Philosophy 42 Final: Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Aristotle, Dualism
Class: Philosophy 42, Professor Flanagan
Prompt: Respond to six of ten questions about this semester’s reading.
Socrates believed that an individual has a valid social contract with the state if three conditions are met: (1) the state protects the individual, particularly through the military and the police; (2) the state nurtures the individual, especially by supporting the institution of marriage, providing an educational system for the individual, and enforcing laws governing property ownership and business, and (3) the individual has a free choice to enter the social contract, which requires (a) a clear ceremony of joining and (b) an option for the individual to leave if he so chooses. If the state fulfills all of these requirements, then the individual, in return, must conform to the laws and decrees of the state.
Socrates’s view is plausible. The contract is consensual, and each party absorbs both costs and benefits. If the citizen breaks the law, the state can punish him. If the citizen does not like the protection and nurturing the state provides him, he can leave, voiding the contract. If the state breaks the contract, the individual is not morally compelled to follow the state’s edicts. The individual gives up some of his freedom in exchange for benefits which he couldn’t procure by himself.
For Socrates’s social contract to function practically, the package of services which the state provides to the individual must be resolved. Does the state have to protect the individual from non-human threats like disease and poverty as well as human threats like enemy armies and criminals? Does “nurturing” include public parks and corporate welfare? Most likely, each state would have a different perspective and would present a different package of benefits. The individual could choose the one he preferred.
Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, tells us that the physical world, which we think makes up all of reality, is merely a shadow compared to the spiritual world, the world of ideas. As long as we live only in the physical world, we think that we are happy, but we are not. The purpose of education is to turn a man’s mind to spiritual world so that he will experience true joy. The more a man learns, the easier the world is to understand.
This message is plausible. Studies show that education is the biggest deterrent to crime and poverty. Education helps a person to think more efficiently and to better distinguish between right and wrong. Anyone who has an epiphany – that is, a sudden discovery of a great truth – feels immediately afterwards that the world as a whole is a better place and is easier to understand. The predisposition of many people to believe in a God which is infinitely better and greater than them also coincides with Plato’s allegory though it does not necessarily make Plato’s argument more credible.
Plato’s theory of education is not the only possible course of action, however. One reasonable objection is that Plato has no way of proving the existence of the spiritual world, and it may very well not exist. Therefore, say these critics, teaching our students to love learning is good, but making them mystics may be a waste of time. Instead of teaching our children to look towards heaven for answers, we should instruct students in technical, scientific, and mathematical knowledge which will better prepare them for the things of this world. This more Aristotelian approach to education does not refute the message of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but it does provide a plausible alternative.
According to Buddhism, we experience dukkha, or suffering, because we do not understand the nature of this world. The world is ever-changing and impermanent. We have insatiable thirsts for sensory pleasures which we think will make us eternally happy. These desires cause us suffering, and when the pleasures we covet lose their power, we suffer further. We also suffer because we have the desire to live forever and to never change, but in truth, there is nothing eternal or unchanging about us. Furthermore, when we are especially emotionally distraught, we desire to not exist at all; this, too, causes us pain.
We suffer in these ways because we do not know the truth. When we become enlightened about the impermanence of life and of ourselves, we will realize the silliness of our cravings. We will no longer search for something we can never get. We will no longer experience dukkha. We will have peace.
The Buddha’s remedy for dukkha is plausible. It is true that if we do not desire something, we will not suffer because we do not have it. His observation that sensory pleasures will not give us happiness seems especially credible in today’s America, the wealthiest nation in world history, in which anti-depressants are big business (seven percent of the population is clinically depressed), even among children.
This remedy is not the only possible explanation for dukkha, however. It is also possible that we really do have immortal souls, and this changing, ephemeral world is unsatisfactory to us because our true home is in an eternal, unchanging paradise which we will find after death. This explanation is not more or less credible than the Buddha’s; it is merely another perspective.
According to Kungzi, li are laws and rituals; xiao is reverence for the family, also known as filial piety, and ren is benevolence towards one’s fellow men. Ren is a massive and all-encompassing character trait which can be truly difficult to achieve. Kungzi introduces li and xiao to make the process more manageable. To follow the li and to express xiao in one’s domestic life, a person much be respectful, considerate, and obedient. These same traits are needed for a person to have ren. Therefore, a person who succeeds in the smaller matters of li and xiao will also have ren.
Li and xiao are becoming less important for us now. Dress codes have relaxed, especially among adolescents. Laws of etiquette have relaxed, as well. Young people no longer have to address adults as “Sir” or “Ma’am;” sports arenas can now be frightening and violent places, and the media’s portrayal of sex and violence is becoming more and more graphic. Respect for family has also declined: children’s television programs regularly portray adults as fools, for example.
I believe that our society currently underestimates li and xiao. As Kungzi said, consideration for the laws and for one’s parents leads a person to become more respectful and compassionate for all people. A society in which everyone respects each other is much more efficient and is a better place to raise children. Many Americans, including my parents, have moved from the coasts to the Midwest because they wanted to raise their children in a place where values and respect are encouraged. I also think that children who follow li and xiao tend to be more humble and in turn, less likely to think that they know everything. This makes them more likely to learn.
The Myth of the Lydian Shepherd expresses the philosophy of psychological egoism: man always does what is in his best interest. Altruists and egoists are equally selfish; the altruist only does good deeds so he will feel good about himself. Kungzi would summarily reject the theme of this myth on two grounds: (1) its opinion about transcendent good and evil and (2) its view of the nature of man.
Kungzi was agnostic on the subject of religion and spirituality, but he did believe that there were objective standards for morality. Good deeds fulfill the tianming, or mandate of heaven. They fit into the harmonious workings of the universe and always bring good to men. While egoists believe that the goodness of a deed derives from its utility for men, Kungzi believes that a deed’s utility for men derives from its goodness.
Kungzi said that his philosophy, which preached compassion and respect, was the most suitable way of living for men. Men do not do good deeds for an emotional high; men do good deeds because the nature of man is to be good. Men are made to serve each other, and man reaches his highest state of being when he becomes most compassionate and considerate of others.
As for the characters in the drama, the philosopher would first observe that the king and queen were must not have been following the li. Kungzi was a believer in the moral contagion theory, which states that one moral person can turn all his neighbors towards righteousness with his good example. According to Kungzi, a king who practices li and xiao in his personal life will spread ren throughout his kingdom because all the citizens will follow his example. Because the shepherd was capable of killing the king and seducing the queen without a second thought, the rulers must not have been living exemplary lives. Otherwise, their goodness would have convinced the shepherd to cease his misdeeds.
The queen would be especially disreputable in Kungzi’s eyes. When she ascended the throne with the shepherd, she blatantly betrayed her husband. This violation of xiao would never be tolerated in a royal house which followed the moral laws.
The most evil man in the story, of course, would be the shepherd. Kungzi would first express horror that the shepherd in question had taken a ring from the finger of a dead man. The shepherd compounded his villainy still more by putting the ring on his own finger. Disturbing the dead in such a way is a gross violation of li and foreshadows the events to come. Overthrowing the government, the maker and enforcer of laws, is the most extreme violation of li possible. The shepherd could have used his power of invisibility to serve his country as a spy. Instead, he used the ring to destroy his country. Since the shepherd has never governed anything larger than a flock of sheep, he will probably govern his country poorly. In so doing, he will harm all the people. This behavior is the opposite of ren.
Dualists believe that the mind is incorporeal and immortal and is separate and distinct from the body. Man’s body and mind work in tandem. The mind receives sensory information from the body, processes it, and then makes decisions which the body then puts into action. Naturalists believe that mind and body are one. The mind is the brain, and it is an organ which functions exactly like the other organs in the human body. The differences in these two philosophies have vast implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, particularly in terms of free will, the value of man, the nature of morality, and divine revelation.
Since the mind is independent of the body in the dualist construct, man has absolute free will. He can decide to do whatever he likes, even if he cannot always carry out his decisions; he cannot fly, but he can choose to attempt it. This view sets the stage for a constant conflict between body and mind. Every day, the body makes demands for things like food, sleep, and sex which the mind must regulate and control. The mind, because it is completely free of the body, is always capable of making the right decision. When Christ said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” he meant that a person is always responsible for the sins he commits; he cannot blame his body. Naturalists are divided on the question of free will. Some reject it entirely while others accept it in varying degrees; all agree that the body at least partially regulates the mind, so the possible conflict between the two features is as not as dramatic as the dualists convey.
The dualist belief in the immortal soul has deep religious implications, as well. Since the soul is immortal, human beings are infinitely more valuable than plants and animals because humans have immortal souls while plants and animals do not. If a person is to live forever, he must have a place to reside. Hence, dualists believe in heaven, hell, and/or ghosts. Whereas dualists appreciate human life because it has eternal value, naturalists appreciate human life because it is fleeting, and a person, once dead, is gone forever. It is possible for a naturalist to believe that God can somehow provide him a home in heaven, but this belief in eternal life is something which has no basis in the rest of naturalist philosophy.
Dualists accept a transcendent moral code; it is written in the eternal spiritual world, not the physical world, so it applies to all times and to all cultures. While dualists base their moral code upon the perfect ways of the other world, naturalists base their moral code on living well in this one. They act morally because they see that they are happiest when they do so. Moral laws are not metaphysically transcendent; they are similar throughout history because men and what is good for them have been similar throughout history.
Finally, dualists and naturalists differ on the matter of divine revelation. Dualists are much more likely to believe in it than naturalists. Since the mind is a spiritual instrument in dualism, it is a perfect conduit for information from a spiritual deity. Indeed, the relationship between God and mind in dualism is more easily explained than the relationship between body and mind. Since naturalists believe in a physical mind, they have a harder time explaining how the mind could passively receive spiritual input.
Neither dualism nor naturalism can be proven right or wrong, so people gravitate towards their personal preference. People who are highly religious, mystical, or spiritual are much more likely to be dualists, even if they have never heard of Descartes. Scientific people, agnostics, and atheists favor naturalism.