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Archive for October, 2019

i am spiraling out of control

i need you

please please don’t leave me

how am i to make it through these tests

without your name on my lips

and your love in my heart

how am i to survive in a world of lotus eaters

if you are not calling me back to Ithaca

it sounds so nice to eat

and forget

and get lost in a dream

but i need you to wake me up

i need you to pull me back to the ship

even if i am kicking and screaming

even if i

in a moment of forgetfulness

scream at you and say that you are not my commander

please forgive me

and overlook

and pardon

i was not in my right mind

and i take shelter in your wisdom and strength

because at my best

i am just one of your men

so whatever it takes

just

don’t

leave

me

just don’t let me be anything other than yours

so that my life is not more precious than your life

my dreams are not more worthy than your commands

and my today is not more valuable than your eternity

for i am with you

i am with you

and i am not with those who struggle against you

فَمَعَكُمْ مَعَكُمْ لا مَعَ عَدُوِّكُمْ

but i can’t do it alone

so please please don’t leave me

but fasten me securely to your ship

and row me away from this land forever

ya Husayn

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In my first semester in college (Fall 1997), I took an Ancient Philosophy course. I hardly remember it, but the other day I discovered a paper I wrote for it. I was shocked at how the thoughts I was thinking then mirror so much of what I think about these days, 22 years later. I don’t know if anyone will read this, but since my blog is very much an archive of my grapplings, I wanted to post it here with only a few minor edits. I may critique my younger self’s writing style and grasp of the source material, but I was thinking clearly about one of life’s great questions.

***

In the course of our lives, we are constantly forced to make moral decisions and quite often, we choose courses of action that do not embody moral excellence. Very often we are attracted to carnal desires, or even practicality, and they steer us away from choosing solely what we believe to be right and good. However, every so often we learn about a personality who embodies moral excellence; a person that we cannot help but think of as a great soul. One such person was Gandhi. He lived for unselfishness; for the hope of the suffering; for so much that we believe to be right and good. And had Aristotle, the great ancient philosopher, known of Gandhi’s life, he would have praised him for achieving moral excellence, a subject that was of considerable importance in his timeless philosophical work, the Nicomachean Ethics.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that pleasure and pain are the main factors that affect moral excellence; he states in Book II, chapter 3, “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains.” However, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain, in terms of how they influence moral excellence, with the lives and actions of people like Gandhi. Don’t we usually think of people like Gandhi as personalities that have transcended the mundane world of pleasure and pain; personalities that have chosen to live for a higher ideal; personalities that are concerned more with others than themselves?

There is more, however, to Aristotle’s position. He states, “[Given that “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains”] we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as to both delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” In short, he believes that we should be taught to love what is good, and it follows from that that what is good brings us pleasure, because what we love undoubtedly brings us pleasure. However, Aristotle also believes that it is a necessary condition for excellent action to “choose acts for their own sakes.” It follows from that that for one to be morally excellent, one must choose actions of a moral basis solely because one believes them to be simply what is good and right. This creates quite a situation. At the same time Aristotle believes that the morally excellent person will find pleasure in what is good, but that same person must, in order to actually be morally excellent, choose the actions not because it will bring them pleasure, but simply because they are good.

I will argue that there is a refinement of Aristotle’s belief that avoids the conflict that his view faces, as well as fits better with our assumptions about the nature of morally excellent people, such as Gandhi. As I mentioned before, it seems strange to associate the concepts of pleasure and pain with embodiments of moral excellence, such as Gandhi. Aristotle undoubtedly believes that “excellence, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains…-let this be taken as said,” but, because of his belief in choosing the action for his own sake, he is in a bind. I believe that there is another factor, and I call that factor awareness of right action. Awareness of right action makes us want to choose what we believe is right, regardless of how it affects us. In other words, it makes us want to choose an action for its own sake; its own moral value. In Aristotle’s view, pleasure and pain were the only motivating factors in regards to moral excellence, but in my refinement, awareness of right action is also a motivating factor. What Aristotle believed to be a necessary condition for excellent action, I am now turning into an actual motivating factor within us.

One should liken these motivating factors (pleasure/pain, and awareness of right action) to three different voices in one’s head. One voice, pleasure/pain, says, “How will this action affect me? Will it give me pleasure? Will it give me pain?” As one listens to the voice, one may be aware of the way one was raised, and how that upbringing may predispose them towards morally superior action, but that is not what is important according to pleasure/pain. What is salient is simply how that action will affect the doer, and naturally, one will want to choose the actions that give one the most pleasure. However, the other voice, that of awareness of right action, says, “How will this action affect others? Is it right? Is it the most elevated action I can choose, based on my moral sentiment?” This voice also is aware that the doer may be naturally disposed towards morally superior action, and that those actions consequently may be pleasurable, but that is not what is salient. What is salient is simply how that action will affect others, and what is morally superior. Then, in order to decide what action they will perform, one must decide between the two voices, or arrive at a compromise.

The decision that one arrives at can both determine and illustrate the moral excellence of the doer. Gandhi undoubtedly had one voice that said, “If you dedicate your life to these high ideals and the service of humanity, you will surely have some pleasure, but there are many other options that are a lot more pleasurable.” The other voice said, “This is the highest form of unselfishness you can achieve. You can do so much good by pursuing this course.” So he had to weigh those two voices, and obviously, the latter came out on top. Pleasure was going to be present in his life, but he consciously chose to put awareness of right action over pleasure. He made it his priority, and therein lies his moral excellence. It was not that his moral excellence was determined by his choosing his actions for their own sake.

One might object that it is impossible for one to truly have awareness of right action, that it is actually pleasure. Aristotle believes that we should be raised in a way that makes us actually desire good actions, and derive pleasure from them. If this is true, then what we believe to be good could actually become pleasure itself, and therefore one could in no way distinguish the goodness of an action from the pleasure derived from that action. Therefore, there would only be one voice in our head, pleasure/pain. Sometimes, I am sure that the two voices meld into one, such as when we give a quarter to a homeless person. We want to for moral reasons, and it is completely pleasurable because it makes us feel charitable and it is insignificant amount of money for us. However, many times we do actually have to weigh pleasure and morality when we make decisions. When people are offered veal, they many times explicitly have to confront the two voices: “Veal tastes really good and I am really hungry” vs. “I do not want to eat veal because of moral reasons”. Then, pleasure/pain are quite distinct from awareness of right action.

The other objection that may be raised is one of an epistemological basis: how can we actually know if we are choosing actions for their own sake or if we are choosing them for our own pleasure? However, I am interested in the practical, and I therefore have to assume that what we think we know is justified and accurate. Other wise, there can be no further talk of practical moral excellence, and we are then no closer to understanding how to be morally excellent than when we started. If one truly believes that a certain action is morally superior to another action, and one decides to choose that action because of his moral sentiment, then he must go with that, even though his decision may be epistemologically ungrounded.

By refining Aristotle’s view, the nature of moral excellence has become clearer, but, in the end, what most matters is the actual real life pursuit of moral excellence. Almost everybody has the option of dedicating themselves to the homeless, but most do not. Why is this so? There are still many questions left to explore, and many issues left to tackle with but keep in mind that this is not like mathematics, especially when explored on a practical level. The real value of asking these questions lies not in its pinpoint accuracy, but its ability to motivate elevated action, for actions really do speak louder than words. Just look at Gandhi.

[All Aristotle quotes taken from: A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 378-380]

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

 

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