Ian Boyne | Why philosophy matters
Should a person who lives in a $250-million house in Beverly Hills or Stony Hill and who has three BMW X6es and a Porsche be lionised for his success and glowingly featured on our social pages or feel ashamed of himself for displaying so much extravagance while people are starving and children are dying because they can't afford life-saving operations?
Should a celebrity who has assets of US$60 million and gives away only US$5 million when he has far more than he or his family could possibly use in a lifetime really feel proud of his philanthropy? And what is the moral basis of a government forcibly taking a large chunk of a person's income just because he is rich and that government deems that he has a moral duty to pay a higher percentage under progressive taxation? If my life is my own, why should a government have the right to legally prevent me from committing suicide?
These questions are all related to why this column is not likely to end up on the front page of In Focus, while if I had written something about security (won't waste my time!), the economy, or something 'topical', I would be in line for Page One. It's all a matter of philosophy. Yes, philosophy, which influences and underlines everything, but which is almost never discussed. The most influential and powerful ideas are those that are unconsciously internalised and seen as common sense. Whenever an editor determines what is important, what deserves attention, and what is in the public's interest, he is making a philosophical decision.
Decades ago, I decided to make my philosophical choices conscious rather than leaving it purely to socialisation, peer influence, or to Zeitgeist. Most people live at the unconscious level, never really questioning things, but simply taking them for granted.
That almost all of us are in a rat race, on a treadmill, obsessed with getting ahead materially, being successful in careers, enjoying status, and having lots of pleasure is a function of a certain philosophy. Who says that the good life is really to succeed at school, career, and family and to accumulate as much as possible? We elect governments to deliver the economic and social goods. To give us the good life as defined materially. That assumes that we know that is the good life.
I can imagine some saying that I have totally run out of ideas and can't find anything to write about, so now I have to resort to sophistry. I can imagine some philistine responding to this column with just one word: yawn.
Democratic values hinge on philosophical exposure. The problem the world is having with terrorism is totally a philosophical issue. Islamic extremism is a philosophy - a way of seeing the world. If we are to build a world of tolerance, respect for diversity, and ideological pluralism, we have to expose people to philosophy and train them in critical thinking. If citizens are to know how to assess politicians, they must be trained to think critically and to know how to judge among the ideas in the political marketplace.
Is a just society one that allows a few to accumulate vast wealth while the majority live in poverty? This whole issue of inequality, which is now a major global issue, hinges on philosophy. Some believe that if they "work hard" and are "smarter than others", they have a right to earn as much as they want, and the fact that there is a huge gap between their earnings and assets and others' should be of no concern to any State. Why be worked up about inequality? That's a philosophical issue.
Issues of redistribution of wealth are philosophical issues. Do we have a moral obligation to the poor or does every man have responsibility for himself? Should we follow the philosophy of Ayn Rand or Karl Marx? Economic policy issues often have disguised philosophical contours. The issue of how we treat our environment is profoundly philosophical. Why the hell should we be concerned about future generations? Do we have any obligation beyond our own? Why should I be concerned about those who are going to be born fifty years from now when I am not going to be here? If I can help to wreck the environment now and maximise my pleasure, why care about those who come after?
How do we know?
The issue of human rights is profoundly philosophical. How do we ground human rights ontologically? In an atheistic universe where we are simply a collection of molecules, brought together by random forces, on what basis do we really assert that each human being has inherent, inalienable value? How do we know that each human life is 'precious' and that 'all lives are of equal worth? And why is human life of any greater moral worth than the life of a pig, dog, or chimpanzee?
Is it reason that gives us our human rights? If so, what about the mentally retarded, those in a coma, and those with Alzheimer's disease? Why should they continue to live? What is really wrong with euthanasia? There is no God, how do we really justify this notion of the sanctity of human life? Philosophical questions abound, but our materialistic society dulls our senses to these issues.
The cultured despisers of religion like to strut around declaring with absoluteness that there are no absolutes. They say with certainty that we can be certain about nothing. They proudly proclaim their agnosticism about everything but their agnosticism. They say certain questions are undecidable. But the fact is, none of us has the luxury of not answering the call of philosophy. Once we decide to live, we can't truly be agnostic. Agnosticism is not livable. It is purely theoretical.
Every day that you live and make choices, you are defying agnosticism and taking a leap of faith. Says philosophy professor David Holley in his insightful book Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God: "... We do not have the option of being uncommitted about how to live, and ways of life that maintain neutrality regarding contestable claims about reality are hard to come by. Our attempts to withhold judgment on an issue whenever we lack theoretical certainty are sabotaged by the need to act."
If you say you can't decide whether God exists because humans don't possess the epistemic resources to do so, you can't avoid answering that question in your everyday life. You will have to live as though God exists or He does not. Seminal philosopher William James, in his book The Will to Believe, says that certain issues are "live, forced and momentous". Every day, you are forced by your decisions to take a stand on whether God exists or not. It can't be postponed.
How do you know, apart from socialisation and biological instinct, that you should love and care for your children more than other people's children? Atheists live for their children. Why? How did they come to that? Our society and nature inculcated that in us. But do we always follow nature? Nature is brutal and murderous. Should we do likewise?
Many of us say we are free and independent, but our values are those that our society prioritises. It is not only that if we were in India or Saudi Arabia, we would more likely be Hindus or Muslims - an argument used against religious claims - but if we were in a non-Western society, our values would be different from those we now hold.
Ideas matter. Philosophy matters. Why can you get arrested for murdering a person but not for killing a cow or an ant? Why can you get charged for murder for taking the life of a child one day old, but can't get charged for late-term abortion?
Ah, there is sports going on on TV and some other pleasurable activity. Enough of the idle philosophising!
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@
gleanerjm.com and email@example.com.