We’ve covered a lot of ground since I kicked off this Philosophy Weekend series a year and a half ago. But I’m not sure if it’s clear how these blog posts are meant to build upon each other towards an ultimate result or conclusion. I’d like to take a step back and look at the overall plan of the project today.
I began this series because I know we all live by philosophical and ethical principles that affect everything we do. This is true, I’ve observed, of people at every level of education and intellectual sophistication (those few individuals who might claim not to live by deeply-held principles would probably be not uneducated but highly educated, and perhaps overly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche).
We all live by philosophical principles; we all stand up and fight for our principles in one way or another, and many of us would carry our beliefs to our deaths rather than give them up. And yet, when exposed to the light of the slightest examination, many of these deeply held principles and beliefs quickly show themselves to be weakly constructed, purposefully ignorant, childishly simplistic.
However, it does not seem that people hold naive or unexamined beliefs because they are lazy, or because they don’t care. Rather, it seems to me that every single person cares very much about the validity of his or her deepest beliefs. The problem with philosophy is on the supply side. The professional philosophy community is lost within abstract layers of internal debate that do not connect with the larger public at all — not to the slightest degree. (Name one living philosopher. If you said “Daniel Dennett” or “Alain de Botton” you get a prize.)
Many people want to be exposed to philosophy, but the suppliers have let us down. We lack even the most basic forums for in-depth logical debate. Worse, we have failed to construct the linguistic and social structures that would allow us to follow ethical arguments through to their conclusions. Instead, arguments typically die in the very moment they are born, because participants are often unable to establish a common vocabulary with which to speak, or viable rules of debate. We lack the social toolbox that would allow us to resolve even the most basic and obvious philosophical conundrums.
As a writer and blogger with experience managing online community forums, I see this as an opportunity. My immediate goal with Philosophy Weekend is to be relevant, to be controversial and to be current. I want to bring out not only the ideas we live by but also the ideas we vote by, and the ideas that we in military situations might be willing to die by. I want to shadow the controversies in the news, but provide wide-ranging and idealistic perspectives that won’t be presented anywhere else. Most importantly, I want to use these posts to construct an extended argument for my own philosophical point of view. I am not a disinterested observer of ethical arguments. I have a particular set of conclusions in mind, and I hope to see the open discussion that takes place on this blog ultimately working towards a solid proof of my own deeply-held beliefs.
That was my goal in June 2010 when I began this series. I felt uncertain about the project at first, but was happy to quickly see that the articles do resonate with readers. The Philosophy Weekend posts regularly get the most pageviews, the most Facebook and Twitter shares, and the most comments of all Litkicks posts. They are also, to be honest, the ones I enjoy writing the most. I guess the project has been a success.
Or has it? Are these posts actually getting us anywhere? Are we reaching any conclusions, discovering any new ground?
I think we are. I do not consider myself a particularly gifted or groundbreaking ethical philosopher, but I am a stubborn one. I think we’ve come a long way, and I’m proud to see that we’ve followed some unusual and unchartered paths in doing so.
Looking back on all the weekend posts in the last year and a half, I see that we’ve focused on four major points, four persistent common themes. I see these four points as four steps on a path (like the four wooden planks over a muddy stream in the photo at the top of this page, which I took on a recent walk along Neabsco Creek in northern Virginia). Here they are:
- Militarism is a philosophical illness. As long as our society is constructed upon the acceptance of war and military strength as the ultimate arbiter of international power, we are living upon a weak and unsustainable foundation. It’s amazing how widely the idea of endless war and eternal militarism is accepted by otherwise intelligent and reasonable people, and how much ridicule and disdain any brave individual who stands for a realistic philosophy of pacifism will face. This is the most important and immediate problem for the world to solve, and yet events of the past several years indicate that we are making no progress at all towards solving it.
- Most people live in a state of complete incomprehension regarding the belief systems of others. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ll hear somebody dismiss a neighbor or stranger as “batshit crazy”, rather than pause a moment to try to understand what the neighbor or stranger is saying. This bad habit transcends party lines and ideological barriers: it’s how conservatives talk about Kim Jong-Il and it’s how liberals talk about Michele Bachmann. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it now again: if you dismiss anybody else’s ideology as “crazy”, you are only demonstrating your own ignorance as to what makes other people tick. You may (and should) freely disagree with what others think and believe, but you are being intellectually dishonest if you fail to try to understand their thought processes in a positive light before you do so.
- We don’t understand what the most important words in our philosophical vocabulary mean. As a professional software developer, I know that the language I use is an essential part of my ability to get work done. Well, the language we use as ethical philosophers is the intellectual equivalent of COBOL. Or worse. We need to nail down what we’re talking about when we use words like ‘evil‘, or ‘empathy‘, or ‘truth‘. (Most importantly, in my opinion, we need to understand what we mean by the word ‘self‘. There’s a whole lot of gold to mine there.)
- Philosophy does not just influence society; society influences philosophy. This is a potentially very powerful idea, I think, and I’m only just beginning to feel confident enough in my own foundation to begin developing it further here. While most of us like to imagine ourselves as naturally enlightened and thoroughly open-minded, in fact a tough look at the evidence shows that we all wear blinders way too often. The effect of societal conformity and peer influence in placing these blinders over our eyes is rarely understood. For instance, is it possible that the reason our society currently has so little regard for the discipline of ethical philosophy is that, living in military-bound and war-friendly nations, we cannot stand up to the bright light of ethical philosophy, and must place a blanket over the lantern that would light us? Perhaps the only way for the world to solve its practical problems is for philosophy and politics to walk hand in hand, taking tiny steps towards the ultimate goal of world peace. Neither philosophy nor politics can get us there without the other. As long as our politics are rotten, our ability to pursue philosophical validity will be rotten as well. Philosophy can help end war; and it is only by ending war that we will end our current philosophical dark age.
Phew … sometimes I get carried away with my own ambitions. And yet, the above four points seem quite strong and powerful to me, and I hope that by laying them out as steps on a path I am helping to make it more clear what this whole Philosophy Weekend series is meant to accomplish. As always, I need your help and feedback. What do you think about it all?