On Overthinking While Watching Fox News

I don’t know if I’m a feminist.

I hear a lot of women these days say that they’re not. Some people say that’s because most young women these days don’t know what a feminist is.

I like to think I do.

Even though I believe that women are intellectually, emotionally, and often physically equal to men and that women shouldn’t be judged strictly on their perceived aesthetic worth; even though Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexuality”, I still hesitate to say that I‘m a feminist.

The philosopher Georg Hegel argued that women’s minds are not equipped to handle the “higher sciences” or philosophy, and wrote, “The difference between man and woman is as between animal and plant.”

I certainly do not agree with that.

I think I agree with the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said “It takes more than just a good looking body. You’ve got to have the heart and soul to go with it.

Maybe my hesitation has something to do with the fact that when someone says the word feminist, one’s mind immediately conjures up an image like this:

I’d like to think that most intellectually or philosophically inclined people (or at least people who think every once in awhile) are beyond thinking that women are only valuable as long as they look good and don’t speak. With all that higher thinking, you’d think that people who think would appreciate a person for their minds more than for their bodies.

I’d like to think smart people would be sapiosexuals.

Unfortunately, in the real world this is not the case.

This is Ken Jennings. He won 74 consecutive games on Jeopardy! If sapiosexuals ran the world this man would be People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Definition alert: Urban Dictionary defines sapiosexuality as: To become attracted to or sexually aroused by intelligence and its use.

Even among so-called “enlightened” types there is still the urge to conform to a societal approved standard of beauty. Spend a few hours watching cable news (this is what smart people watch instead of The Bad Girls’ Club) and you’ll see what I’m talking (or rather writing) about. Just look at the women moderating the intellectual debate. Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly, Courtney Friel, and Heather Childers weren’t hired because they look smart or even for their ability to engage in intellectual discourse they were hired because they’re blond babes who just happen to deliver your daily dose of things (i.e. news) you’re supposed to think about. Sure, these women can tell us all about the War on Terror, the debt ceiling, transvaginal probes or the latest suicide bombing in Afghanistan, but it’s easier to devote time to serious contemplation when the topics of intellectual discourse comes from someone who is valued purely for her aesthetic worth.

It’s not just that the anchors are basified; the so-called smart guests are also held to the same standard. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Judith Butler discuss feminism (or any other philosophical topic, for that matter) on a talk show. Not only is there is a lack of unconventionally attractive feminine intellectuals, there’s no lack of name-calling, even among so-called smart people. And attacks on public intellectuals, particularly if the person is female, inevitably devolve to critiques on physical appearance. Feminists and other female intellectuals are often depicted as raging, loud-mouthed, shrewish, man-hating, “feminazis”, and that the only purpose of feminism, as Right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh says, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” (here’s the link. Check it out for yourself: http://mediamatters.org/video/2005/08/16/the-truth-according-to-limbaugh-feminism-establ/133652) Even on the Left, you know, those folks who claim they’re smarter and more intellectually inclined than their Right-wing counterparts, non-fans of Fox News regular Ann Coulter, although she is not an unattractive woman, often deride Coulter, not only for her opinions, but for having a (perceived) masculine appearance. She’s often accused of being transgendered. Some of Ann’s non-fans call her “Man” Coulter.

I think you can see what all the fuss is about.

There is even a Facebook page called “Ann Coulter’s Adam’s Apple”.

Ok, I know. You’re saying Ann Coulter is not a public intellectual. Sorry to bust your bubble, you filthy liberal. The days of Bertrand Russell appearing on the Mike Douglas Show or Buckminster Fuller chatting it up with Dick Cavett are over. These days, Ms. Coulter is about as public intellectual as you can get or rather, will get.

And, let’s be honest, Rachel Maddow also has a pretty noticeable Adam’s apple.

Now, really. Is Rachel Maddow’s Adam’s apple that much smaller than Ann Coulter’s?

Of course, a woman’s aesthetic worth goes both ways: if a woman is valuable only for her physical appearance, even if she’s on Fox News, she’s not taken seriously. If she isn’t good looking she isn’t asked to talk at all.

Unless she’s on PBS. That’s where the really smart people go.

This explains why people laughed when Kim Kardashian was depicted reading a quantum physics book in a California tourism ad.

Pretty funny picture, huh?

I guess there’s a reason why I watching Fox News got me thinking about looks and stuff… and it’s not because I’m one of those dreadful feminazis Rush Limbaugh enjoys railing about on his radio show. It’s because as a philosopher, I want and I think we all deserve substance over style. If a woman’s opinion isn’t valued because she does or does not conform to a particular aesthetic standard, regardless of which side of the political aisle a woman sits, we’re doing ourselves an intellectual and (ultimately) a philosophical disservice.

When we don’t hear from those who have knowledge and wisdom to share with us, we don’t learn anything.

That might just be what feminism is all about.

Oh, look! The soapbox I’ve been standing on says “feminist” on the side.

I guess this feminist will step down now.

SOURCES:

1.  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sapiosexual

2. http://mediamatters.org/video/2005/08/16/the-truth-according-to-limbaugh-feminism-establ/133652

Same-sex Chickens

If you ask me, I think people are entirely too focused on sex.

Philosophers are no exception. There’s an entire field of philosophy devoted to the study of human sexuality: it’s called philosophy of sexuality.  Philosophers of sexuality explore topics such as contraception, celibacy, marriage, adultery, casual sex, prostitution, homosexuality, masturbation, rape, sexual harassment, sadomasochism, pornography, bestiality, and pedophilia.

That’s quite a list.

Studying sexuality, philosophically or otherwise, wouldn’t be such a bad idea if not for the fact that people seem to be obsessed not with their own sex lives, but with what other people do behind closed doors.

… especially if the people those people are having sex with are the same sex.

Culturally speaking, we’re kind of hung up on homosexuals and homosexuality.

That could be because when some people think about gay people, they think of people like this:


Instead of this:


Just watch an episode of the 700 Club. You’d be smashed if you took a shot of tequila every time someone says the words “gay agenda”.

Pat Robertson wants you to buy a shitty chicken sandwich and waffle fries to prove you aren’t a part of the gay agenda

Although the term ‘homosexuality’ is fairly new (it was coined in the 19th century German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert), philosophers have written about the subject of sexuality and homosexuality since the ancient Greek philosophers, in works such as Plato’s Symposium and Plutarch’s Erotikos. In Plutarch’s work, “the noble lover of beauty engages in love” without regard for the gender of the lover of and the object of beauty. Contemporary philosophers have also participated in the discussion, adding to theories on human sexuality, including queer theory.

Every philosophy student knows that Plato was gay. But Plato wasn’t (or isn’t) the only well-known gay (or lesbian) philosopher. Sir Francis Bacon, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Claudia Card, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, are well-known gay (or lesbian) philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Erasmus, Zeno of Elea, Niccolo Machiavelli, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Arthur Schopenhauer, George Santayana, Simone de Beauvoir, and Henry David Thoreau are all suspected of being  gay or lesbian). It’s strange, given that gay and lesbian philosophers have been a part of philosophical thought, that philosophy hasn’t always been so gay friendly.

….Not that this is shocking, considering how the rest of the world and all of history has thought of homosexuality.

Historically, individuals accused of being gay or lesbian were regarded as socially dangerous and disruptive to the natural order. Religious and civil leaders thought homosexuality was so dangerous that sexual contact between individuals of the same gender was a crime punishable by death (or at the very least arrest and/or public humiliation).

I know I am using the word “was”. But I am well aware that in many parts of the world homosexuality (or even suspected homosexuality) is a crime punishable by torture, imprisonment, or death. Of course, when we make the claim that homosexuality is dangerous, we are assigning a moral judgment on a particular or general (set of) sexual act(s).

The judgment is that the act is either immoral, unnatural, or both.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the biblical view on sex, sexual acts other than acts done for the purpose of procreation were not only immoral, but also unnatural, for any sexual act that did not result in procreation was an act done against the will of God.  Sex, according to Aquinas (and religion in general) is strictly male/female done only for the purpose of reproduction. One need only to look to the natural world for confirmation of naturalness of heterosexuality and the unnaturalness of homosexuality.

And since God made nature, obviously God intended to make all reproductive sex between male and female.

Aquinas says you can have all the gay sex you want… if this is how you want to spend eternity

This is totally off the topic, but the “look at what other animals do” was also used to justify treating women like inferior beings, owning slaves, and dominating other people in general.

Although Aquinas, St. Augustine (and theologians in general) argue that homosexual relations are immoral and every homosexual is doomed to an eternity of hellfire, ancient philosophers held a different point of view. In ancient Greece, homosexual acts between individuals were not only common but same-sex relations were immoral, only if the sex was between individuals of equal social stature. Citizens of ancient Greece were allowed to engage in homosexual activity, but only if one of the participants was in no danger of losing respect.

You see, the Greeks believed that in a sexual act, one person is dominant while the other is passive. To be passive would be to equate one’s self with the status of a woman, child, or slave.

The funny thing is, after the ancient Greeks, philosophers are pretty mum on the matter.

Well, not all of them.

Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand not only considered homosexuality immoral, but also wrote in her book The New Left  (1971), that homosexuals “hideous” and wanted “special privileges” from the government (a charge Rand made against the poor as well), but that  homosexuality, which Rand regarded as contradictory to natural sex roles, was

…so repulsive a set of premises from so loathsome a sense of life that an accurate commentary would require the kind of language I do not like to see in print.

BTW:  The prevailing philosophical view on sex tends to focus on the morality of sexuality and sex acts in general rather than specific views on heterosexuality or homosexuality. For instance, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant states that sexual desire is immoral in that sexual lust inevitably leads individuals to engage in all sorts of moral naughtiness. Moral naughtiness, including consensual sex between adults, Kant argues, is disruptive to civilization. According to Kant, sex is okay only if we do not violate the Categorical Imperative. Kant writes:

The sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desires depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole – over the welfare and happiness and generally over all the circumstances of that person…each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right to disposal over it.

One can only suspect that Kant would find homosexual sex extremely dangerous.

Of course the argument that homosexuality is morally (or even physically) harmful to society was made before modern science demonstrated that homosexual behavior is common not only among humans, but in many animal species as well.

Evolutionary biologists theorize that homosexuality in humans is the result of mutually beneficial behavior; that engaging in non-procreative sexual behavior contributes to the overall stability, cohesion, and well-being of society (homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, may serve to enforce social bonds between individuals). Likewise, contemporary philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Michel Foucault (whose theory of postsexualism aimed to go beyond the assigned sexual boundaries in our culture), argued that our moral apprehensions with any sexuality were due to fear rather than an actual societal threat. Bertrand Russell writes:

Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned…  Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

Still… as a philosopher, I’d like to think that Bertrand Russell has the power to convince each of us that there’s absolutely nothing to fear when a couple of guys (or ladies) choose to have sex. But, I know no matter how well argued any philosopher puts his argument, we won’t be getting over our obsession with the gay agenda anytime soon.


You may now take a shot.

Why Sophism?

If you ask anyone who pays attention to such things, what a sophist is,  they’ll tell you that a sophist is someone who uses misleading and fallacious arguments to persuade and deceive people. But that’s not always what sophism meant.

According to the ancients, sophism, or rather sophists, were men who were trained in the art of philosophy and rhetoric who were paid to teach young men the art of arguing sophistically.

It seems that the practice of taking money to teach people to be better thinkers upset philosophers like Plato and Xenophon.

Because they gave their knowledge away for free.

In Plato’s Republic, the sophist Thrasymachus is the bad guy.

The philosopher, who is the lover of wisdom, is the good guy.

and he always gets the girl in the end.

Nowadays, there aren’t very many folks out there standing in the public square sharing free philosopher lessons for anyone who is interested. At least not where I live, anyway. If you want to learn to think philosophically these days, you have to get yourself enrolled at a university.

Where they make you pay to learn to think philosophically.

So, if I had to pay someone to learn to think philosophically, does that mean that I am a sophist?

…. Or at least my professors were, right?

Oh well. while I figure out my new philosophical dilemma, enjoy this. it’s Monty Python.

 

We Do Not Kill the Living… Except… : On the Shifting Morality of Rick Grimes on AMC’s The Walking Dead

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m obsessed with a fan of The Walking Dead.

Actually, I’m pretty much a fan of anything to do with zombies (one notable exception being George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Sorry. I love Romero’s movies but that one was just awful). So, if you want to invite me over for dinner and a movie, you’d better be sure that the movie has something to do with reanimated corpses and flesh eating.

Any fan or even non-fan of the show knows there’s a great deal of ballyhoo over AMC’s unlikely hit chronicling a small band of zombie plague survivors as they fight for survival amid the zombie apocalypse (aka ZA), and that the series has become the highest rated basic cable television show in TV history. And as sure as Trioxin 245 re-animates dead flesh, the show’s popularity has incited what can only be described as “haters”. If you think about it, it’s fairly easy to deride  a TV show that not only is based on the ridiculous premise of society being overrun by flesh eating revenants, but also plays out less like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and more like an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. However, for reasons that even the most enthusiastic The Walking Dead fan can’t quite explain, millions of television viewers tune in every week to see the high drama (and maybe a zombie kill or two), post-apocalyptic world of former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and his fellow ZA survivors.

Ok, there’s a good reason to think of The Walking Dead as nothing more than soap operatic or as a mere B-movie zombie flick delivered in weekly installments, but those who are philosophically inclined might have noticed amid the 3-way love triangles and Carl Grimes’ incessant annoyingness, something afoot going on  namely, that hidden within the throngs of shambling draugurs, The Walking Dead also gives its fans something philosophical to chew on.

One of those things is the shifting morality of former deputy sheriff Rick Grimes.

When we’re introduced to Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), a deputy sheriff from BFE, Georgia, in the series’ debut episode “Days Gone Bye”, Rick is initially presented as an honest, hard-working, small-town sheriff who sternly reminds a fellow (albeit inept) deputy to make sure the safety of his gun is off before getting shot by a fleeing robbery suspect. When we see Rick Grimes we should be thinking this:

This is Sheriff Andy Taylor as played by Andy Griffith on “The Andy Griffith show”.

Even though we’ve seen Rick on screen for barely five minutes, when his is shot and slips into a coma, we worry about him. We want him to make it through ok. When Rick awakens from his coma (after an unspecified amount of time) to find the world has been overrun by the living dead, we know that he will survive

Because after all, he is Rick Grimes.

As viewers, we like Rick Grimes. We like Rick because despite the fact that he has no idea what is happening around him, Rick  slips into badass mode and quickly assumes the role of the hero. Rick (barely fully recovered from emerging from a coma, mind you) helps Morgan Jones and his son Duane find a hot shower and load up on guns at the abandoned sheriff’s office. Next, Rick helps a group of survivors escape a department store in Atlanta, and even attempts to return back to the city to rescue a member of the group (the abrasive, sexist, homophobic, and racist Merle Dixon) who is chained to a pipe on the store’s roof and left behind. Although members of the group argue that Merle is not worth saving, Rick feels that it is his duty to return to the city to get Merle. Rick tells the others that no living being deserves to be chained to a roof and left to die. Rick’s absolutist morality dictates that he is obligated to save Merle Dixon, even if it means that his own life is on the line; even if he dies in the attempt, Rick feels that he must fulfill his duty to others despite the consequences.

At this point, Rick’s morality is deontological. That is, Rick Grimes is following the moral principles of Deontological Ethics. Deontological ethics, most notably associated with the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), is the ethical theory that holds that the morality of an action is judged according to one’s adherence to universally binding rules, duties or obligations to oneself and others. For the deontologist, the consequences of an act do not matter as much as the intentions behind an act. Kant wrote:

Do what is right, though the world may perish

Rick’s uniform symbolizes law and order; an absolutist (deontological) morality. And it is clear that Rick, who sports his sheriffs’ uniform well into season 2*, is strongly rooted in a clear sense of right and wrong. He does what is right despite the fact that the world has ended. Rick’s strong and unwavering sense of right and wrong suggests that according to Rick’s Kantian ethics, neglecting his duty to save others is morally wrong even if the person he‘s saving is a morally reprehensible sexist, racist, homophobe.

Kant states that we act from a good will when we follow the Categorical Imperative. The categorical imperative consists of two primary formulations:

Formulation One: Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.

Formulation Two: Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Rick sees Merle as an end in himself, a person who, despite his flaws, deserves to be treated in a humane way.

We know that Rick Grimes is not only a man who acts in an ethically correct manner, he’s a Good  (capital G) man. Rick believes that it is wrong to leave Merle Dixon chained and abandoned on a rooftop. When Rick tells his wife Lori about the generous acts of Morgan Jones and his son Duane, he explains to her that he is obligated to repay their act of generosity through doing good for others. And when a fellow survivor (Jim) is bitten by a zombie, Rick clearly lays down a deontologically-inspired universal edict when he tells the others who want to kill Jim before he dies and turns into one of the undead, “we do not kill the living!”

It’s worth noting Rick says it while holding a gun to a man’s head.

And even when Rick is re-killing the dead, he does so with a sense of compassion.

Rick Grimes is such a good guy, he apologizes to this zombie before he shoots her in the head.

From all appearances, Rick Grimes is a zombie slaying, Kantian badass but there’s a problem he doesn’t stay that way.

…it all has something to do with a guy named Shane Walsh.

Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal), Rick’s former partner and wife stealer best friend, operates by a different set of ethics. Although Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh are partners in upholding the law as sworn sheriff’s deputies, it’s clear that their moral compasses are pointed in different directions. Unlike Rick, whose morality is deeply rooted in deontological obligations and duty, Shane’s morality rests on a different standard of right and wrong: consequences. Shane’s morality does not ask what is my moral obligation to others. But instead Shane’s morality asks, what do I have to do to stay alive?  And more often than not, the answer to Shane’s moral question is whatever it takes, by any means necessary. Shane’s ethics are pragmatic; in that Shane, as pragmatic philosophers suggest, determines what actions are morally correct based on whether an action works.

So, when Shane beats the ever-loving crap out of Ed Peletier, the abusive husband of Carol Peletier (while threatening to beat Ed to death, even though Ed posed no danger to Shane), Shane justifies his actions by believing that beating Ed contributes to group cohesion. When Shane breaks the lock on Hershel’s barn and re-kills all the zombies inside, he is doing it, not to crush Hershel’s hope of finding a zombie cure, but to save the group from danger. When Shane shoots Otis, repeatedly challenges Rick’s authority and leadership abilities, breaks the prisoner Randall’s neck, or even justifies his adulterous relationship with Rick’s wife Lori, Shane reasons, although he might not have done the popular thing (aka right thing to do), that his actions were ultimately justified in that what he did produced positive results.*

Shane Walsh solves his moral dilemmas like this:

… and like this

… and like this

… and like this

… and like this

* I suppose it can be argued that Shane Walsh’s ethics are not so much pragmatic as he is an act utilitarian. Either theory works.

Although Rick initially rejects Shane’s necessary evil in an evil world-based morality. Rick’s deontological ethical standpoint does not hold up for long (at least not past season 2). Rick Grimes is forced to kill Shane after Shane plots to kill Rick in an attempt to steal Lori and Carl from his former partner.

Shane eventually ends up like this:

I’m thinking Shane was really regretting trying to kill Rick.

Although by killing Shane, Rick is free to resume his deontological ethical ways, he does not. Instead of sticking to his Kantian guns, Rick assumes Shane’s pragmatic/act utilitarian ethical view. Rick’s new morality, which is pragmatic at best (ambiguous at worst) reflects the new world A world without distinctions. A world of contradictions, where beings are alive and dead and one must do whatever it takes to survive.

When Rick puts away his badge at Hershel’s farm, it signals that Rick has abandoned his absolutist morality. And by mid-second season, Rick violates his universal declaration that we do not kill the living when he shoots and kills two living men in a bar (by season 3, Rick’s kill count is up to five). When Rick kills Shane, we not only realize that Rick has put aside his own morality, but we realize that the kind of absolutist morality of Immanuel Kant belongs in the old world where absolutes like good and bad, right and wrong, and living and dead exist. In a world filled with the undead, absolutes no longer apply.

By the end of season 2, Rick Grimes is a morally changed man. He is no longer willing to adhere to the rules of the former world. Rick will do whatever it takes and by any means necessary to survive, even if doing so means that he has to (intentionally) hurt others to do so.

As The Walking Dead continues, we will see how the shifting morality of Rick Grimes plays out. Rick’s group of survivors has yet to encounter morally challenged Governor of Woodbury. And Rick’s mental breakdown following the death of his wife most assuredly will affect his moral position in future episodes. Although we’re only halfway through season 3, I have the feeling that in the future, Rick Grimes is going to be solving most of his problems like this:

SOURCES:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics

Kant Totally Allows Shameless Plugs

Some time ago, I wrote a book.

No, I’m not kidding. I wrote a book. With pages…. and words.

I think it’s quite dandy.

Did I forget to mention that it’s called Mindless Philosopher: How Philosophy Taught Me Everything I Needed To Know About Popular Culture, and that it’s available on Amazon?

this is the cover of my book… just in case you feel like buying it.

Like I said, I think it’s pretty dandy.

I wrote my book with all the best intentions; namely, people would read it and become philosophically enlightened. So far, that hasn’t exactly happened.

BUT then again, Nietzsche wasn’t popular until after he was dead.

Of syphilis.

Anyway, in the spirit of shameless self promotion, I’ve decided to post the introduction of my book here.

Enjoy. It’s pretty dandy.

INTRODUCTION:

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)

I know I shouldn’t say this, but I dislike Aristotle. Honest. I know that philosophers are supposed to get all hyped up and saucer-eyed over the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Heraclitus, Thales, and whatnot, but given my druthers; I’d rather watch an all-day marathon of season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race or thumb through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or read the suitable-for-bathroom-reading of Deep Thoughts by Saturday Night Live resident sage, Jack Handey, or even re-read The Secret than to hear another lecture about Plato’s Beard.

I admit it. I am a philosopher.

I hate Aristotle.

Ok, maybe the word hate is a little extreme. When I was a kid, I was told never to use the word hate if I really didn’t mean it. I don’t actually hate Aristotle, as I have never met the guy, it’s just that whenever I’m reading philosophy, I’d rather be reading or looking at or doing something else.

No. It’s not even that I’d rather be reading, looking at, or doing something else. I like philosophy. I do. I’d truly like to believe that the practice of philosophy is the world’s second oldest profession (we know someone had to be around to conjure up some theory about the oldest profession). I’ve always liked philosophy, even before I’d ever heard of Aristotle or Socrates or Saul Kripke. Do you know those old TV shows where the host asks a bunch of little kids what they want to be when they grow up? Remember how some little kids know exactly what they want to do? When these kids grow up, they’ll tell you that they always knew that they’d grow up to be a doctor, a high school phys ed. coach, or an astronaut. Some people like priests and nuns even say that they were called to do the Lord’s work. Folks like that are lucky. When I think about my relationship with philosophy, if someone had asked me when I was eight years old what I wanted to be when I grew up (and I had an inkling of what philosophy is), I would have said that I wanted to spend my time thinking. I might have not have known the word “philosopher” when I was eight years old, but I certainly knew that I liked thinking about stuff. I guess I’m lucky that way.

Now, if I thought about how or why I found myself drawn to the systematic study of knowledge, morality, and existence, looking back, I suppose I’d have to say that it had something to do with jokes about Ludwig Wittgenstein and being a latchkey kid.

*     *     *     *

     I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, perhaps too much time alone. My mom worked evenings and my older siblings, who were much older than me, weren’t interested in hanging out with a kid still in elementary school, so instead of coming home to mom and a plate of warm peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, I came home to a cupboard full of Fruit Roll-Ups, an occasional squeeze pack of Capri Sun, and the comfort of a warm, glowing TV set. Now that we’ve grown older, many of my fellow latchkey kids have bemoaned their lonely childhood after school experiences, but from my own childhood experience, spending so much time alone after school meant that I had plenty of time to amuse myself with my own thoughts. In those hours spent alone staring at the television set, I discovered that I enjoyed thinking. I enjoyed thinking about anything and everything. My love of thinking was surpassed only by how much I enjoyed watching TV.

I’m not that old (I’m in my thirties. There. I said it), but I’m old enough to remember when MTV aired music videos 24-hours a day (I could lay down some anti-MTV rant about how the network formerly known as Music Television used to show actual music videos and now MTV is nothing but a reality TV show cesspool, but that rant has been overdone. Honestly, Bully Beatdown is more entertaining than any Adam Ant music video ever was or could ever hope to be), and I remember the big stink among music video fans when MTV added non-music video programming to its weekday line up. Those folks who complained about MTV’s non-music video programming way back when can claim they were soothsayers, and that their hubbub over non-music video TV shows on MTV fell on the same deaf ears like Cassandra warning the Trojans of their impending defeat at the hands of the Spartan army. They would be well within their rights to say so. But as every dark cloud has a silver lining, for me, the end of music television on music television shone one ray of sunshine: my philosophical awakening through watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Thank God for cable television.

There are many firsts, no matter how much time has passed, that we will always remember: first kiss, first love, first non-all ages concert, first DUI… the first times that shape our lives and who we are. Every Monty Python fan remembers exactly which movie or sketch, where they were, and what they were doing when they experienced their first encounter with Monty Python‘s Flying Circus. When I watched my first episode, I knew that I thought the show was funny, but it was funny in a way unlike any other television show I’d ever seen. Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t just funny, like Full House and Family Matters were funny; it was smart. The show seemed almost tailor-made for people who spent a lot of time entertained by their own thoughts. The day after my first episode I asked my friends of they had seen the incredible television that I had witnessed the day before. None had. When I tried to tell them what I saw, they were disinterested in hearing about what I’d seen. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited by re-enactment of the “Cheese Shop” sketch (my Michael Palin impersonation was spot on). I absolutely could not believe that my friends were unaware of, and worse yet uninterested in Monty Python.

I had discovered this wonderful thing and none of my fellow latchkey kids gave a damn about it.

I knew that my friends, even if they emphatically told me that they “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about Monty Python’s Flying Circus,had to know that they were missing out on something pretty special. They had to have seen that I had experienced the miracle of Python and I needed to share it with others. I was determined that my friends experience Monty Python. I sang “The Lumberjack Song” while hanging out with my friends after school, recite lines from the “Dead Parrot” sketch in the middle of English class, or attempt to explain to my dumbfounded and irritated friends why “Fish Slapping Dance” is so funny during lunch period. I would randomly yell “albatross!” and “my brain hurts” in public places. Nobody understood me. Nobody wanted to understand me. I felt alone. I reluctantly realized that Monty Python was the least popular thing I’ve ever encountered. Sharing it with my friends was hopeless. They would never be converted. Eventually I gave up.

For some time I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I was completely in love with a TV show that no one else I knew cared about or wanted to see. In their eyes, Monty Python was British humor. They said it wasn’t funny. They told me the only people who were nerdier than Monty Python fans was people who like to think and I was both. So I hid my love of all things Python, stopped thinking so much, and learned to enjoy Jean-Claude van Damme movies just like everyone else. On the outside I appeared to be a perfectly normal person. I even learned to appreciate the Jean-Claude van Damme classics Bloodsport, Hard Target,and of course, Universal Soldier. Here’s the thing: I realize the reason why I became a Monty Python fan all those years ago was because there was something more to the humor than sketches with John Cleese yelling at the top of his lungs and jokes about Spam and naughty bits. I realize that it was then, during those afternoons spent alone after school, munching on Teddy Grahams, sipping on a can of Pepsi Clear that I first heard of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus didn’t just make me laugh, it made me think, and for the first time in my life I started to think about what I was thinking. I wanted to know more about the men whose names I heard as punch lines. I wanted to know more, period. The something more that I wanted to know was philosophy.

*     *     *     *

     I read somewhere that an anonymous sage said, “the only difference between graffiti and philosophy is the word ‘fuck’ ”. I’m not so sure if that’s true. I may be a little slow witted, but I really don’t see the connection between the “187” scrawled in large English Gothic letters on the wall of the liquor store down the street from my house and logical positivism. Everybody has an opinion about philosophy, I guess. Back when I was a very moody, impressionable teenager, the pre-grunge era alternative rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians song “What I Am” that suggested that philosophy can be found on a cereal box.

That might be true.

Although not everyone may consider themselves philosophers, everyone has a general attitude on life or a set of rules that we live by; what we might call our “philosophy”. Our individual philosophies not only encompass our values and beliefs about what’s important in our lives, but our philosophies also include questions about the meaning of life, reality, knowledge, and morality. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us haven’t spent hours gazing at our navels or sitting under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment about life’s big questions, but I doubt there is one person who has never questioned why we are here, what is the meaning of life, or what it means to be moral. The problem with philosophy is when we talk about philosophy (personal or in general), we often mistakenly assume that everyone defines “philosophy” the same way. As any professional philosopher will tell you, a clear and precise definition of the word “philosophy” doesn’t just pop out at you waving its arms and screaming, “Here I am. This is the real me. This is what philosophy is!” If we asked a hundred people what philosophy is we might get a hundred different answers. We know that the general idea of philosophy has to do with asking questions and looking for answers; but still, philosophers can’t exactly define what philosophy is. I think it’s safe to say that a roomful of philosophers will agree that the primary objective of philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, however, a consensus on one answer to one question (that question being “what is philosophy?”). Believe it or not, philosophers are people, too, and like most people, philosophers disagree about everything. Unfortunately for philosophers, who tend to prefer concise terminology, the definition of philosophy is ambiguous at best.

So then, what is philosophy?

Generally speaking, philosophy is divided among three main branches: epistemology, the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics.  Within the three main branches of philosophy we find diverse areas of study such as: philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, medical and business ethics, philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, and New Age philosophy. The point of philosophy isn’t merely ask questions (although that’s important), nor is philosophy merely descriptive. Philosophy tells us how to act. Philosophy teaches us to think clearly and critically, to think about what we are thinking. Philosophy means never stop looking, always seeking, always examine our lives. Philosophy provides us with the tools we use to answer life’s big questions.

Understanding what philosophy is, however, does not remove the reputation that philosophy has earned over the centuries — it’s too technical and abstract. It’s too academic. It’s a waste of time. The somewhat negative image of philosophy and of philosophers is often well deserved. Philosophy is often extremely technical, even for those who study philosophy. Let’s face it; philosophers are often guilty of missing the forest for the trees (any one who has attempted to engage a philosopher in the simple act of chit chat  may have discovered that philosophers are incapable of answering simple questions, especially if the answer is yes or no). But, as much as we’d like to leave the philosophers to associate amongst themselves in their hallowed halls of academia, their habit of using appallingly technical language and alienating nearly every other human being who engages them in conversation is no reason to throw out the philosopher with the bathwater. At least before we toss Aristotle out of the tub, we should have some idea of what a philosopher is.

*     *     *     *

    

Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity dare I say right to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.

Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.

The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are  professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.

It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.

It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.”   If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for  a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:

That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?

…. Or what we deserve?

If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.

Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive  (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive for the sake of the public good may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.

Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:

Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?

The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*

You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.

Maybe.

At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.

 

NOTES:

* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.

* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.

* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.

SOURCES:

Harry  G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15

Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c

Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.

Doubletapping Socrates: On How The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes IS the Philosopher-King

Halloween was a few days ago.

I had completely intended to write up few spooky-themed posts, but as nature has a way of making its own horror show, my plan was thwarted by an unusually strong bout of food poisoning.

I’m fine now.

But, had I been able to write before Halloween (instead of spending a week hovering over a… well, you know), this is what I would have posted:

For those who are unfamiliar with this image or the AMC Network television show The Walking Dead, this slightly rugged, gun-pointing fellow is Rick Grimes. Rick Grimes is a  sheriff’s deputy who awakes from a coma to find the world overrun by hordes (in the show they’re called “herds’) of flesh-eating zombies.

Rick played by the British actor Andrew Lincoln.

I mention this only because the show takes place in Georgia and Rick Grimes isn’t English.

I must say he fakes the accent rather well.

Anyway, the reason why Rick is such a big deal (besides the fact that he carries a gun) is because Rick is what we call a H-E-R-O. The famous writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes what a hero does as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

We like Rick because he is a hero. Rick is not only smart and capable, he is also loyal, not only to his wife Lori and son (the ever-annoying Carl), but to the other survivors who are looking to Rick’s abilities and leadership to guide them through the zombie apocalypse. Rick steps up to the plate when no one else is either willing or capable of doing so. It’s No doubt that, when zombie movie enthusiasts pick their fantasy zombie killing team, Rick Grimes is at the top of the list.

It’s a good enough reason to appreciate Rick Grimes for his action hero qualities, but there’s another reason why we should like Rick — moreover, there’s a reason why the philosophically inclined should like Rick Grimes — Rick Grimes is positively philosophic.

….at least that’s what I think after reading Plato’s Republic.

Most political philosophers will tell you that Plato’s Republic is the greatest and most influential political work ever written. Written around 380 BCE, Plato’s political treatise asks (and answers) the question “what is justice?”, but more importantly, Plato (through the character of Socrates) asks how does the state achieve justice?  Through the characters, Plato examines different ways of answering the question (what is justice). Through Socrates, Plato argues that the just state is one where the people value and are guided by reason and virtue. Socrates argues that when a person is acting in a virtuous manner, society (as a whole) benefits. Acting virtuously enhances the soul — and a good soul, according to Socrates, is the soul of a philosopher.* Socrates argues that we must be taught to obey the laws and to do good. When we are introduced to the character Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, we see that Rick is a police officer, the guardians and enforcers of the law (it is worth noting that, in Plato’s Republic, the just city also includes a class of guardians who are charged with keeping order in the city).

In fact, Rick’s coma-inducing injury (he’s shot) happens while Rick is attempting to apprehend suspects following a police chase.

Even after Rick awakens to find the world full of walking dead people (aka “walkers”, “geeks”, and “biters”), he does not abandon his sense of upholding the law. When Rick goes back to the police station to retrieve firearms, he puts on a clean police uniform, badge, and hat. We see that although though the world has gone to seed and lawlessness, Rick believes that the fact that civilization has disappeared does not give people the right to act uncivilized. He repeatedly cautions others to keep their heads and not to let their emotions dictate their actions. When the potentially threatening (and definitely shady) Randall must be dealt with, Rick tries to reason his way to the best solution for dealing with Randall, even though Rick’s best friend, former partner, and nemesis Shane Walsh wants to take Randall out back and snap the poor, doomed boy’s neck.

Speaking of Shane Walsh….

Just as ever hero has his nemesis, Rick Grimes has his. Rick’s is his former partner and wife Lori’s I-thought-my-husband-was-dead-so-I-started-banging-the-nearest-guy-with-dropped-trousers lover, the late and then late again, Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal). Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that action heroes are the only people out there with arch nemesis but that assumption is incorrect. Like Rick Grimes, Socrates also has an adversary. Socrates’ nemesis is named Thrasymachus.

This is what Thrasymachus looked like:

Socrates and Rick Grimes have the souls of philosophers. They believe that reason, controlled emotions, and a sense of justice should guide our actions. According to the philosopher, right and wrong are not matters of opinion or taste, but perpetual and universal standards to which everyone should be held.

This is the way that philosophers should think.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ theory of justice is challenged by the sophist Thrasymachus (see above). As a sophist, Thrasymachus believes that rhetoric and persuasion (not well-reasoned logical arguments) are the prefered method of argumentation. Thrasymachus, whose name (in Greek) means “rash fighter” is depicted as intemperate and arrogant. He lacks virtue and believes that might makes right. Thrasymachus attempts to win his argument with Socrates by force rather than by logic. Thrasymachus is willing to do anything, including personal attacks on Socrates, to win the argument. In a verbal confrontation with Socrates, when Thrasymachus feels that he cannot defeat the philosopher’s logic, he aims his attack not at Socrates’ argument, but at Socrates himself:

Thrasymachus: “Tell me Socrates, have you a nurse?”

Socrates: “Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather be answering?”

Thrasymachus: “Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose.”

In many ways Shane is like Thrasymachus. Shane is often guided more by his emotions than by reason. He believes (and more importantly acts like) might makes right. Shane never fails to remind Rick that his thinking man’s demeanor is unfit for a world filled with zombies and that Shane’s re-kill first, ask questions later philosophy is. Unlike Thrasymachus, who kept his attack of Socrates at the verbal level, the conflict between Rick Grimes’ Socratic and Shane’s Thrasymachean dispositions finally result in a physical confrontation between the two men.

Here are a few of Shane’s (other) Thrasymachean qualities:

  • When fellow survivor Carol Pelletier’s husband, Ed Pelletier, slaps his wife, Shane promptly beats Ed senseless (while telling Ed that he is going to beat him to death, no less).
  • When Lori tells Shane that their relationship is permanently over, Shane attempts to force himself on her.
  • While in the woods looking for “walkers” Shane aims his gun at Rick (however, it’s not clear whether Shane intended to shoot Rick or not).
  • Shane repeatedly engages in ad hominem (personal) attacks on Rick and his leadership style (but often has to admit that Rick makes the right decision).
  • Shane believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the one to protect Rick’s wife and son (and unborn baby that may or may not be his).
  • When Randall is captured and brought back to the survivors’ farm, unlike Rick, who wants to reason his way to a proper punishment, Shane immediately concludes that the right and only choice is to kill Randall. Shane is so convinced that he’s right that when the group leaves Randall without supervision, Shane takes Randall out into the woods and kills him.
  • And, in an attempt to wrest the leadership of the group from Rick, Shane tricks Rick into looking for an escaped Randall with the intention of killing Rick. He fails to do so.

Shane’s failed attempt at unseating the philosophical Rick Grimes results in the Thrasymachean Shane Walsh winding up like this:

I’m pretty sure Shane has seen better days

…and Rick still gets the chick.

 

Oh wait, she just died.

 

* Socrates’ thinking on the soul of the philosopher (aka Socratic virtue) goes a little like this: through reason and controlling our emotions we attain wisdom –> wise people possess virtuous qualities such as courageousness and temperance –> when we are temperate we attain internal/intellectual harmony –> things that are in harmony function according to purpose (i.e. as they should) –> when things function as they should this leads to a good soul –> philosophers (esp. philosopher-kings) possess good souls.