Broadly speaking pain is pain. We have few words to describe it just as we have few words to describe the sense of smell. (Presumably if dogs invented language, which have a sense of smell a thousand times more acute than that of humans, the vocabulary would be considerably richer). We might have a pain in the bones, or toothache. And thus there are aches. When there are injuries to the flesh whether it be in the legs or the arms the pain is the same. Obviously it can range from the merely uncomfortable to the suicidal. On occasion sudden pain is so intense it induces a heart attack with fatal consequences.
Insight, enlightenment, satori or whatever is not dissimilar. Such feelings sometimes have no apparent cause, sometimes they are the result of art or music, or alcohol or drugs, or holidays or the theatre or, so I understand, intense physical exercise. It is difficult to differentiate these pleasures or emotions from each other. Often after such pleasurable attacks they are seized upon by those versed in religion. As a result folk are 'converted' to a certain way of life. The difference, of course, is that when we intensely enjoy, for example, a certain piece of music we are anxious to share the experience with others. We will enthuse over the piece and encourage others to listen to it. But we will not say as a result of the experience you must not eat flesh on Fridays or any one of the thousand other practices religions propose. Many of these are harmless enough in themselves and bind together (religare - to bind) those following their several messiahs. Others are not so harmless and have resulted and do result in maiming, torturing and killing folk in their thousands, or committing suicide for the cause
Further it is in accord with this piece to point out that language was not created to deal with blinding flashes of insight. When we enjoy - or suffer - them we can only express the experience in terms of analogy. Others, who have experienced them, as with pain, will understand. But language itself cannot communicate to others what that experience is.
The question, of course, is why those engaged in religion are anxious to exercise power over others by insisting on a certain way of life. Why they require their members to refrain from or curtail indulging certain human appetites. They install a sense of guilt on indulgence in what comes naturally. Some of their requirements have a naturalistic explanation. Indiscriminate sex might result in the spread of disease or the birth of unwanted children who have no parental support. It is noticeable that with advances in medicine and the availability of contraceptive devices recreational sex is nowadays almost acceptable by the majority. It has always gone on, of course, but in an underhand kind of way. This does not stop most religions condemning sexual activity. The grip on individuals, creating sensations of guilt can only add to the power of religious leaders.
It is a task of philosophy to analyse the reasons for various taboos and expose them for what they really are. Paraphrasing one axiom - 'We have but a small light to guide us in our darkness and religions misuse words in order to attempt to extinguish that light'.
Purposes of Philosophy
What is left for Philosophy?
As words do not have meaning why then should philosophy exist? Does it have a purpose?
1. First we must recognize that philosophy belongs to us all. Whenever we make a decision - even shall I take the dog for a walk - might have ethical undertones. (I need the exercise, the dog will enjoy it, it’s raining, I might miss that phone call).
The question of whether we make decisions or whether our lives are ruled by inevitability offers much profitable fun to thinkers over the centuries. The point, of course is, that language has come about and is used on the supposition that we have free will. It simply does not work in other circumstances.
2. That for every sphere of human activity - eating, sleeping, doing sums, whistling - there are specialists.
3. Philosophers must thus recognize that they are not alone but rather specialists in one human activity. The tasks, therefore, include:
3.1 Analysing the motivations of those unfortunate enough in having to lead us. What is it that politicians, religious leaders are trying to accomplish? (c.f. Nietzsche/Foucault : 'Not only is there misunderstanding there is also a hidden agenda - the goal of power'.
3.2 Producing alternative answers. Yesterday’s extremists (abolition of slavery, putting children to death, education for all ) produced policies now commonplace and generally accepted.
3.3 Paradoxically creating an element of stability - not over a period of months or years but from decade to decade. Placing problems in their perspectives, reminding other what happened in the last decade of the last century or the last millennium.
3.4 Analysing and evaluating starting points. E.g. arithmetic a/m on '0' and '1'. What is good for society.
3.5 Showing that emotive language is just that. (It is disgusting means I am disgusted).
3.6 Diverting attention away from those who are narrowly minded and enthuse over personal prejudices whilst maintaining a modus vivendi, a way of living in society.
3.7 And clearing up muddle and confusion which exists in argument and thought.
The Good Life
Given that Good does not have a universal meaning what is the Good Life?
Although this seems to be a realistic question it is quite unanswerable unless parameters are made about the word good. How long is a piece of string?
If it is claimed that all green men should be eradicated it would be right to train youth into methods of exterminating the green folk and those who did so successfully would undoubtedly claim to be living the 'good' life. In medieval Britain infant children were often mutilated and had their limbs broken by their parents. As they grew up they would thus make better beggars. Doubtless their mums and dads felt that they were doing their best for their progeny and giving them a 'good' start in life.
There has long been a movement to suggest that all ethical terms can, in the end be reduced to the word 'good'. (Thus it is wrong to steal i.e. it is not 'good' that theft can be tolerated). In the 19th century G.E. Moore held that 'good' cannot be defined. One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so. But surely if the word 'good' is indefinable then all the words leading up to it cannot be defined either. Obviously I would endorse such a statement.
One answer is to take the accumulated wisdom of mankind favouring for example those who keep promises, are charitable to the less fortunate. Our attitudes are reflected by the 'pro' words we use. 'Pro' and 'con' words were investigated by Nowell-Smith (Ethics 1954) illustrating general attitudes. (Sentences containing pro and con-words provide good, that is to say logically complete explanation of choice) Thus two newspapers in two countries might report: Journalists Murdered by Terrorists OR Spies Executed by Freedom Fighters - both reporting the same incident. As always with generally accepted wisdom there are difficulties in the specifics; (keeping promises to a murderer, stealing enemy secrets) which in certain circumstances damn the proposal.
Undoubtedly the question of good is the key question for future philosophy - as it has been for as long as people have been able to speak. The key, however is that there is no answer. It is not an answerable question - rather of the order why do you want to climb Everest.
The pragmatic approach of Russell and others - keeping a roof over one's head, having enough to eat, or the medieval answer of the complete well-balanced man, or the Greeks - nothing too much - is going to be as far as we can get.
SHOULD AND OUGHT
The words should and ought exist (or indeed any other word), and because they exist it is generally reckoned they must mean something. Millions of words have been expended over the centuries discussing what this meaning is. But as with space existence of a sound does not imply absolute meaning. The sounds should and ought have use. Generally speaking they are understood in the situations in which they are used and analysis is not necessary. The use on the whole can be translated as 'it is recommended' although this is obviously tautologous. We must be aware of other uses one of which is 'I do not recommend it'. Take the statement 'It is in your best interests to… (and therefore you ought)… often means I do not have time or inclination to deal with your problem and therefore you must take it elsewhere'. To undertake any analysis is usually unnecessary and in philosophy generally misleading. We can often ignore discussion on what X means when he uses the word ought. The question is how is it received. And what action results. We can, of course, debate the variables but there is no arbiter who can decide with authority.
In each of these examples the word 'should' sounds as if it means the same but, again as with space, it does not have the same value.
How should we live……what kind of life should we follow? Should we give to a particular charity? Should we take time off work when suffering from some minor ailment?
On occasion passing motorists outside my home ask for directions to Aberystwyth. (Pronounced Aberystwyth). Take in a quick stock of the driver I explain perhaps to a family going on holiday the simplest route. It is slightly further to travel than a second option intended for someone with a little local knowledge and a map by his side. There is one further route for perhaps a couple in a sports car who would like a scenic drive. (If the occupant is a philosopher I might well suggest that he should not start from here.) All these answers are correct according to the situation. They are all 'true'. The recommendation of the route that 'ought' to be taken is valid.
(For the sake of completeness we should remind ourselves that David Hume pointed out that IS does not imply OUGHT.)
In my earlier days in Further Education in discussing decision making I attempted to show that money could not be the measure of all hings. On this there is little disagreement. How can one value a nature reserve, for example, when a new motorway is planned ? The tendency might be to regard the nature reserve as having nil value on the grounds that it is inestimable. Or how does one value one's right arm ? It is rumoured that healthy folk in poorer nations sell one of their healthy kidneys for transplant purposes. The Americans and their lawyers sue for astronomical sums when there is any kind of injury. Cost-benefit thus cannot apply in many aspects of decision making.
One method of assisting making a decision entails the decision maker using numbers instead of monetary units.
When there are two or more competing outcomes the factors or reasons for coming to a decision are identified. Some factors are more important than others and they are therefore placed on a numerical scale of importance.
Thus shall we go for a holiday in the Mediterranean or to Blackpool ?
1. Identify the factors:
Factors for the family concerned might be identified during discussion as:
Cost | Weather | Convenience
2. Weight the factors:
Create a scale, perhaps 1 - 10 (where 10 is the most important). Here they all like hot weather and this is rated as 10. Convenience is 5.
Apply the factors in each case - again choose a scale, perhaps 1 -20
For the Mediterranean the cost is highest - 20, Weather is guaranteed 20, Convenience 2
For Blackpool : Cost 5, Weather 2, Convenience 18
Multiply the factor weighting against the applications and add them up:
Factor Weighting Mediterranean Blackpool
Cost 1 20 x 1 = 20 5 x 1 = 5
Weather 10 20 x 10 = 200 10 x 2 = 20
Convenience 5 2 x 5 = 10 18 x 5 = 90
TOTALS 230 115
The Mediterranean thus wins hands down.
Of course this is extremely simplified. What does convenience mean? Travel times, quality of accommodation, food, they could all be broken down and given values and tabulated. Undoubtedly for most of us cost is the dominant factor and would be given a much higher rating. Other factors can be included - educational experience for the children, one family member is terrified of flying, some pop star is appearing in Blackpool. It could be extended with further options - Disneyland, Timbuktu.
It is possible, of course, to adapt this for much superior problems. Should some politician advocate a policy to decriminalize drugs? The arguments are well rehearsed but the chief factor in his case might well be would such a policy help me get re-elected or would it be political suicide?
You are invited to try a simple sample for yourself to get the idea. Many of my students did so with great imagination and flair. And undoubtedly when faced with a decision this method is of great assistance in analysing what is important to the decision maker.
The Trouble is it Never Works
I am never quite clear why this should be the case. Undoubtedly part of the answer must be that there is often an overriding consideration to which we cannot give proper weighting or to which we decline to give proper weighting publicly. But it is also something to do with the fact that our words do not adequately reflect our inclinations, motivations or 'the world outside us'. The game has only limited use. Similarly the traditional formal logic (All men are liars, Socrates is a man and therefore Socrates is a liar) has provided material for books and lectures and probably debates but has never had any practical use. The modern symbolic logic with its truth tables may help in solving mechanical problems as in electronics, but does not solve problems of everyday life nor those of international significance. We have a thousand books on 'Ethics' but rarely are we any the wiser when making decisions as to whether we should go to war.....or simply put the cat out. It might help to explain why societies outlined on paper never seem to work in practice. Christianity has never really been tried but attempts to do so by living a solitary or reclusive life or by retiring to monasteries or friaries or nunneries often seem to have little value. Even in those institutions we have the problems of status and power . denied in the book (until one ascends into 'glory'). On paper Marx's socialism is wondrous; in practice it caused misery for millions. And then there is the problem of distance. For most people family, friends, community, state have precedence in that order. But... we discover outside the building in which you are now sitting a destitute child who was losing her sight. The condition could be cured by the expenditure of a hundred pounds (or dollars, or yen or euros, it does not matter). Each of us would move all in our power to raise the necessary cash. And yet... there are a thousand, ten thousand children in such a condition but they happen to live in a country far away.
On the construction of a motorway, for example, it might be that we offer all kinds of real and logical reasons why it should not be constructed but the real one is that it is too near our own property or that of friends of ours. (Or indeed that money has been offered to gain our support). Additionally we must remember that we use language not only to convey information and emotions but also to conceal them as is referred to earlier.
A current debate here is Wales is about the positioning of wind farms. Some argue that these environmentally friendly sources of power will destroy landscapes. Why cannot they be put fifty miles away - out at sea? The answer is that such positioning would cost too much. What value do we put on the pleasantness of the countryside? Is the extra cost involved less or greater than this value?
It also demonstrates that the complete and absolute dependence on words is full of pitfalls. Words are not all we've got. There are other means of communication....which often yield more productive and useful outcomes.
Philosophy and Rhubarb was:
Originally published online in August 2002,
Redesigned in January 2003
Added permanently to SkillsYouNeed in January 2012
"I know very little about philosophy and indeed nothing I have written is original."
Peter Allison (1935 - 2004)