Archive for the Uncategorized Category

The Quest for Wisdom: Introducing Philosopy

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2015 by pstanden

Pursuing Wisdom

Introducing John Dewey

Posted in Uncategorized on July 6, 2012 by pstanden

On July 4th at the Shelburne Farms Inn, I was talking with Peter Gilbert, Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council, and we were talking about notable Vermonters. Somewhat ironically, earlier that day—July 4th—I was at a brunch after running in a 5 K where the same topic arose. The 5 K was the Clarence Demar 5 K in South Hero. Demar, a native of South Hero, won 7 Boston marathons! The brunch-time conversation eventually turned to and addressed other famous Vermonters such as Calvin Coolidge, Admiral Dewey, Pearl Buck, Norman Rockwell, Royall Tyler, Justin Merrill, George Marsh, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Frost, E Annie Proulx, John Irving and the many Vermonters, native and later arrivals, who have informed and enriched Vermont’s life of the mind. This led to thinking about Vermont and its unique breed of people and its beautiful places, and, naturally, I was drawn to Vermont’s most influential native, John Dewey. A couple of years ao, and much to my surprise, the sesquicentennial of his birth came and went in Vermont with little recognition, no fanfare. Imagine a state that could boast that one of its citizens was the founder of the NAACP, The ACLU, and a major University (The New School for Social Research). Would not that state have proudly erected statues, built monuments or, at least, held foot races in honor of their native son?
Perhaps the silence is because we are still, at the core, a hard-scrabble people not given to adulation or easy praise; after all, and by any measure, Vermont has had a larger than normal number of gifted and historically significant citizens. As proof, just reflect on the likes of Revolutionary war hero and philosopher, Ethan Allen; playwright Royall Tyler; Biologist George Perkins Marsh, Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Chester Arthur and Presidential hopeful Howard Dean. Or think of all those flatlanders—past and present– who came to know the beauty of place and settle here in our beloved Green Mountains. Accomplished writers such as Pearl Buck; Hayden Carruth; John Irving; Rudyard Kipling; Jamaica Kincaid; Galway Kinnell; Sinclair Lewis; David Mamet; Bill McKibben; Grace Paley; George Seldes; Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Richard Wright. A Vermont phone book could look like the reading list from a college literature class. But of all those talented Vermonters, native or foreign born, I submit, none compares with John Dewey.
John who? John Dewey? I would wager the average Vermont high school student would not know who John Dewey was although he shaped the way that they are being taught. We might hear them ask if he was the founder of the Dewey decimal system. No, that was Melvil Dewey, who did come from nearby upstate NY. Or, was he Admiral Dewey? No, again, but he was a fellow Vermonter hailing from Montpelier. What, to me, is odd about this gap in knowledge about Dewey and the silence surrounding Dewey’s birth is that you would be hard pressed to find another Vermonter let alone any American who has wielded a wider and deeper influence on the world.
The author of nearly 40 books and hundreds of articles (700), John Dewey is one of the world’s most influential philosophers whom along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James founded the only uniquely American contribution to philosophy: pragmatism. A philosophy that has revolutionized everything we do today. But although I teach philosophy, I don’t fault people for not knowing this bit about Dewey. What is peculiar is that in such a liberal leaning state so few know him as the great champion for civil rights and democracy that he was. Dewey was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped establish the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the 2nd largest educational union in the U.S. Dewey along with the historian Charles Beard and sociologist, Thorsten Veblen, started the New School for Social Research in New York City. The New School would go on to establish the famous University in Exile in 1933 attracting many European intellectuals fleeing from fascism including Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm and Leo Strauss. Three figures that in turn would help mold much of the latter half of the 20th century’s political debates. Many of the neo-cons around George W. Bush are direct intellectual heirs of Strauss. Even Marlon Brando and Jack Kerouac would later become students at the New School. It is fair to say that without Dewey many of these figures might not have become who they were.
Dewey’s long life—he lived to the august age of 92– and political engagement would see him form friendships with Albert Einstein with whom he founded the International League for Academic Freedom. In 1937, he formed the Dewey Commission to investigate the charges that Stalin had trumped up against Trotsky and, in doing, found Trotsky innocent. In 1950, he would serve as honorary Chairman with Bertrand Russell on the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom. This organization included such 20th century heavyweights as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Hugh Trevor-Roper, Karl Jaspers, and A. J. Ayer. His correspondences, some of which are archived at UVM’s Bailey-Howe library, include letters to Henri Bergson, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.
Dewey’s long and prolific career as an academic witnessed his contributions to nearly every field in philosophy and psychology. While Dewey’s greatest contributions are in education where his ideas revolutionized how we teach, how we understand the role between teacher and student, his influence is felt in nearly every field of human inquiry. It was once written that no other public intellectual had written on such a diverse range of subjects from epistemology to art hanging in U.S. post offices.
John Dewey was born in Burlington to Archibald Dewey, a grocer, and Lucina (nee Rich) Dewey on October 20th 1859. His childhood home is still standing and you can see it at 186 South Willard Street. A recently erected Vermont Historical marker now stands nearby. Dewey would do moderately well in the local schools and, at 15, attend UVM eventually graduating 2nd in his class (1879). After graduating and like so many native-born Vermonters, he traveled out of state in search of employment. In Dewey’s case he went to Oil City, Pennsylvania to teach. He returned back to Vermont, taught in Ferrisburgh and resumed philosophical studies with his former UVM mentor, Henry Torrey. Anecdotally, I was told that he had unsuccessfully applied to graduate school at UVM. In 1904, UVM made amends by naming the College of Medicine on Colchester Avenue after him. It now houses the UVM department of psychology.
Undeterred by his rejection, Dewey would enter the new doctoral program at Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, he studied with G. Stanley Hall, the innovative psychologist, and completed a dissertation on Kant’s psychology.
Dewey would take a teaching position at the University of Michigan and, later, the University of Minnesota before matriculating to the University of Chicago where he and his wife, Alice Chipman, would set up the experimental school in 1886 that would come to be known as the “Dewey School. “ From there they would spear-head experiential and progressive learning. It is without exaggeration to say that Dewey’s work in education changed how we teach in America.
After the University of Chicago he would move to positions at both Columbia University and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Dewey would travel to Japan, China, Turkey, the former USSR and points farther abroad to speak on and consult in educational practices. John Dewey would marry twice, father six children and die in New York City on June 1, 1952 aged 92. His ashes were interred in an alcove of Ira Allen Chapel on the UVM main campus. There amid lilac trees the cenotaph reads:
“The things in civilization most prized are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of others in the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”
(from Dewey, “A Common Faith”)
The United States Postal Service honored him with a stamp in 1968 as part of the Prominent American Series and according the Times Higher Education Magazine Dewey is one of the most cited scholars by books in the humanities, ranking 30th. All this and yet the 150th anniversary of his birth passed with little fanfare here in his home state.
Although his studies with the greatest minds of the 19th century and his work with many of the greatest thinkers of the 20th can hardly be downplayed, I like to think that it was the simple lessons his parents instilled in him growing up in Burlington or the hours he whiled away his childhood in, in the now long gone fields and farms of Burlington, or perhaps, the conversations of French-Canadian sailors he must have overheard on the docks of Burlington, that imbued him with his lifelong interest in democracy and learning. The lesson I draw is that part of the special nature of Vermont is its truly egalitarian nature, where a farmer and a poet can walk a fence line together or a student and a philosopher can sit side by side at a café in true community. So perhaps it is fitting that we do not raise too much rumpus about one of our own no matter how accomplished. It wouldn’t be the Vermont way.

Note on Ethical Relativism

Posted in Uncategorized on May 24, 2012 by pstanden

A Note on Relativism:
“I’m saying that if you mutilate 100 million women and make it so hard for them to give birth that many of them will die trying or their children will be born deformed or crippled, how can you expect the continent to be healthy.”
Alice Walker
Well-intentioned people often believe in and say really stupid things. In 1992 following the publication of her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Pulitzer-prize winning author, Alice Walker, was attacked for her ethnocentrism and bigotry by academics, feminists and multiculturalists for her condemnation of the African cultural practice of genital mutilation. Her critics claimed that since FGM was a central part of traditional African culture and was outside of Western moral sensibilities, it could not and should not be judged by others.
In similar fashion, it is common response for students studying ethics for the first time to claim that ethics are socially-conditioned or that morals change from person to person. While superficially that may seem true, upon deeper reflection, you will likely find that that is not the case and indeed cannot be the case.
Relativism is the belief that all knowledge is subjective, including moral knowledge. It is the belief that claims of evaluation are relative to and specific to culture, place, custom, language or biological makeup. Advocates of relativism usually claim that the “good” or “morality” is entirely dependent on the specific circumstances, particular persons, or cultures from which it emerged. Note that this is different than the anthropologists “relativism” which is an operative practice used as a tool to understand a culture that is different than your own. The anthropologist may “do as the Romans do” but only in Rome and not back home. As such, it is an intellectual tool that the student of different cultures uses to aid in her understanding of a culture different than her own. Also note that there is frequent confusion between morals and mores: the latter being the socially determined practices of etiquette, folkways and customs specific to any culture. Mores are relative in the anthropological sense.
Moral relativism is the strong claim that all morals are relative to the believer; and if this claim were true, then we would inevitably need to accept that genital mutilation, sex selection abortions, murder, abuse, mercy killing, rape, and even genocide are, well, morally acceptable since we lack a ground to condemn such actions. If a culture or person practices an act that we believe is inhumane, then we need a basis to ground our moral criticism and judgment upon. Lacking that ground—or objective notion of moral right or wrong—pushes us into the corner of silence or apathy. Most philosophers argue that moral universalism—an objective moral good—is the preferred position. On the contrary, and strictly speaking, if relativism is true and all morals are up to the culture or individual, then literally all things are morally permissible. Cleary this is an untenable position, but why?

Moral relativism is a sub species of epistemological relativism which states that:
“All truths are subjective.”
But this is a canard, a specious or unjustified belief. The logic (or grammar) of the sentence above, “all truths are relative” rests on an objective notion of truth, namely, that ALL truth is relative. But to use this logical and grammatical quantifier “all” is to smuggle in an anti-relativist position. The relativist undermines herself by attempting to claim using objective truth that all truth is subjective. The relativist is an objectivist in wolf’s clothing. They obfuscate. They say one thing, but mean another.
What is at the heart of relativism is either a desire to be viewed as open-minded and tolerant or just plain old muddle-headedness. Of course, there may be those who do believe that whatever they do is right and beyond question but ethics has little to offer those of that solipsistic persuasion. In contemporary American society, Americans are trained, socialized and imbibe a kind of noxious moral relativism where anything and all things are permitted. Pop culture, fashion and the domestic economy thrive on this assumption. There are economic reasons for such practices of socialization: It profits the markets, sells products. But as philosophers, we question such assumptions.
In order for ethics to exist the very possibility of an ethical judgment must exist at the objective level. In other words, ethical philosophers argue that there is a universal good accessible through human reason. This good may lack specific content—it does not tell you exactly what to do at any given circumstance. But it does provide a framework or justification for your belief or moral evaluation. Kant’s categorical imperative (CI) is an efficient example of such a content-free claim. An act is moral, Kant says, insofar as the agent can “universalize” the action. In short, would any and all future agents accept my action as moral, be willing to do as I am doing? If the answer is yes, then the act is moral; if, on the other hand, it is not universal then there must be something wrong with the act. As an example, the C.I. provides a framework for ethical evaluation but it does not tell you what to do.
To demonstrate and add to the universalist position of Kant’s C.I. you should know that it actually started life in China in the 6th century BCE! The great Chinese philosopher, Kung-fu-Tzu (Latinized as Confucius) articulated the “golden Rule” in his “Analects”:
“Tsekung asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word shu (恕) –reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15.23
To further demonstrate its “universal” nature, this claim traveled into the mountains of central China and was adopted by the Taoists:
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
Traveled over the Himalayas to India where it appears in the Mahabharata:
“This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.”
Mahabharata 5
From there it was carried and spread via trade caravans to the Middle East, where it appeared in the foundational religion and philosophy of the Iranian thinker, Zarathustra, whose religion is called Zoroastrianism:
“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.”
Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5
Centuries later it would be written down in the Jewish sacred texts known as the Talmud by Rabbis: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.”
(Shabbat 3). It will appear in the gospel of Mark Chapter 7, verse 1:
“”All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophecy.”
And the prophet Mohammed would approve of it in the Hadith as an embodiment of the ethics of the holy Koran:
“No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”
40 Hadith
Quite remarkably, Plato and Aristotle, the great seminal thinkers of Western philosophy, used it and it would appear in The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the teachings of the Shawnee people. Even the Yoruba people of Kenya, Benin and Mali who practice FGM have a saying: “If one is going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird, one should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” So from Confucius to Kant to the Yoruba, the world’s religions, many of its philosophies and most of its cultures accept the basic logic of the “golden rule” clearly and cogently demonstrating it as a universal moral practice or good. Yet, because moral education and philosophy is sparingly taught and religion is on the wan in the West, most well-educated people will maintain a logical absurdity and claim still that there is no such thing as a universal moral good.

Phronesis or Pragmatic Wisdom

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2012 by pstanden

An important component to Aristotle’s virtue ethics is the concept of Phrönesis. In book VI of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s presents two concepts of wisdom, sophia and phronesis. Sophia is generally translated as wisdom or knowledge and is typically meant to encapsulate the data produced by mathematical and scientific inquiry; whereas, phrönesis is imbued with the further distinction namely the ability to judge between competing choices. It requires, according to Aristotle, a degree of life experience or maturity to correctly judge. He says,
“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.” (Nichomachean Ethics 1142a)

This has led most commentators to define phrönesis as a kind of prudence. I would suggest that since Aristotle considers it a species of wisdom that the better translation is “pragmatic wisdom.” I have in mind the kind of wisdom that comes with a life long lived or at least one where one has managed to get the most out of one’s life. To this end, my choice is echoed by Thoreau when he defines a philosopher along eminently practical lines in the chapter on economy on Walden where he says,
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” (Walden)
The question in becomes how one can profitably gain the kind of pragmatic wisdom from one’s experiences that leads to the development of one’s character and that will, in turn, allow you to judge correctly.

The Ethics of Relationships

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13, 2012 by pstanden

Healthcare is unique among modern professions in that the primary focus is care of the OTHER, the patient. It is an occupation built on a fiduciary relationship. “FIDES”, the Latin root of the word, means “trust”. As such a fiduciary relationship is one built on a sense of abiding trust and confidence that you are acting and making decisions in the best interests of your client, the patient. This trust is the foundation of the special relationships that exists between care-giver and client, between patient and healthcare provider. I would not say it is strictly altruistic, but it is built on a deep sense of acting selflessly.
The key relationship, then, between any healthcare professional and their patient is based upon the twin poles of trust and selflessness. Nevertheless, you are in the position of authority. The patient comes to or is referred to you for care. The patient is seeking your knowledge, skill or insight to allow them to heal, get better or relieve a stressor such as pain. As such, the patient in many cases is emotionally compromised. Because you are in a relationship that exists with this difference, then the relationship is one where special concern must be made by you. For example, you are or will be viewed as an authority in possession of what may be seen by many as a complex and arcane knowledge; this alone places extra duties on you to communicate therapies, policies, protocols, options and alternatives to the patient in clear, easily-understood and accurate language. Much will depend on your ability to accurately and concisely convey complex information to your patient. For example, the patient’s rights to know depend entirely on this aspect. This is one aspect among many that structure this unique set of relationships. Let’s turn to the constellations of issues grouped around the patient-provider relationship.

The set of issues around the patient-provider relationship have to do with the communication of knowledge and services, the delivery of quality treatment, the protection of client information, the ascertainment of permission and the safeguarding of the patient’s autonomy.
Medical ethicists group these issues into and under the following concepts:
Right to Know
But before we delve into a closer examination of each of these important topics, I would like to say a bit about professionalism in healthcare. In 2002, several professional medical societies gathered together to charter a set of “fundamental principles” concerned with maintaining and advancing professionalism in the delivery of health care. Leaders from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) The American College of Physicians and the European Federation of Internal Medicine sought to establish the primacy of patient autonomy and welfare and articulated the following ten “professional Commitments 1 :
• Professional competency
• Honesty
• Confidentiality
• Appropriate relationships with patients
• Improving quality of care
• Improving access to care
• Just distribution of finite resources
• Scientific knowledge
• Maintaining Trust/ managing conflicts of interest
• Professional responsibilities

What we see here is that the Physicians held certain concepts as central to their practice of good medicine and chief among these are the all-important set of relationships between patient and physician. We may rightly extend these to all areas of healthcare from the actual clinical practice to administration.
This echoes the millennia-long tradition enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath (see PPT) that begins with patient care and introduces such important concepts as confidentiality.
In the United States, patient information is viewed as privileged and protected information and is covered by privacy regulations. It is the cornerstone of healthcare because so much depends on a person’s willingness to share and disclose behaviors, symptoms and lifestyle choices to the healthcare provide. This candid sharing of personal information allows that provider to make the correct assessment of the patient’s condition and if a person feels that their personal information will not be kept secret, they are likely to not be candid. In the U.S. federal law further safeguards the widespread practice of keeping personal information private with the HIPPA regulations (Review HIPPA the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services webpage:
Consent is achieved when a patient or client is fully informed of and understands the implications of, a diagnosis, treatment, costs, side-effects, and short- and long-term consequences of a procedure. In the U.S. a stronger version called INFORMED CONSENT is practiced. The standard of INFORMED CONSENT is what any reasonable patient would want to know about their treatment and what the particular patient needs to know.
As we will see some of the most flagrant violations of human rights have occurred in the history of medicine as a result of not seeking the patient’s consent.

Disclosure and Right to Know:
Closely related to consent are the two concepts of disclosure and right to know. A patient has a clear moral right to know the potential costs, outcomes and goods and harms of any medical treatment. Moreover, the professional has a duty to inform the patient. This may be viewed as a prima facie right so it follows that the healthcare provider has a corresponding moral duty to provide that information in a clear and accessible manner.

Case study:
Susan is a public assistance case worker and one of her clients, George, with whom she is working on a Medicaid claim has HIV. George does not have a phone but provides Susan with his sister’s number. Susan needs to contact George and calls the number. When she talks to his sister she asks how George is doing since she has not seen him since he was hospitalized with PCP pneumonia2. Did Susan violate George’s right to confidentiality?

Studying Medical Ethics

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13, 2012 by pstanden

Medical Ethics:

Welcome. You are about to embark on an exciting discovery to determine how you reason morally. We will start our class in healthcare ethics by determining how each of you reason
about and make moral decisions. To achieve this, we will study the major normative ethical theories that philosophers argue humans use to guide and determine their moral choices and which structure our moral outlooks. Most philosophers accept three major normative theories that may be summarized as follows:




In the first, character-based ethics, the rightness of an act is determined by if it fits your sense of self-worth. Briefly, when considering an act your ultimate reasons for acting are that you would not be able to sleep at night if you did otherwise.

In principle-based approaches, the rightness of an act is set by adhering to a principle that you accept and believe to be universally binding. So, if you think it is wrong to lie, you never lie and no one should lie. Period. In other words, it does not necessarily make you feel “good” or produce the best outcomes every time, but it is the right thing to do, always. In other words, by telling the truth, you may feel pretty lousy even if you’ve done the correct thing.

The final approach, the outcome-based model looks at the actions end results, the outcomes. A morally good act is one that produces greater positive benefits than negative ones. It matters less either how you produce them or what kind of character you possess. The goal in this last approach is to create more good than bad.

A recent addition to the set of moral theories that we are going to study is care ethics. This approach develops in the wave of feminism and their critiques of Western ethical theory. It builds on the work of such thinkers as Carol Gilligan and Nell Noddings (See text and PPT), and rather than viewing the moral actor as an autonomous, rational agent looks instead to the network of intimate relationships that form a context in one’s lived reality. One should act then with the greatest regard to those relationships. It is not solely based on character, rules or the results but about the integrity and compassion of living relationships and solicitude.

Essentially, and with all these varied approaches, what you are engaged in here is a pursuit of and for the “good.” You are a fledgling philosopher trying to define the good, the moral good. In attempting to define what the “good” means you will use one of these normative theories. In choosing the moral theory that best “ fits,” you are trying to figure out what theory or set of practices guides you through your life. It sounds cliché but you are looking for your personal, moral North Star, the guiding light that orients your moral universe, gives meaning and order to your moral outlook. This theory provides meaning to your considered moral beliefs. Of course, most humans never reflect on this process but students of philosophy do and that is your first charge. Welcome to philosophy. It is challenging to determine which of the available major normative theories best “fits,” but it can be an eye-opening and instructive discovery. Let’s review…

Are you a virtue theorist a la Aristotle? As such, you would determine right and wrong by the kind of character you believe yourself to possess. In this practice, you primarily use your sense of self-esteem to guide your actions and frequently ground your beliefs in that understanding. You may frequently hear yourself say, “I’m just not that kind of person,” when confronted with a disagreeable choice. Your vocabulary is likely peopled with words such as nobility, courage, generosity, integrity and the like.

Or are you principle-based theorist? Did you know that all of the world’s religions promulgate a set of rules to guide behavior (e.g. think of the Decalogue—the 10 commandments). Modern healthcare professions are replete with codes of ethics (e.g. AMA or APTA codes). See the syllabus for the moral code for your profession. Deontology begins in antiquity when Kung-fu-tzu (Confucius) articulated his influential “golden rule,” but Immanuel Kant is the best—even if most difficult— spokesperson for this approach. In this approach, you guide you behavior by your adherence to rules. You are a good person because you did what was right irrespective how you feel or the outcomes achieved. You stuck to your guns. My favorite example of a deonotologist is the character, Piggy from Golding’> > s “The Lord of the Flies”. His glasses are stolen by the tough guy Jack andP Piggy asked for his glasses because “right is right”. Piggy believed, as deontologists do that right is universal and that you have a duty to follow it. If you believe that adhering to universally accepted rules of conduct, then you are a deontologist.

If neither one of these approaches fulfills your sense of moral reasoning, then you may like the sounds of consequentialism. This theory postulates that the good is achieved when you produce more beneficial outcomes for a larger percentage of individuals than any other alternative. The good becomes, then, a maximizing of the consequences. The English political philosopher, Jeremy Bentham and his godson, the polymath, John Stuart Mill, are the two best spokesmen for this ethical theory, a theory they ultimately tagged utilitarianism. Their approach views the good as a calculus maximizing pleasures over pains for the greatest numbers of persons involved. An ethical ends justifies the means approach.

So there you have them: the three major normative approaches. I submit that you are one or the other. There are some minor theories and options but for the most part these three theories encompass the way humans practice ethics. Which one best “fits” you? Well, I bet you are saying to yourself that you practice all three, right? Let’s think more closely about that.

Reverend Frederick Neu speaks of maintaining a good “one-two punch” in ethics. The pugilistic metaphor is helpful because you are probably finding it difficult to choose a single theory. Sometimes you follow rules, sometimes your sense of character, and at work in the ER, say, you are asked to think like a consequentialist. Well, we probably do use different approaches for differing situations, but it is my argument that each person has a predominant ethical theory in the same way as you have a dominant hand. You may still be a switch-hitter but you sign your checks with the same hand. Somewhat analogously, our choices in life reveal a moral predilection, a dominant moral handedness, so to speak. Another way of thinking about ethics is to take a page from contemporary political identities. Many Americans today identify themselves as “independent” but their voting patterns are still predominately Republican or Democratic. We seem to fear self-identifying and confining ourselves. But is that sensible? The problem is that we rarely reflect on where our morals come from. Most of us, just unthinkingly adopt the moral worldviews of our parents and the religions we were born in raised in. In and of itself, there is nothing terrible about this but philosophy is about reflecting and examining one’s ideas. Ethical philosophers challenge us to reflect on those inherited beliefs to see if they are indeed the ones we choose to adhere to.

I invite you to read more about these theories in learning about ethics. The place to begin is with the major theorists themselves. For virtue theory take a look at Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics”. For deonotology try Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” and for consequentialism turn to J.S. Mill’s “Utilitarianism”. For two very interesting modern views on morality, look at Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” or Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of the Good.” Enjoy.

Is Understanding Necessary for Ethical Choice

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25, 2012 by pstanden

One of the most important and problematic aspects to arise out of Greek philosophy is Socrates identifying virtue with wisdom. Virtue=wisdom. In short, this identity means that to do good, one must know the good. Ethical behavior becomes an epistemological concern with this approach. Is this true? Can you do good acts without understanding their nature? What is the moral worth of an act that is good unintentionally or by happenstance? Conversely, can you do wrong yet fully know better? As many have commented, punishment becomes problematic if virtue=wisdom because if we believe that knowledge is a prerequisite to right behavior, then punishing someone for wrong choices seems counterproductive since they did not know better. Better that we instruct them on their error and move forward, right?

The 4 Virtues

Posted in Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 by pstanden

In books II and Iv of Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces and describes the four chief virtues needed for justice to thrive  in a polis He presents them as Courage, Moderation, Justice and Wisdom. To be sure the ancient Greeks meant something different than later cultures, but the signal importance of these virtues to the moral life remain  largely in tact.  Indeed, in subsequent centuries the early Christians and later the Catholic tradition would wholly adopt these 4 virtues as the Cardinal Virtues. Any serious student of ethics would do well to study what these terms mean and whether or not they are applicable tot he modern world. To that last questions–their applicability–I emphatically state that they are applicable.

The first obstacle any student of moral theory encounters is the degree to which contemporary society is so thoroughly suffused with moral relativism. Living as we do in a pluralistic capitalistic society, we are loath to limit or regulate our lives including our moral sensibilities.  I choose not to go any further into these aspects at this point, but suffice it to say that the serious student of moral theory will find relativism a canard.

Courage, the first of the virtues, is  arguably in decline. Witness Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1978 Harvard University commencement speech,

“The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”

This recognition fits with Plato’s diagnosis that a luxurious state would inevitably decline into a rabble of nonsense and inactivity leading to political quietism and apathy. In short, this characterization seems a trenchant reminder of where we are at in contemporary society. We have few examples of genuine courage worthy of our respect and moral admiration. While it is easier to find examples of physical courage, moral courage is difficult to find in contemporary society.

Moderation is even more difficult to find. Popular culture advances those who are intemperate and immoderate. Think of T.V. shows such as “Man vs Food” or the tragic national epidemics of drug addiction and obesity.

The Greeks so held moderation–σωφροσύνη- in high regard that it is purported to be one of the phrases etched into the wall at the most sacred shrine or oracle at Delphi.  The phrase “nothing to excess”  would become a canonical expression of the moral life for centuries of Greek philosophers including the great Classical trinity of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  For them, sophrosyne was not only a balance of one’s physical desires but moral discipline and self knowledge.

In his “Symposium” Plato has Socrates recount his meeting with his teacher on love, the philosopher Diotima. He tells that it was she who taught him the path to true knowledge or wisdom. Wisdom, our fourth virtue, is inextricably linked with our third,  justice.  One of the steps along the road to wisdom, she taught Socrates, was the understanding of justice. The most eminently political of the virtues justice has been one of the most neglected. It really was not until John Rawls’ magisterial work “A Theory of Justice” published  in 1971 that thinkers became interested in the political manifestation and effects of our policies on the people they governed.  Apart from the occasion reference, justice was not really a central concern for moral philosophy until the 20th century.

Like Diotima’s counsel to Socrates, this inquiry, as all inquiry does, leads us back to wisdom…


On The Use and Abuse of Socrates.

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 by pstanden


Once in a while there are these quiet events in publishing that go largely unnoticed. For example, there has been a spate of books written and published on or about Socrates in the last few years. Why? Is Socrates really the man for our times as the subtitle of Paul Johnson’s recent work on Socrates puts it?

Johnson’s book follows the publication of several works on Socrates aimed at audiences outside the academy.  This in itself is unique. Since the publication in 1989 of muckraker and sometime Vermonter, I.F. Stone’s well-received “The Trial of Socrates”,” we have witnessed a little revolution in publishing.    By my count here are most of the recent—within say, five or six years—books published on or about Socrates:

Ahbel-Rappe, Socrates: A Guide for the Perplexed;

Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life;

Johnson, Socrates: A Man for Our Times;

Rowland, Breakfast with Socrates;

Kreeft, Socrates Meets Hume: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of  Modern Skepticism;

Metaxas, Socrates in the City;

Miller, Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche;

Navia: Socrates: A life Examined;

Phillips, Socrates Café;

Rudebusch, Socrates;

Taylor, Socrates;

Waterfield, Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths;

Wilson, The Death of Socrates;

So a dozen books on Socrates life and thought and this list does not include the many scholarly and academic books published in that same period such as the Cambridge Companion to Socrates nor the many new translations of the works by Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon that directly deal with and are the only written sources we have of Socrates.  A friend of mine in the film industry tells me that there is a movie in development about the life of Socrates, too. What are we to make of all this?  Just a curious by-product of the information super highway or is there something else happening here?

I will try to offer a brief answer by looking more closely at Johnson’s work, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. In Johnson’s slim work he ably presents the main lineaments to the life, times and ideas of the Greek philosopher. I read and enjoyed Johnson’s biography but found very little new or insightful in the work.  He presents Socrates as the iconoclast and seeker of wisdom that every introductory philosophy student learns about in a good survey class. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Johnson’s biography and welcomed his attempt to show Socrates as a non-academic philosopher and one who valued the women in his life. This last aspect, allowed Johnson to introduce Aspasia, Diotima and the better known Xanthippe (Socrates’ wife) and use these relationships as a foil against Socrates… In this sense, Johnson went to the extra mile to make certain that the reader knew that there are two Socrates: the historic Socrates and Plato’s Socrates.  The challenge to this position is that Plato’s work is still the only credible and reliable source of the life of Socrates. Parenthetically, in teaching Plato’s Apology this semester, I had the opportunity to read and contrast Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ trial and he does present a rather different portrait of the thinker. Xenophon’s Socrates is more of an ethically-minded thinker than the epistemologically-obsessed thinker we typically hear of from philosophy professors.

This led me to my main point, viz., that Johnson reinterprets Socrates as he needs to for his sense of our times.  Whether for Plato, Voltaire or Johnson, it seems that each historical epoch chooses a particular aspect of Socrates to adopt. Socrates becomes a kind of placeholder for what’s wrong with the present zeitgeist. Hegel wrote tellingly of Socrates as did Nietzsche, of course. In each case, writers cherry pick the ideas and motives that moved Socrates and which best fit their own times. Johnson is no different. His Socrates is a democratic moral idealist and iconoclast. A picture resembling Johnson as much as Socrates…  Let us recall that Johnson, a popular historian and prolific writer and graduate of Magdalene College, Oxford began life as a leftist and like so many of the baby boom generation moved rightward politically as he aged. By the 1970’s, Johnson had shed his youthful liberalism and was the editor of the neo-conservative “New Statesman;” and, ironically, a speech writer for the” Iron Lady” herself, Margaret Thatcher. This is ironic because under Thatcher’s administration in the 1980’s funding for state-sponsored philosophy programs in Britain were drastically cut.  In addition, he is a staunch Catholic and has condemned labor unions, liberals and is stridently anti-communist.  Or, in a nutshell, quite similar to Socrates who while provocatively posing as a philosophic revolutionary was quite conventional in religious and social practice, even archly conseravtive. In Johnson’s words, Socrates c resembles Johnson more than Socrates. I felt much the same when I read I.F. Stone’s work on Socrates except, of course, Stone’s Socrates was a   true revolutionary and radical: the first muckraker, if you will.  So here’s the nub, Socrates like Jesus and all great moral and philosophical exemplars, become handy placeholders for the values we wish to see in our times. They become a kind of lamp we hold up to our darkened days in the hopes to illumine our days and ways. They become an instrument of our criticism.  All this is possible with historic personages such as Socrates and Jesus because they did not leave a substantial body of writing behind. The absence of a body of work, allows subsequent writers to appropriate the meaning of the man. In short, Johnson does exactly what he criticized Plato for doing 2,400 years ago.


The Examined Life

Posted in Uncategorized on January 28, 2012 by pstanden

1. The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In Plato’s “Apology” Socrates tells us that the “unexamined life is not worth living as he defends himself from the accusations that he has corrupted the young of Athens.  When I ask my students what they believe Socrates means by this quote they inevitably respond by saying that he means that one should ask questions.  I don’t think this is a wrong answer; it just does not seem to capture the depth of what Socrates is saying.   Read the passage that contains the quote and I think you will concur (Jowett translation):

“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.”

Socrates is clearly saying that learning and philosophy consists of asking questions but he is also saying that the daily investigation of virtue or morality is a central aspect of the examined life. Of course, he expects his judges to be incredulous and I am inclined to believe that little has changed.  My interpretation of this passage suggests that Socrates is saying that one needs to search for the ethical basis of one’s life.  And that that search is a lonely one. This is ultimately what leads to his well-known equation that wisdom=virtue. To know the good is to be wise; to be wise is to be virtuous.

The Greek” ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” may be translated as a life lacking inquiry is not a human life and this is the part that usually disturbs students. Is Socrates saying that some people are not human?  Well, yes.  Socrates is saying, I believe, that, to be human is to learn, to inquire and to not exercise those faculties is to fall short of realizing your humanity. In a manner of speaking it is not enough to be merely born human, one need to earn it by living the philosophical life. One may be a member of Homo sapiens sapiens but one needs to grow into one’s humanity. One achieves this by daily reflection, inquiry, searching for knowledge, learning and examining ones-self and others.   This is what Aristotle would come to realize it means to be human and to come closest to the divine in realizing our true human capabilities. This sentiment is also echoed later by Thoreau when in “Walden” he writes of life’s necessaries:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically…”

We hear Thoreau affirming Socrates insistence that the VITA PHILOSOPHICA starts with ascertaining one’s practical moral outlook, to love wisdom, and turn it  into a practical life. This is what Thoreau knew would help prevent each of us from “leading lives of quiet desperation” and what Socrates warned his accusers about when they spent their  lives accruing wealth, seeking power and  celebrity. It is so much more than merely asking questions. It is also living an ethical life.   Vernon Parrington eloquently writes of Thoreau in his 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning book,” Main Currents in American Thought”:

“His life seems to have been a persistent experiment in values. A philosopher of the open air who kept his mind clear and his nerves robust by daily contact with wind and weather; a mystic who pried curiously into the meaning of nature and was familiar with Hellenic and Oriental systems of thought; a Yankee, skilled in various homely crafts, yet rather interested in proving for himself what things were excellent and taking nothing on hearsay — Thoreau’s chief business would seem to have been with life itself, and how it might best be lived by Henry Thoreau; how a rational being, in short, might enjoy the faculties God has given him, following the higher economy and not enslaving himself to the lower, so that when he came to die he might honestly say, I have lived.”

Echoing Both Socrates and Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi was once asked what was the ideal life and he is reputed to have said, “simple living and high thinking.” I think this is what Socrates is telling his judges, namely that it is the best of the human condition to “persistently experiment with values” or to live an examined life daily conversing about virtue and live the life of the road less taken… I take it in a strange way this is this why the late Steve Jobs said in the October 29 2001 issue of “Newsweek” that,

“I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”



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