the way, is the basic idea underlying Marx’s own concept of the proletariat as the historical agent of revolution. He saw the industrial proletariat as the historical agent of revolution, not only because it was the basic class in the material process of production, not only because it was at that time the majority of the population, but also because this class was ‘free’ from the repressive and aggressive competitive needs of capitalist society and therefore, at least potentially, the carrier of essentially new needs, goals and satisfactions.

We can formulate this dialectic of liberation also in a more brutal way, as a vicious circle. The transition from [179] voluntary servitude (as it exists to a great extent in the affluent society) to freedom presupposes the abolition of the institutions and mechanism of repression. And the abolition of the institutions and mechanisms of repression already presupposes liberation from servitude, prevalence of the need for liberation. As to needs, I think we have to distinguish between the need for changing intolerable conditions of existence, and the need for changing the society as a whole. The two are by no means identical, they are by no means in harmony. If the need is for changing intolerable conditions of existence, with at least a reasonable chance that this can be achieved within the established society, with the growth and progress of the established society, then this is merely quantitative change. Qualitative change is a change of the very system as a whole.

I would like to point out that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative change is not identical with the distinction between reform and revolution. Quantitative change can mean and can lead to revolution, Only the conjunction, I suggest, of these two is revolution in the essential sense of the leap from pre-history into the history of man. In other words, the problem with which we are faced is the point where quantity can turn into quality, where the quantitative change in the conditions and institutions can become a qualitative change affecting all human existence.

Today the two potential factors of revolution which I have just mentioned are disjointed. The first is most prevalent in the underdeveloped countries, where quantitative change - that is to say, the creation of human living conditions - is in itself qualitative change, but is not yet freedom. The second potential factor of revolution, the prerequisites of liberation, are potentially there in the advanced industrial countries, but are contained and perverted by the capitalist organization of society.

I think we are faced with a situation in which this [180] advanced capitalist society has reached a point where quantitative change can technically be turned into qualitative change, into authentic liberation. And it is precisely against this truly fatal possibility that the affluent society, advanced capitalism, is mobilized and organized on all fronts, at home as well as abroad.

Before I go on, let me give a brief definition of what I mean by an affluent society. A model, of course, is American society today, although even in the US it is more a tendency, not yet entirely translated into reality. In the first place, it is a capitalist society. It seems to be necessary to remind ourselves of this because there are some people, even on the left, who believe that American society is no longer a class society. I can assure you that it is a class society. It is a capitalist society with a high concentration of economic and political power; with an enlarged and enlarging sector of automation and coordination of production, distribution and communication; with private ownership in the means of production which however depends increasingly on ever more active and wide intervention by the government. It is a society in which, as I mentioned, the material as well as cultural needs of the underlying population are satisfied on a scale larger than ever before - but they are satisfied in line with the requirements and interests of the apparatus and of the powers which control the apparatus. And it is a society growing on the condition of accelerating waste, planned obsolescence and destruction, while the substratum of the population continues to live in poverty and misery.

I believe that these factors are internally interrelated, that they constitute the syndrome of late capitalism: namely, the apparently inseparable unity - inseparable for the system - of productivity and destruction, of satisfaction of needs and repression, of liberty within a system of servitude - that is to say, the subjugation of man to the apparatus, and the inseparable unity of rational and irrational. We can say that [181] the rationality of the society lies in its very insanity, and that the insanity of the society is rational to the degree to which it is efficient, to the degree to which it delivers the goods.

Now the question we must raise is: why do we need liberation from such a society if it is capable - perhaps in the distant future, but apparently capable - of conquering poverty to a greater degree than ever before, of reducing the toil of labour and the time of labour, and of raising the standard of living? If the price for all goods delivered, the price for this comfortable servitude, for all these achievements, is exacted from people far away from the metropolis and far away from its affluence? If the affluent society itself hardly notices what it is doing, how it is spreading terror and enslavement, how it is fighting liberation in all corners of the globe?

We know the traditional weakness of emotional, moral and humanitarian arguments in the face of such technological achievement, in the face of the irrational rationality of such a power. These arguments do not seem to carry any weight against the brute facts - we might say brutal facts of the society and its productivity. And yet, it is only the insistence on the real possibilities of a free society, which is blocked by the affluent society - it is only this insistence in practice as well as in theory, in demonstration as well as in discussion, which still stands in the way of the complete degradation of man to an object, or rather subject/object, of total administration. It is only this insistence which still stands in the way of the progressive brutalization and moronization of man. For - and I should like to emphasize this - the capitalist Welfare State is a Warfare State. It must have an Enemy, with a capital E, a total Enemy; because the perpetuation of servitude, the perpetuation of the miserable struggle for existence in the very face of the new possibilities of freedom, activates and intensifies in this society a primary aggressiveness to a degree, I think, hitherto [182] unknown in history. And this primary aggressiveness must be mobilized in socially useful ways, lest it explode the system itself. Therefore the need for an Enemy, who must be there, and who must be created if he does not exist. Fortunately, I dare say, the Enemy does exist. But his image and his power must, in this society, be inflated beyond all proportions in order to be able to mobilize this aggressiveness of the affluent society in socially useful ways.

The result is a mutilated, crippled and frustrated human existence: a human existence that is violently defending its own servitude.

We can sum up the fatal situation with which we are confronted. Radical social change is objectively necessary, in the dual sense that it is the only chance to save the possibilities of human freedom and, furthermore, in the sense that the technical and material resources for the realization of freedom are available. But while this objective need is demonstrably there, the subjective need for such a change does not prevail. It does not prevail precisely among those parts of the population that are traditionally considered the agents of historical change. The subjective need is repressed, again on a dual ground: firstly, by virtue of the actual satisfaction of needs, and secondly, by a massive scientific manipulation and administration of needs - that is, by a systematic social control not only of the consciousness, but also of the unconscious of man. This control has been made possible by the very achievements of the greatest liberating sciences of our time, in psychology, mainly psychoanalysis and psychiatry. That they could become and have become at the same time powerful instruments of suppression, one of the most effective engines of suppression, is again one of the terrible aspects of the dialectic of liberation.

This divergence between the objective and the subjective need changes completely, I suggest, the basis, the prospects and the strategy of liberation. This situation presupposes [183] the emergence of new needs, qualitatively different and even opposed to the prevailing aggressive and repressive needs: the emergence of a new type of man, with a vital, biological drive for liberation, and with a consciousness capable of breaking through the material as well as ideological veil of the affluent society. In other words, liberation seems to be predicated upon the opening and the activation of a depth dimension of human existence, this side of and underneath the traditional material base: not an idealistic dimension, over and above the material base, but a dimension even more material than the material base, a dimension underneath the material base. I will illustrate presently what I mean.

The emphasis on this new dimension does not mean replacing politics by psychology, but rather the other way around. It means finally taking account of the fact that society has invaded even the deepest roots of individual existence, even the unconscious of man. We must get at the roots of society in the individuals themselves, the individuals who, because of social engineering, constantly reproduce the continuum of repression even through the great revolution.

This change is, I suggest, not an ideological change. It is dictated by the actual development of an industrial society, which has introduced factors which our theory could formerly correctly neglect. It is dictated by the actual development of industrial society, by the tremendous growth of its material and technical productivity, which has surpassed and rendered obsolete the traditional goals and preconditions of liberation.

Here we are faced with the question: is liberation from the affluent society identical with the transition from capitalism to socialism? The answer I suggest is: It is not identical, if socialism is defined merely as the planned development of the productive forces, and the rationalization [184] of resources (although this remains a precondition for all liberation). It is identical with the transition from capitalism to socialism, if socialism is defined in its most Utopian terms: namely, among others, the abolition of labour, the termination of the struggle for existence - that is to say, life as an end in itself and no longer as a means to an end - and the liberation of human sensibility and sensitivity, not as a private factor, but as a force for transformation of human existence and of its environment. To give sensitivity and sensibility their own right is, I think, one of the basic goals of integral socialism. These are the qualitatively different features of a free society. They presuppose, as you may already have seen, a total trans-valuation of values, a new anthropology. They presuppose a type of man who rejects the performance principles governing the established societies; a type of man who has rid himself of the aggressiveness and brutality that are inherent in the organization of established society, and in their hypocritical, puritan morality; a type of man who is biologically incapable of fighting wars and creating suffering; a type of man who has a good conscience of joy and pleasure, and who works, collectively and individually, for a social and natural environment in which such an existence becomes possible.

The dialectic of liberation, as turned from quantity into quality, thus involves, I repeat, a break in the continuum of repression which, reaches into the depth dimension of the organism itself. Or, we may say that today qualitative change, liberation, involves organic, instinctual, biological changes at the same time as political and social changes.

The new needs and satisfactions have a very material basis, as I have indicated. They are not thought out but are the logical derivation from the technical, material and intellectual possibilities of advanced, industrial society. They are inherent in, and the expression of, the productivity of advanced industrial society, which has long since made [185] obsolete all kinds of inner-worldly asceticism, the entire work discipline on which Judaeo-Christian morality has been based.

Why is this society surpassing and negating this type of man, the traditional type of man, and the forms of his existence, as well as the morality to which it owes much of its origins and foundations? This new, unheard-of and not anticipated productivity allows the concept of a technology of liberation. Here I can only briefly indicate what I have in mind: such amazing and indeed apparently Utopian tendencies as the convergence of technique and art, the convergence of work and play, the convergence of the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. How? No longer subjected to the dictates of capitalist profitability and of efficiency, no longer to the dictates of scarcity, which today are perpetuated by the capitalist organization of society; socially necessary labour, material production, would and could become (we see the tendency already) increasingly scientific. Technical experimentation, science and technology would and could become a play with the hitherto hidden - methodically hidden and blocked - potentialities of men and things, of society and nature.

This means one of the oldest dreams of all radical theory and practice. It means that the creative imagination, and not only the rationality of the performance principle, would become a productive force applied to the transformation of the social and natural universe. It would mean the emergence of a form of reality which is the work and the medium of the developing sensibility and sensitivity of man.

And now I throw in the terrible concept: it would mean an ‘aesthetic’ reality - society as a work of art. This is the most Utopian, the most radical possibility of liberation today.

What does this mean, in concrete terms? I said, we are not concerned here with private sensitivity and sensibility, but [186] with sensitivity and sensibility, creative imagination and play, becoming forces of transformation. As such they would guide, for example, the total reconstruction of our cities and of the countryside; the restoration of nature after the elimination of the violence and destruction of capitalist industrialization; the creation of internal and external space for privacy, individual autonomy, tranquillity; the elimination of noise, of captive audiences, of enforced togetherness, of pollution, of ugliness. These are not - and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough - snobbish and romantic demands. Biologists today have emphasized that these are organic needs for the human organism, and that their arrest, their perversion and destruction by capitalist society, actually mutilates the human organism, not only in a figurative way but in a very real and literal sense.

I believe that it is only in such a universe that man can be truly free, and truly human relationships between free beings can be established. I believe that the idea of such a universe guided also Marx’s concept of socialism, and that these aesthetic needs and goals must from the beginning be present in the reconstruction of society, and not only at the end or in the far future. Otherwise, the needs and satisfactions which reproduce a repressive society would be carried over into the new society. Repressive men would carry over their repression into the new society.

Now, at this farthest point, the question is: how can we possibly envisage the emergence of such qualitatively different needs and goals as organic, biological needs and goals and not as superimposed values? How can we envisage the emergence of these needs and satisfactions within and against the established society - that is to say, prior to liberation? That was the dialectic with which I started, that in a very definite sense we have to be free from in order to create a free society.

Needless to say, the dissolution of the existing system is [187] the precondition for such qualitative change. And the more efficiently the repressive apparatus of the affluent societies operates, the less likely is a gradual transition from servitude to freedom. The fact that today we cannot identify any specific class or any specific group as a revolutionary force, this fact is no excuse for not using any and every possibility and method to arrest the engines of repression in the individual. The diffusion of potential opposition among the entire underlying population corresponds precisely to the total character of our advanced capitalist society. The internal contradictions of the system are as grave as ever before and likely to be aggravated by the violent expansion of capitalist imperialism. Not only the most general contradictions between the tremendous social wealth on the one hand, and the destructive, aggressive and wasteful use of this wealth on the other; but far more concrete contradictions such as the necessity for the system to automate, the continued reduction of the human base in physical labourpower in the material reproduction of society and thereby the tendency towards the draining of the sources of surplus profit. Finally, there is the threat of technological unemployment which even the most affluent society may no longer be capable of compensating by the creation of ever more parasitic and unproductive labour: all these contradictions exist. In reaction to them suppression, manipulation and integration are likely to increase.

But fulfillment is there, the ground can and must be prepared. The mutilated consciousness and the mutilated instincts must be broken. The sensitivity and the awareness of the new transcending, antagonistic values - they are there. And they are there, they are here, precisely among the still non-integrated social groups and among those who, by virtue of their privileged position, can pierce the ideological and material veil of mass communication and indoctrination - namely, the intelligentsia. [188]

We all know the fatal prejudice, practically from the beginning, in the Labour Movement against the intelligentsia as catalyst of historical change. It is time to ask whether this prejudice against the intellectuals, and the inferiority complex of the intellectuals resulting from it, was not an essential factor in the development of the capitalist as well as the socialist societies: in the development and weakening of the opposition. The intellectuals usually went out to organize the others, to organize in the communities. They certainly did not use the potentiality they had to organize themselves, to organize among themselves not only on a regional, not only on a national, but on an international level. That is, in my view, today one of the most urgent tasks. Can we say that the intelligentsia is the agent of historical change? Can we say that the intelligentsia today is a revolutionary class? The answer I would give is: No, we cannot say that. But we can say, and I think we must say, that the intelligentsia has a decisive preparatory function, not more; and I suggest that this is plenty. By itself it is not and cannot be a revolutionary class, but it can become the catalyst, and it has a preparatory function - certainly not for the first time, that is in fact the way all revolution starts but more, perhaps, today than ever before. Because - and for this too we have a very material and very concrete basis - it is from this group that the holders of decisive positions in the productive process will be recruited, in the future even more than hitherto. I refer to what we may call the increasingly scientific character of the material process of production, by virtue-of which the role of the intelligentsia changes. It is the group from which the decisive holders of decisive positions will be recruited: scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, even psychologists - because psychology will continue to be a socially necessary instrument, either of servitude or of liberation.

This class, this intelligentsia has been called the new [189] working class. I believe this term is at best premature. They are - and this we should not forget - today the pet beneficiaries of the established system. But they are also at the very source of the glaring contradictions between the liberating capacity of science and its repressive and enslaving use. To activate the repressed and manipulated contradiction, to make it operate as a catalyst of change, that is one of the main tasks of the opposition today. It remains and must remain a political task.

Education is our job, but education in a new sense. Being theory as well as practice, political practice, education today is more than discussion, more than teaching and learning and writing. Unless and until it goes beyond the classroom, until and unless it goes beyond the college, the school, the university, it will remain powerless. Education today must involve the mind and the body, reason and imagination, the intellectual and the instinctual needs, because our entire existence has become the subject/object of politics, of social engineering. I emphasize, it is not a question of making the schools and universities, of making the educational system political. The educational system is political already. I need only remind you of the incredible degree to which (I am speaking of the US) universities are involved in huge research grants (the nature of which you know in many cases) by the government and the various quasi-governmental agencies.

The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy. And in this sense we must meet this society on its own ground of total mobilization. We must confront indoctrination in servitude with indoctrination in freedom. We must each of us generate in ourselves, and try to generate in others, the instinctual need for a life without fear, without brutality, and without stupidity. And we must see that we can generate the [190] instinctual and intellectual revulsion against the values of an affluence which spreads aggressiveness and suppression throughout the world.

Before I conclude I would like to say my bit about the Hippies. It seems to me a serious phenomenon. If we are talking of the emergence of an instinctual revulsion against the values of the affluent society, I think here is a place where we should look for it. It seems to me that the Hippies, like any non-conformist movement on the left, are split. That there are two parts, or parties, or tendencies. Much of it is mere masquerade and clownery on the private level, and therefore indeed, as Gerassi suggested, completely harmless, very nice and charming in many cases, but that is all there is to it. But that is not the whole story. There is in the Hippies, and especially in such tendencies in the Hippies as the Diggers and the Provos, an inherent political element - perhaps even more so in the US than here. It is the appearance indeed of new instinctual needs and values. This experience is there. There is a new sensibility against efficient and insane reasonableness. There is the refusal to play the rules of a rigid game, a game which one knows is rigid from the beginning, and the revolt against the compulsive cleanliness of puritan morality and the aggression bred by this puritan morality as we see it today in Vietnam among other things.

At least this part of the Hippies, in which sexual, moral and political rebellion are somehow united, is indeed a nonaggressive form of life: a demonstration of an aggressive non-aggressiveness which achieves, at least potentially, the demonstration of qualitatively different values, a transvaluation of values.

All education today is therapy: therapy in the sense of liberating man by all available means from a society in which, sooner or later, he is going to be transformed into a brute, even if he doesn’t notice it any more. Education in [191] this sense is therapy, and all therapy today is political theory and practice. What kind of political practice? That depends entirely on the situation. It is hardly imaginable that we should discuss this here in detail. I will only remind you of the various possibilities of demonstrations, of finding out flexible modes of demonstration which can cope with the use of institutionalized violence, of boycott, many other things - anything goes which is such that it indeed has a reasonable chance of strengthening the forces of the opposition.

We can prepare for it as educators, as students. Again I say, our role is limited. We are no mass movement. I do not believe that in the near future we will see such a mass movement.

I want to add one word about the so-called Third World. I have not spoken of the Third World because my topic was strictly liberation from the affluent society. I agree entirely with Paul Sweezy, that without putting the affluent society in the framework of the Third World it is not understandable. I also believe that here and now our emphasis must be on the advanced industrial societies - not forgetting to do whatever we can and in whatever way we can to support, theoretically and practically, the struggle for liberation in the neo-colonial countries which, if again they are not the final force of liberation, at least contribute their share - and it is a considerable share - to the potential weakening and disintegration of the imperialist world system.

Our role as intellectuals is a limited role. On no account should we succumb to any illusions. But even worse than this is to succumb to the wide-spread defeatism which we witness. The preparatory role today is an indispensable role. I believe I am not being too optimistic - I have not in general the reputation of being too optimistic - when I say that we can already see the signs, not only that They are getting [192] frightened and worried but that there are far more concrete, far more tangible manifestations of the essential weakness of the system. Therefore, let us continue with whatever we can - no illusions, but even more, no defeatism.

Link: Existence without Essence under Capitalism

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

In October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

In modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond thebase of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

Link: Beyond True and False

Western philosophers have not, on the whole, regarded Buddhist thought with much enthusiasm. As a colleague once said to me: ‘It’s all just mysticism.’ This attitude is due, in part, to ignorance. But it is also due to incomprehension. When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying:
The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.

An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. Statements such as Nagarjuna’s are therefore wont to produce looks of blank incomprehension, or worse. As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared:
Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.

One can hear similar sentiments, expressed with comparable ferocity, in many faculty common rooms today. Yet Western philosophers are slowly learning to outgrow their parochialism. And help is coming from a most unexpected direction: modern mathematical logic, not a field that is renowned for its tolerance of obscurity.

Let’s start by turning back the clock. It is India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.

We know that the catuskoti was in the air because of certain questions that people asked the Buddha, in exchanges that come down to us in the sutras. Questions such as: what happens to enlightened people after they die? It was commonly assumed that an unenlightened person would keep being reborn, but the whole point of enlightenment was to get out of this vicious circle. And then what? Did you exist, not, both or neither? The Buddha’s disciples clearly expected him to endorse one and only one of these possibilities. This, it appears, was just how people thought.

At around the same time, 5,000km to the west in Ancient Athens, Aristotle was laying the foundations of Western logic along very different lines. Among his innovations were two singularly important rules. One of them was the Principle of Excluded Middle (PEM), which says that every claim must be either true or false with no other options (the Latin name for this rule, tertium non datur, means literally ‘a third is not given’). The other rule was the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): nothing can be both true and false at the same time.

Writing in his Metaphysics, Aristotle defended both of these principles against transgressors such as Heraklitus (nicknamed ‘the Obscure’). Unfortunately, Aristotle’s own arguments are somewhat tortured – to put it mildly – and modern scholars find it difficult even to say what they are supposed to be. Yet Aristotle succeeded in locking the PEM and the PNC into Western orthodoxy, where they have remained ever since. Only a few intrepid spirits, most notably G W F Hegel in the 19th century, ever thought to challenge them. And now many of Aristotle’s intellectual descendants find it very difficult to imagine life without them.

That is why Western thinkers – even those sympathetic to Buddhist thought – have struggled to grasp how something such as the catuskoti might be possible. Never mind a third not being given, here was a fourth – and that fourth was itself a contradiction. How to make sense of that?

Well, contemporary developments in mathematical logic show exactly how to do it. In fact, it’s not hard at all.

At the core of the explanation, one has to grasp a very basic mathematical distinction. I speak of the difference between a relation and a function. A relation is something that relates a certain kind of object to some number of others (zero, one, two, etc). A function, on the other hand, is a special kind of relation that links each such object to exactly one thing. Suppose we are talking about people. Mother of and father of are functions, because every person has exactly one (biological) mother and exactly one father. But son of and daughter of are relations, because parents might have any number of sons and daughters. Functions give a unique output; relations can give any number of outputs. Keep that distinction in mind; we’ll come back to it a lot.

Now, in logic, one is generally interested in whether a given claim is true or false. Logicians call true and false truth values. Normally, and following Aristotle, it is assumed that ‘value of’ is a function: the value of any given assertion is exactly one of true (or T), and false (or F). In this way, the principles of excluded middle (PEM) and non-contradiction (PNC) are built into the mathematics from the start. But they needn’t be.

To get back to something that the Buddha might recognise, all we need to do is make value of into a relation instead of a function. Thus T might be a value of a sentence, as can F, both, or neither. We now have four possibilities: {T}, {F}, {T,F} and { }. The curly brackets, by the way, indicate that we are dealing with sets of truth values rather than individual ones, as befits a relation rather than a function. The last pair of brackets denotes what mathematicians call the empty set: it is a collection with no members, like the set of humans with 17 legs. It would be conventional in mathematics to represent our four values using something called a Hasse diagram, like so:

↗ ↖
{T, F}{ }
↖ ↗

Thus the four kotis (corners) of the catuskoti appear before us.

In case this all sounds rather convenient for the purposes of Buddhist apologism, I should mention that the logic I have just described is called First Degree Entailment (FDE). It was originally constructed in the 1960s in an area calledrelevant logic. Exactly what this is need not concern us, but the US logician Nuel Belnap argued that FDE was a sensible system for databases that might have been fed inconsistent or incomplete information. All of which is to say, it had nothing to do with Buddhism whatsoever.

Even so, you might be wondering how on earth something could be both true and false, or neither true nor false. In fact, the idea that some claims are neither true nor false is a very old one in Western philosophy. None other than Aristotle himself argued for one kind of example. In the somewhat infamous Chapter 9 ofDe Interpretatione, he claims that contingent statements about the future, such as ‘the first pope in the 22nd century will be African’, are neither true nor false. The future is, as yet, indeterminate. So much for his arguments in the Metaphysics.

The notion that some things might be both true and false is much more unorthodox. But here, too, we can find some plausible examples. Take the notorious ‘paradoxes of self-reference’, the oldest of which, reputedly discovered by Eubulides in the fourth century BCE, is called the Liar Paradox. Here’s its commonest expression:
This statement is false.

Where’s the paradox? If the statement is true, then it is indeed false. But if it is false, well, then it is true. So it seems to be both true and false.

Many similar puzzles turned up at the end of the 19th century, to the dismay of the scholars who were then trying to place mathematics as a whole on solid foundations. It was the leader of these efforts, Bertrand Russell, who in 1901 discovered the most famous such paradox (hence its name, Russell’s Paradox). And it goes like this:

Some sets are members of themselves; the set of all sets, for example, is a set, so it belongs to itself. But some sets are not members of themselves. The set of cats, for example, is not a cat, so it’s not a member of the set of cats. But what about the set of all the sets that are not members of themselves? If it is a member of itself, then it isn’t. But if it isn’t, then it is. It seems that it both is and isn’t. So, goodbye Principle of Non-Contradiction. The catuskoti beckons.

Here you might wish to pause for a brief sanity check. Do scenarios such as thesereally break the chains of Aristotelian logic? Well, an increasing number of logicians are coming to think so – though matters remain highly contentious. Still, if nothing else, examples of this kind might help to remove the blinkers imposed by what Wittgenstein called ‘a one-sided diet’ of examples. We’ll need to keep those blinkers off as we return to those tricky questions that the Buddha’s disciples asked him. After all, what does happen to an enlightened person after death? Things are going to get only more disconcerting from here on in.

The Buddha, in fact, refused to answer such queries. In some sutras, he just says that they are a waste of time: you don’t need to bother with them to achieve enlightenment. But in other texts there is a suggestion that something more is going on. Though the idea is never really elaborated, there are hints that none of the four possibilities in the catuskoti ‘fits the case’.

For a long time, this riddle lay dormant in Buddhist philosophy. It was only around the second century CE that it was taken up by Nagarjuna, probably the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher after the Buddha himself. Nagarjuna’s writings defined the new version of Buddhism that was emerging at the time: Mahayana. Central to his teachings is the view that things are ‘empty’ (sunya). This does not mean that they are non-existent; only that they are what they are because of how they relate to other things. As the quotation at the beginning of this essay explains, their nature is to have no intrinsic nature (and the task of making precise logical sense of this claim I leave for the reader to ponder; suffice it to say, it can be done).

The most important of Nagarjuna’s writings is the Mulamadhyamakakarika, the ‘Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way’. This is a profound and cryptic book, whose principle theme is precisely that everything is empty. In the course of making his arguments, Nagarjuna often runs through the four cases of thecatuskoti. In some places, moreover, he clearly states that there are situations in which none of the four applies. They don’t cover the status of an enlightened person after death, for example.

Why might that be? Nagarjuna’s reasoning is somewhat opaque, but essentially it seems to go something like this. The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuskoti.

It is striking how useful his invention proves in the context of Buddhist metaphysics, though Buddhism played no part in inspiring it

We now have a fifth possibility. Let us write the four original possibilities, {T}, {F}, {TF} and {}, as tfb and n, respectively. The way we set things up earlier, value of was a relation and the sets were the possibilities that each statement might relate to. But we could have taken value of as a function and allowed tfb and n to be the values that the function can take. And now there is a fifth possible value – none of the above, ineffable, that which lies beyond language. Call it i. (Strictly speaking, it is states of affairs that are ineffable, not claims, so our values have to be thought of as the values of states of affairs; but let us slide over this subtlety.)

If something is ineffable, i, it is certainly neither true nor false. But then how does idiffer from nneither true nor false? If we are looking at individual propositions, it is indeed tricky to discern any difference. However, the contrast comes out quite clearly when we try to join two sentences together.