Benevolence of a Culture

 Posted by on 2 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, China, Culture, Ethics
Jul 022013

A while back, Robert Garmong posted the following story on Facebook:

Walking home from work, through the hard-packed ice left over from yesterday’s snow, past the construction zones, I saw a row of cars stopped, waiting impatiently while a very miserable-looking minivan spun its wheels on the ice.

(Incidentally, a Chinese minivan is truly mini. It comes up to my eye-level, at most, and it looks as though I could fit it into my backpack, yet somehow, like a clown car, you can get 8 people into it. They’re very crummy, and mostly used for low-end delivery businesses and the like.)

The driver clearly didn’t know what to do about his situation. He obviously didn’t get his driver’s license at age 16 in a small, snowy town in Illinois. After spinning his wheels a few times, churning up ice and spewing oily exhaust into the air, he got out of the car to come back and scratch his head, staring down at his rear wheels. He didn’t do any of the things I would have done: he didn’t put a rock or a piece of cardboard under his tire, didn’t throw dirt down, didn’t try to push his van past the glossy spot he’d worn by spinning his wheels. He just looked for a few seconds, then when the cars behind him started honking he got back into the van and started spinning his wheels again. The unofficial motto of China might as well be: Work harder, not smarter.

If this were Texas, there would have been five people lined up behind his little clown van to push him along (not that you’d need that many). The guy in the car behind him would’ve jumped out of the car to give him a shove, without even thinking about it. Passers-by would’ve joined in. Street vendors selling fruit alongside the road would have paused their haggling for a minute to come pitch in. (Well, I guess in Texas there wouldn’t be street vendors selling fruit alongside the road, but IF there were, they’d be helping.)

Here, all the guy got was a glance or two from the pedestrians, and a bunch of blaring horns from the cars piled up behind him. A larger bus going the opposite way rolled down its window so the driver could offer him some fairly useless advice, then drove off.

The clown-van driver was getting nowhere, so I jogged out into the road and gave a little tiny shove — I mean REALLY tiny — no stronger than would be required to open a stuck backyard gate. The van shish-shish-shished forward a foot or so, then got traction and chugged slowly up the road. The driver of the car behind him tooted a little honk of thanks, then the whole lot of them tailed the van-driver slowly, carefully up the hill.

For the most part, Americans are steeped in benevolence. We are willing to help others — including strangers — in a thousand small ways at the drop of a hat. That’s a huge value — and not one that we should take for granted. Such makes life so much better in a thousand small ways.

As it happens, I mentioned that culture-wide benevolence in my end-of-year Philosophy in Action Radio of 30 December 2012, where I talked about all the good in American culture. (That was the whole episode!) So if you’ve not heard it, take a listen:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Also, if you’ve not yet heard my two interviews with Robert Garmong on life in China… don’t delay! They’re chock-full of great stories and insights.

First, I interviewed Robert about “Teaching in China” on 19 September 2012. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Second, I interviewed Robert about “Should We Fear or Embrace China?” on 27 March 2013. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.


On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss what’s right (and wrong) with Aristotle’s defense of eudaimonia as the final end that’s given in Chapter One of the Nicomachean Ethics. I’m really excited to discuss the topic, as I think that his argument is (1) radically different from that given by Ayn Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics” (in The Virtue of Selfishness), yet (2) important and powerful and basically right.

In preparing my notes, I’ll draw on my teaching notes from my days as a graduate student instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Hence, I thought I should post the selections from Chapter One of the Nicomachean Ethics that I assigned to students, as background context. It covers more ground than I’ll discuss on Sunday. (FYI: The translation is that of W.D. Ross, with some revisions made by Gregory Salmieri.)

Without further ado… I present you with Aristotle:

Chapter 1 [goods as ends of actions]

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, seems to aim at some good. For this reason the good has rightly been described as that at which all things aim.

But a certain difference is found among ends: some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.

Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many. The end of the medicine is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of generalship victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity–as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under generalship, in the same way other arts fall under yet others–in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends. For it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Chapter 2 [the good as the ultimate end of action]

Then what if there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and that we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain)? Clearly this end must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? If we have it, won’t we, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit on what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.

It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And statesmanship appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since statesmanship uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for state. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is statesmanship, in one sense of that term.

Chapter 3 [the methods of statesmanship]

Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which statesmanship investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on statesmanship; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the deficiency does not depend on time, but on his living and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For immature men, like the incontinent get no benefit from their knowledge. But men who desire and act with reason will get a great benefit from knowing about these things.

These remarks about the student, the way our claims should be received, and the purpose of the inquiry, may be taken as our preface.

Chapter 4 [the disputed nature of happiness]

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say statesmanship aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor; they differ, however, from one another–and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension. Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which exists on its own and causes the goodness of all these as well. To examine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.

Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to the principles. For Plato, too, was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, “are we on the way from or to the principles?” There is a difference, as there is in a race-course between the course from the judges to the turning-point and the way back. For, while we must begin with what is known, things are objects of knowledge in two senses: some are known to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is fine and just, and generally, about the subjects of statesmanship must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact is the starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not at the start need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting points. And as for him who neither has nor can get them, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless man

Chapter 5 [three common views of the good]

However, let’s resume our discussion from the point at which we digressed. To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some ground) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life: that just mentioned, the political, and thirdly the contemplative life. Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some ground for their view from the fact that many of those in high places share the tastes of Sardanapallus.

A consideration of the prominent types of life shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of the political life. But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it seems to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something proper to a man and not easily taken from him.

Further, men seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their goodness; at least it is by men of practical wisdom that they seek to be honored, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue; clearly, then, according to them, at any rate, virtue is better. And perhaps one might even suppose this to be, rather than honor, the end of the political life.

But even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. But enough of this; for the subject has been sufficiently treated even in the current discussions. Third comes the contemplative life, which we shall consider later.

The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. And so one might rather take the aforementioned objects to be ends; for they are loved for themselves. It is evident that not even these are ends; yet many arguments have been thrown away in support of them. Let us leave this subject, then.

Chapter 7 [Aristotle's own account of the good]

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely, that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in generalship victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else; and, in every action and pursuit, it is the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are complete; but the chief good is evidently something complete. Therefore, if there is only one complete end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most complete of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is desirable in itself more complete than that which is desirable for the sake of something else; and, if something is desirable in itself and never desirable for the sake of anything else, we call it more complete than things that are desirable both in themselves and for the same of something else. Therefore we call something “complete without qualification” if it is always desirable in itself and never desirable for the sake of something else.

Now happiness, above all else, is held to be such a thing; for we always choose happiness for itself and never for the sake of something else. While we do choose honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), we also choose them for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

From the point of view of independence the same result seems to follow; for the final good seems to be independent. Now by independent we do not mean that which is enough for a man by himself–for someone who lives a solitary life–but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship. But some limit must be set to this; for if we extend our requirement to ancestors and descendants and friends’ friends we are in for an infinite series. Let’s examine this question, however, on another occasion. For now we define the independent as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and we think happiness is like this. Further we think that it is the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others. If it were counted as one good amongst others, it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods; for that which is added becomes an extra good, and of goods the greater is always more desirable. Happiness, then, is something complete and independent, and is the end of action.

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ seems to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.

Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may we likewise ascribe to man a function apart from all these?

What then could this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal.

There remains, then, an active life of the part that has reason. Of this, one part has reason in the sense of obeying reason, the other in the sense of having reason and thinking. And, since “life of the rational part” also has two meanings, we must state that we mean life in the sense of activity; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term.

So, man’s function is an activity of soul with reason. We say that the function of a thing is the same in kind as the function of a superb thing of the same type. For example, the function of a lyre player and of a superb lyre player are the same in kind. The same goes for all cases without qualification, if we add superiority with virtue to the function (for the function of a lyre player is to play the lyre, and that of a superb lyre player is to do so well). We say that man’s function is a certain kind of life, and that it is activity or actions of the soul involving reason, so the function of a superb man is to do these actions well and finely. And, if any action is done well when it is done with the appropriate virtue, the human good turns out to be activity of soul with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, with the best and most complete.

But we must add “in a complete life”. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

Let this serve as an outline of the good; for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details. But it would seem that any one is capable of carrying on and articulating something, once it’s been outlined well and that time is a good discoverer or partner in such a work–this is how the arts have improved, for any one can add what is lacking to the outline. We must also remember what we said before, and not look for precision in all things alike. Rather, in each class of things, we should look for the sort of precision as accords with the subject-matter, and for the amount that us appropriate to the inquiry. For a carpenter and a geometer investigate the right angle in different ways; the former does so in so far as the right angle is useful for his work, while the latter inquires in to what it is or what sort of thing it is; for he is a spectator of the truth. We must act in the same way, then, in all other matters as well. This way we’ll avoid subordinating out main task to minor questions. And we shouldn’t demand the cause in all matters alike; it is enough in some cases that the fact be well established, as in the case of the principles; the fact is the primary or the principle. Now we study some principles by induction, some by perception, some by a certain habituation, and we also study others in other ways. But we must try to investigate each set of principles in the natural way, and we must take pains to state them definitely, since they have a great influence on what follows. For the beginning seems to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.

Chapter 8 [kinds of goods]

We must consider it, however, in the light not only of our conclusion and our premisses, but also of what is commonly said about it; for with a true view all the data harmonize, but with a false one the facts soon clash.

Now goods have been divided into three classes, and some are described as external, others as relating to soul or to body; we call those that relate to soul most properly and truly goods, and psychical actions and activities we class as relating to soul. Therefore our account must be sound, at least according to this view, which is an old one and agreed on by philosophers. It is correct also in that we identify the end with certain actions and activities; for thus it falls among goods of the soul and not among external goods.

Another belief which harmonizes with our account is that the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action. The characteristics that are looked for in happiness seem also, all of them, to belong to what we have defined happiness as being. For some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophic wisdom, others with these, or one of these, accompanied by pleasure or not without pleasure; while others include also external prosperity. …

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.

Their life is also in itself pleasant. For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself.

For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant. But they are also good and noble, and have each of these attributes in the highest degree, since the good man judges well about these attributes; his judgment is such as we have described. Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world, and these attributes are not severed as in the inscription at Delos–

Most noble is that which is most just, and best is health;
But pleasantest is it to win what we love.

For all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one–the best–of these, we identify with happiness.

Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with virtue.

Chapter 13 [virtue and the soul]

Since happiness is an activity of soul with complete virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue; for perhaps this will enable us to study happiness better. Plus the true student of statesmanship seems to have studied virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow citizens good and obedient to the laws. As an example of this we have the lawgivers of the Cretans and the Spartans, and any others of the kind that there may have been. And if this inquiry belongs to statesmanship, clearly the pursuit of it will be in accordance with our original plan.

But clearly the virtue we must study is human virtue; for the good we were seeking was human good and the happiness human happiness. By human virtue we don’t mean virtue of the body but virtue of the soul; and we also call happiness an activity of soul. But if this is so, clearly the student of statesmanship must know somehow about the soul, as the man who is to heal the eyes or the body as a whole must know about the eyes or the body. All the more so, since statesmanship is more prized and better than medicine; but even among doctors the best educated spend put a lot of work into acquiring knowledge of the body. The student of statesmanship, then, must study the soul, and must study it with these objects in view, and he must do so just to the extent which is sufficient for the questions we are discussing; for further precision may take more work than our purposes require.

We have made some points about the soul adequately even in our popular works, and we must use these. For example, we said that one part of the soul is non-rational and one has reason. Are these parts separated like the parts of the body or of anything divisible are, or are they distinct in definition but inseparable by nature, like convex and concave in the circumference of a circle? It does not matter for our present purposes.

One part of the non-rational part seems to be widely distributed and is plantlike in its nature. I mean the part that causes nutrition and growth; for we can assign this capacity to nurslings and to embryos, and also assign this same capacity to full-grown creatures (since this is more reasonable than assigning some other capacity to them). Now the virtue of this part seems to be common to all species and is not specifically human; for this part or capacity seems to be most active during sleep, when goodness and badness are at their least distinct (that’s why people say that “happy people are no better off than miserable people for half their lives”). This isn’t surprising, because sleep is inactivity of the soul insofar as it is called great or base, unless perhaps some of the movements actually penetrate a little so that the dreams of great men are better than those of ordinary people. Enough of this subject, however; let us leave the nutritive part alone, since it has by its nature no share in human virtue.

There seems to be also another non-rational part in the soul–one which in a sense, however, shares in reason. For we praise the rational part of the continent man and of the incontinent, i.e. the part of their souls that has reason, since it urges them correctly and towards the best objects; but we also find in them another part naturally opposed to reason, which fights against it and resists it. It’s just like when we try to turn paralyzed limbs to the right and they do the contrary and move to the left. That’s how it is in the soul: the impulses of incontinent people move in contrary directions. But in the case of the body we see the part that goes astray, and in the soul we do not. Nevertheless, we must suppose that there is something in the soul contrary to reason, resisting and opposing it. In what sense it is distinct from the other parts does not concern us. Now even non-rational part his seems to have a share in reason, as we said; at any rate in the continent man it obeys reason and presumably in the temperate and brave man it’s even more obedient; for in him it speaks, on all matters, with the same voice as reason.

Therefore the non-rational part also appears to be two-fold. For the plantlike part in no way shares in reason, but the appetitive and in general the desiring part in a sense shares in it, in that it listens to and obeys it; this is the sense in which we speak of “listening to reason” from your father or your friends, not that in which we speak of “give reasons” in mathematics. Our practices of giving advice and admonishing and exhorting people also indicates that the non-rational part is persuaded by reason in some sense. And if we must say that this part has reason, then the part that has reason (as well as the part that doesn’t) will be bipartite: one subdivision will have it in the strict sense and in itself, and the other will have it in the sense of obeying, like one does with one’s father.

Virtue is also divided this way; for we say that some of the virtues are “virtues of thought” and that others are “virtues of character”. Theoretical wisdom, comprehension, and practical-wisdom are virtues of thought, and generosity and temperance are virtues of character. For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or comprehending but that he is mild or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also because of his state, and we call praiseworthy states “virtues”.


As I mentioned in my radio discussion of recommended works of Aristotle, I recommend the W.D. Ross translation of Nicomachean Ethics — or its derivatives.

The version in the epic two-volume set of The Complete Works of Aristotle (Volume 1 and Volume 2) edited by Barnes has been modified slightly by J.O. Urmson, and I like that one too. Also, Urmson has a nice little book on Aristotle’s Ethics. I’ve not read the whole book, but his discussion of Aristotle’s theory of moral responsibility is quite good.

Finally, I definitely recommend reading the Nicomachean Ethics with Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics on hand. I don’t always agree with my friend Tom, but he’s reading Aristotle straight — not with any Christian gloss — and he’s remarkably accurate and insightful.

Update: Now that the 30 June 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio is complete, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I answered questions on Aristotle on the final end, dealing with a morally corrupt sibling, studying philosophy in academia, the legality of DDoS attacks, and more – is available as a podcast too.

Further Comments on Disabled Kids

 Posted by on 18 June 2013 at 10:00 am  Children, Disability, Ethics, Family
Jun 182013

On the May 19th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on whether disabled kids should be kept out of the public eye. (My answer was, in essence, HELL NO.)

Shortly thereafter, I received this message in email:

It has been a while since I’ve checked in with you, but I wanted to reach out to tell you that I greatly appreciate your podcast segment on the visibility of disabled children. I have personal stakes in this — my younger brother has down syndrome, and my daughter was recently diagnosed with cerebral palsy — but I’d like to think that even without these intimate experiences, I would never had supported any idea that such people should be kept hidden, or out of the view of others. My brother and daughter have enriched the lives of many, and will continue to do so, for those people around them that are open enough to treat them as individuals. And I am grateful that you have taken the time to speak, in part, on their behalf.

Indeed — and thank you!

On the plane back from ATLOSCon, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome was on the train with me in the airport, then across the aisle from me in the plane. Not only was she not any kind of trouble, but I could tell that her family members enjoyed her company. At one point, I noticed that she seemed to be teaching sign language with the person next to her, and she was quite adept. As I watched her, I was so glad that her family didn’t think themselves obliged to cloister her; given her capacities, that would have been a loss for her and them.

So… if you’ve not yet heard that episode, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I also answered questions on individualism versus anti-social atomism, poor communication from the boss, arranged marriages, and more – is available as a podcast too.

Happiness Versus Meaning? No Thanks!

 Posted by on 11 June 2013 at 1:00 pm  Altruism, Ethics, Happiness
Jun 112013

I disagree with much of this article — There’s More to Life Than Being Happy — but it raises some interesting questions about the relationship between happiness and meaning. Here’s a tidbit:

In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

There’s much more, so I hope that you’ll go read the whole article.

Here’s my basic view: I don’t see that seeking happiness and seeking meaning are two opposing pursuits. That’s because I don’t accept the “taker” versus “giver” ethics used by the psychologists cited. That’s the standard false alternative perpetrated by an ethics of self-sacrifice, whereby a person is obliged to always choose being serving himself (which is necessary but evil) and serving others (which is self-destructive but good). Instead, I advocate and practical the morality of trade — whereby I give as much as I get from others. For me, that’s why I’m able to have a life that’s rich in meaning and happiness. Because I live by the principles and virtues of rational egoism, I don’t need to choose between them.

I discussed this topic in more depth in answering a question about the value of happiness on the 3 March 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the questions’s archive page.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!


On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss Judith Thomson’s classic “violinist” argument in favor of abortion rights. It’s an engaging and accessible article which has been widely read and reprinted. If you’ve never read it — or you’ve not read it in a while — you might want to read or re-read it before Sunday’s broadcast. You can do so here: Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion.

Here’s the introduction to whet your appetite.

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say “before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person” is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called “slippery slope arguments”–the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory–and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.

I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for “drawing a line” in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and less, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable. On the other hand, I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree. But I shall not discuss any of this. For it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to require much comment. Or perhaps instead they are simply being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that will become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than you have to? Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it.

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn’t volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are a product of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape.

Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the mother’s life.

Some won’t even make an exception for a case in which continuation of the pregnancy is likely to shorten the mother’s life, they regard abortion as impermissible even to save the mother’s life. Such cases are nowadays very rare, and many opponents of abortion do not accept this extreme view. All the same, it is a good place to begin: a number of points of interest come out in respect to it.

Again, you can read the whole article here: A Defense of Abortion by Judith Thomson. Then… please join us on Sunday morning for the live broadcast of Philosophy in Action Radio — or listen to the podcast later.


It’s often difficult to challenge your own entrenched beliefs. Habits of thought die hard, particularly when your values or way of life seems to depend on those beliefs. (“But but but… XYZ must be true!”)

When confronted with challenging new ideas, I try to approach them carefully, so as to avoid any knee-jerk emotional reaction in favor of my existing beliefs.

Ideally, here’s what I do: I remind myself that I don’t need to agree or disagree right away. Instead, I focus on understanding the ideas and arguments fully. Then, once that’s done, I take some time to mull over those ideas — perhaps days, weeks, or months. I gather empirical evidence for and against the idea. I consider new angles, arguments, and implications. I discuss those ideas with smart people, as they often have fresh insights. Finally, I come to a judgment about the truth of those new ideas.

If I take that time, I’m far less likely to err in my evaluation — meaning, to dismiss right ideas or embrace wrong ideas. That’s a win!

But… uh… of course, that’s not always what happens. Yet even when I have that dreaded knee-jerk reaction against some new idea, I can exert my better judgment: I can choose to evaluate it objectively. If I have to eat crow at the end of that process, that’s better than persisting in dogmatic commitment to falsehoods.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

May 272013

It’s commonly said that tone is lost in email in such a way that often exacerbates conflicts. Certainly, that’s true. Recently, I realized part of the reason why that’s true.

Email is just words, and tone is largely communicated by vocal patterns and body language. Hence, tone is not communicated well via email. That’s a problem, since the same words, delivered maliciously or benevolently, have very different effects. However, that’s not the core problem in and of itself.

The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.

When a relationship is well-established as friendly (or malignant), the absence of tone in the communication isn’t much of a problem: the tone intended will likely be the tone inferred. However, when people are in conflict, the fact that tone isn’t communicated but rather inferred is a recipe for disaster.

In such cases, the reader will easily read a tone into the text that the writer didn’t intend without being aware of doing so. So a perfectly ordinary statement might be interpreted as snide or mean if the reader feels vulnerable and defensive due to an unresolved conflict with the writer. As a result, the conflict will often escalate suddenly, even though the writer intended the opposite.

That possibility is why it’s so important to pick up the phone to have some kind of real conversation when in the midst of a conflict with another person. (Better yet, meet with the person in person or via video call.) That’s often really hard for people. It’s really hard for me. I’m not concerned about the greater precision of writing, as some people are. Rather, I prefer the emotional distance of email for the simple reason that conflict is difficult and unpleasant.

Alas, that greater precision and distance often comes at a steep price — namely, prolonging or worsening the conflict. That’s worth remembering, I think, when considering whether to write that email or not.

Disabled People in the Public Eye

 Posted by on 17 May 2013 at 10:00 am  Ayn Rand, Disability, Ethics
May 172013

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on whether disabled kids be kept out of the public eye. The question was inspired by this story of a waiter who refused to serve a table of customers due to their unpleasant remarks about a five-year-old child with Down’s Syndrome at another table. The child was not being loud or disruptive, and he was known and liked by the waiter. The people at the other table reportedly said that “special needs kids should be kept in special places.”

Apparently, that view has some currency among Objectivists, starting with Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand Answers includes the following Q&A:

OY. I’m not a fan of mainstreaming disabled children in schools, except on a case-by-case basis, when everyone benefits thereby. However, the idea that disabled children ought to be kept away from normal children just flabbergasts me.

It’s simply a fact that some people in this world of ours suffer from mental and/or physical disabilities. Even otherwise normal people suffer from disabilities on occasion — not just injuries and illness, but the effects of aging too.

Disabled people are morally entitled to live their lives, pursuing their values to the best of their ability — just like everyone else. That means they’ll be out in the world, where children might see and/or interact with them. Hence, parents should speak to their children about disabilities, including how to interact with disabled people in a morally decent way. That’s an important part of a child’s moral education — if you don’t want little Johnny to push Grandma down the stairs because she was walking too slowly for his tastes, that is.

The moral education required here isn’t rocket science. Disabled people should be treated with civility and respect — just like everyone else. They might merit the effort of a bit of kindness, such as holding open a door or speaking slowly — just like everyone else. Of course, disabled people can be rude or disruptive or offensive or bothersome too. That’s pretty standard behavior for normal people too, albeit with less excuse. The sensible response is not to demand that disabled people be hidden from sight, but rather to put some distance between yourself and the bothersome person. See? Not rocket science!

Well… I’d better stop there, before I dive into a full-blown rant. I have plenty more to say on this topic on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio… so I hope that you join us!

Update of 19 May 2013:

The podcast of Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, including the question on the visibility of disabled children is now available.

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Tags: Ayn Rand, Benevolence, Children, Disability, Egoism, Ethics, Individualism, Parenting, Respect, Rights



The Tea Party Patriots left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that they called again this evening. I’ve never signed up for anything from them, and I have no idea how they got my mobile number. Yet for many months now, I’ve gotten periodic robo-calls from them.

Every time this happens, I make repeated requests — through all available means of communication — to be removed from their call list. They’ve never responded, and they have obviously not removed my mobile number from their call list.

I don’t have any way to block them on my iPhone (as I would on my landline), and them calling my cellphone is particularly bothersome. Any suggestions for what to do to make it stop?

Even if that’s not possible, I’m happy to spread the word that the Tea Party Patriots seems to be run by a bunch of jerkwads without the slightest clue about basic manners.

Here’s my latest email to them… not that I expect it to do any good:

You left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that you called again this evening. Every time this happens, I’ve contacted you through multiple channels with clear requests to be removed from your call list. You have never responded, and you have obviously not removed my mobile number from your call list.


So, for the upteeth time, I ask that you remove my cell number — [redacted] — from your call list! I am sick and tired of these intrusive and unwelcome calls from you: it’s harassment.

Until you respond, and confirm that you’ve removed my phone number, I will continue to publicly shame you for being such rude jerkwads. I’ve already posted something to Facebook, and I’m writing a blog post now.

Oh, and you owe me — and probably a whole lot of other people — a BIG FAT APOLOGY.

I’d be nicer about it… except that I’ve already written about ten such emails, all of which have been ignored. *sigh*


(I wrote this for Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter back in September 2012, but it’s still relevant.)

A few days ago, I was riding my horse in our neighborhood arena while a father was attempting to teach his son to ride a bike in the grass. The father would push the son forward on the bike, and the son was supposed to pedal. However, even from a distance, I could tell that the son was getting scared and freezing. Instead of pedaling, he’d put his feet down into the grass and come to stop. The father had an excellent opportunity to talk to his son about overcoming fears.

Alas, that’s not what happened. Even from a distance, I could hear the father yell to his son in frustration, “If you’d only pedaled when I told you!” and “Why aren’t you listening to me?” Obviously, that didn’t help the boy pedal any better!

The father was making a very serious mistake in taking his son’s failure personally. He was seeing it as a failure to obey, rather than focusing on the son’s actual problem — namely, the difficulty of overcoming fears. As a result, the son was not only deprived of useful help about managing those fears, but also burdened with feelings of guilt too. Even worse, the father was telling the son that the son’s own judgment (including his fears) were not nearly as important as obeying the father’s commands. Oy.

Happily though, the father seemed to muster some better control over himself after that burst of anger. He stopped yelling, and the tension seemed to ease. Hopefully, he realized his error. Hopefully, he’ll stop himself sooner next time.

I’m not immune from the error of atttemping to dictate others — whether children, animals, co-workers, friends, or husband. I suspect that I’m not alone in that! So here are a few suggestions, which you can take or leave:

When you find yourself growing frustrated by the fact that other people aren’t doing what you’ve told them to do, remind yourself that they’re not likely attempting to spite you. Perhaps you didn’t give clear instructions. Perhaps you’ve asked too much of them. Perhaps they saw problems with your plan that you missed. Perhaps their goals don’t mesh well with yours.

Instead of stewing over their failure to obey, consider how you might be genuinely helpful. You might want to ask them if they want help. You might want to clarify your instructions. You might want to just keep your mouth shut.

Whatever the circumstances, acting like a petty tyrant is always the wrong answer. Nothing alienates rational thinkers — young and old — more quickly.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha