Nowadays, there are still large numbers of people who, even if they do not entirely accept all of the claims made by their religion and no longer recognize it as an authority for their everyday behavior, nevertheless pay lip service. And sentiments such as ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ do seem to contain great wisdom, finding a balance between the two extremes given above.
But with all of our values no longer ‘supplied’ by religion, people have been forced to develop them for themselves. In the absence of expert guidance, the principal influence now tends to be the media and we have such ridiculous situations as the cinema’s cult of the anti-hero. It is now normal for films to conclude with the thief in some luxurious setting surrounded by money and women and no sign whatsoever of justice or retribution. It is acceptable for the individual to triumph over the perceived constraints of society, including its laws. And it is far more usual for the governments, police and similar bodies to be portrayed as corrupt, with ‘hidden agendas’ and secret conspiracies against you and me. And we have been brainwashed into cynically believing this to be normal. Continue reading →
Morality (part 2) One way of classifying the various theories is as follows:
Morality might exist as absolute truths – so-called Moral Realism or Ethical Absolutism. Just as we believe that 1 + 1 = 2 must always be true, so perhaps it is somehow necessarily true that we should not kill another human being. This is effectively what Plato believed, with the truths somehow existing in the world of Forms. We discover these principles through philosophical insights rather than inventing them or devising them to suit our own purpose. And they necessarily apply to everyone irrespective of their inclinations or the nature of the society in which they live.In the absence of absolute certainty regarding these truths, we are obliged to act according to what we think they are.In this view of morality, things are ‘good’ irrespective of whether a God decrees them. We ought to be able to see that ‘loving our neighbour’, for example, is going to be beneficial to ourselves and society, whereas committing adultery is likely to upset a few people. We should not really need any outside agency to endorse such attitudes.
Conclusion So, do any of these philosophies provide us with the answer for which we are looking? It has been a very cursory overview and obviously much has been omitted, particularly the ideas of more recent philosophers. Again I must remind the reader that I have not studied all of these philosophers and my findings are the result of reading histories, dictionaries and overviews and of research on the Internet. I have extracted only those ideas that seemed relevant.
Philosophers typically take an interest in many areas, even if they concentrate principally on one or two and they often devote much effort to supporting, or more frequently refuting, the ideas of their predecessors. If you should attempt to go into any significant detail on any aspect of what has been outlined above, you would soon find yourself reading many books and studying often complex arguments on all sides of the issue. All that I have attempted to do was to find some relevant ideas and I have to say that none of the ones that I discovered seem entirely appropriate for today’s society.
Somehow, they leave a feeling of incompleteness or even emptiness. Maybe they provide excellent guidelines for discriminating between potential course of action in a specific situation but there is no overall sense of purpose and meaning. If I want to know whether I ought to go out to the cinema or visit my ageing grandmother, there is much material to provide guidance – in fact, I could decide to stay in and read all about it for the next few weeks instead of going anywhere. But when it comes to giving me a raison d’être for my life, it seems that, unless I adopt a religious outlook and acquire faith in a heaven and hell, then I am left with little of substance. Continue reading →
Socrates is famous for claiming that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. If we simply go through our lives seeking pleasures for their own sake without ever looking for some sense of purpose and meaning, then we might as well not have existed. The hedonist’s retort to this is that, if we spend all of our lives searching for significance and fail to find any (whether or not there actually is one), then we have wasted our opportunity to enjoy it while we are able. The fact that many claim that there is a purpose, and that they themselves have realised this, is not really any help. Most of such people will be held by us to be deluded religious fanatics and their opinions will carry little weight. If there is meaning then it does seem that we must discover it for ourselves, perhaps by systematically examining all of the claims and deciding whether they are in any way justified. Continue reading →
Metaphysics, as the study of the questions of ‘life, the universe and everything’ is known, fell out of vogue in the twentieth century, when the attitude arose that most of what had previously been thought to be intransigent problems were not really problems at all but arose through our inability to formulate the problem correctly. Once we used language properly, it was argued, the difficulties would disappear. Many recent philosophers have not even addressed the sort of fundamental questions that are being asked on this site. In this respect there is a similarity with science. There was a time when an enquiring mind could range over the entire domain of what is now thought of as ‘science’, becoming expert in many areas and making new discoveries. The amount of material that was written down and accepted as proven was minimal. Over the past few centuries, the rate of investigation and discovery has accelerated and it is now possible to conduct novel research in only a tiny area of specialisation. In the 3rd Century BC, Aristotle’s multi-disciplined enquiries have already been noted. By the 20th Century, most of the philosophy in England was devoted to analysing the meanings of sentences! Continue reading →
This is the first part of an 18-part overview of Western Philosophy. Originally written to be incorporated into ‘Book of One’, it became far too long and detailed. I posted the first 15 parts to Advaita Academy around 5 years ago but these are no longer available. Since we have a current interest in the subject with both Charles and Martin posting articles and comments, it seems like an opportune time to begin to repost the series!
Note that the depth to which the subject is addressed is fairly shallow for the most part. I am not a philosopher by education or employment and most of my understanding has been gleaned from secondary sources – I have read very few original philosophical texts! But I hope it provides a general introduction to the key ideas of most well-known Western philosophers so that the reader may go to the original source (or a good commentary) if interested. Needless to say, I tend to ‘cherry-pick’ those aspects that related to Advaita!
What Western Philosophers Have Said
A site such as this would be unthinkable without reference to what has been thought and written by Western philosophers. Philosophers used not to limit their investigation to those areas that we now think of as philosophy. Aristotle for example wrote books on physics, biology, mathematics, psychology, politics and meteorology, to mention just a few. Their interests ranged across the entire spectrum of human endeavour. It should not be too surprising, then, to find that many philosophers do not seem specifically to have addressed those questions that concern Advaita – there were simply too many other diverting subjects to investigate. Nevertheless, since the question of what we ought to do with our lives in order to achieve fulfilment and happiness is rather more important than most, it is perhaps surprising that it seems so difficult to discover clear guidance from this intellectual elite. Continue reading →