Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Philosophy for Groups -- another segment.

Apologies in advance for any formatting problems resulting from the cut and paste operation.


Before Individualism
In the last section we looked at morality as it related to others – our tribe. While this contributes a lot, there is another and quite different moral standpoint which has been very influential in the past. It springs from how individuals are rewarded for their behaviour, what constitutes the “best” possible person, and how best to shape our characters.

To some people, the idea of a “best” possible person may seem so obvious it should be taken for granted, while to others it will seem so strange that they will assume such a term is metaphorical at best.

For those people who consider the idea of a best person to be uncontroversial, the opposite position is that people are of equal worth, regardless of their circumstance or character. Adopting such a belief may have certain game-theoretic advantages if it is adopted across a community. A society which is based on sacrifice for others forms a more competitive group than a greedy society. It can be argued that morality is by definition based on a respect for the moral worth of others.

The moral implications of the position that people are of equal worth are widespread, forming the basis for ideas of fundamental human rights, the justification for the use of force and definition of personal liberty.

For those who are more inclined to believe in the equal moral worth of individuals, it is well worth considering the alternatives. Many religious positions for example save or damn individuals, rather than societies. Criminal behaviour seems to benefit no-one, often not even the perpetrator (especially when the opportunity cost is considered). It is difficult to settle this against a belief that they are equally as good as someone who acts for the betterment of all.

A trite logical response might be to suggest that if one is not morally harmed by any action (because people are always of equal moral worth), then morality loses its potency.

We have already discussed individualism to some extent. The birth of individualism is in the warrior spirit – a moral path which is seen in the origins of most (but by no means all) modern cultures.

Individualism is about glorifying people rather than groups, and about looking at responsibility from a perspective of its benefit to you rather than because of the value of the principles at stake. The heroic virtues may be ones which are good for society, but this is the beginning of a belief that ones primary responsibility is to your own benefit.

From there, it is easy to develop a morality in which our own benefit begins to outweigh our responsibility to others. The perspective shift may not have obvious immediate consequences, but I believe that the subtle difference accounts for the eventual placement of the right to wealth above the more basic rights of others.

People, of course, have always pursued things for their own gain, but in today's society we have reached the point where people who gain more are actually seen as better people, and that is where the difference lies.

It is the tendency for things which are respected or rewarded in society to become regarded as morally good. It is probably true that most of our moral beliefs are arrived at in this manner (consider the parenting a child) but that some are the result of, for want of a better word, our nature.

Physical prowess has always been a cause for respect. Even in today's society where a great deal of other advantages can be gained without it, we still admire those who are physically strong and graceful. The effect was more exaggerated in the distant past, where power was more defined by physical traits than intellectual ones.

In all examples of individualist morality, the question is not “What do I have to achieve for society in order to be good”, but rather “What kind of person must I be in order to be good”. In the above example, strong people are good people. The same manner of speaking may be extended to the kind of things more traditionally thought of as moral goods – e.g. courage and honesty.

The obvious conclusion of an individualist moral system is to invent a person who most embodies the extolled virtues. In history, I believe that the most realistic example of this is the existence of a warrior class, who are accorded fame and respect according to their individual merits. In the next sections, we will examine some particular examples, starting with feudal Japan.

Bushido means, roughly, way of the warrior. It refers equally to mundane and moral matters. Bushido is both a highly pragmatic term, encompassing the technical aspects of swordplay, training and so forth, as well as the beliefs and attitudes which should be adopted by the warrior.

The Samurai were active as recently as around 1400 A.D., and were present in society when international trade first reached their borders. This is a similar time period to the knightly orders in the West, and they will be considered later. Bushido was never formalised as with Knightly Orders, but a number of key texts exist which give us some insight into their core beliefs and attitudes. The Samurai were given nobility by birth, but were also expected to pursue a particular moral code.

In the main, the Samurai are rather over-glorified by folklore, not so different from an infantryman of today. However, they also contained individuals who took the Bushido very seriously, and it is from them that the best philosophy also comes. It if were to be simplified to a single sentence, Bushido might be an acceptance of the inevitability of death, and the greater importance of living a good life than a long one. The concept of death present in Bushido comes from a beautiful philosophy of meaning, coming originally from China and India.

Unlike modern ethics where suicide is generally considered a bad thing, the Bushido holds it to be redemptive. It is seen as the acceptance that an immoral life is not worth living, and committing ritual suicide is in fact the only way to live up to ones principles. It is not better to die than to live, but living is only worthwhile if one lives well. After a disgrace, ritual suicide is the best way of living up to ones principles. Not to commit suicide is to reject the value of living a principled life.

In an excerpt from the chapter "AN ACCOUNT OF THE HARA-KIRI" in Mitford's "Tales of Old Japan", the author describes a friend witnessing an act of Seppuku:
"There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being displayed in the hara-kiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead."
Determination is central to Bushido. One of the principles of Bushido is that one should be so committed to action, than even in death one should be capable of performing ones final task.

It is difficult, I think, to understand the principles of Bushido if one is afraid of death. It would, I think be very liberating if one had no fear of death, and no desire to live other than in accordance with ones principles.

From the Book of the Five Rings:
“There are various Ways. There is the Way of salvation by the law of Buddha, the Way of Confucius governing the Way of learning, the Way of healing as a doctor, as a poet teaching the Way of Waka, tea, archery, and many arts and skills. Each man practices as he feels inclined.
It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death. Although not only warriors but priests, women, peasants and lowlier folk have been known to die readily in the cause of duty or out of shame, this is a different thing. The warrior is different in that studying the Way of strategy is based on overcoming men. By victory gained in crossing swords with individuals, or enjoining battle with large numbers, we can attain power and fame for ourselves or for our lord. This is the virtue of strategy. “
From the Book of the Five Rings:
“The Ni To Ichi Way of strategy is recorded in this the Book of the Void.
What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man's knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.
People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment.
In the Way of strategy, also, those who study as warriors think that whatever they cannot understand in their craft is the void. This is not the true void.
To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.
Until you realise the true Way, whether in Buddhism or in common sense, you may think that things are correct and in order. However, if we look at things objectively, from the viewpoint of laws of the world, we see various doctrines departing from the true Way. Know well this spirit, and with forthrightness as the foundation and the true spirit as the Way. Enact strategy broadly, correctly and openly.
Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and, taking the void as the Way, you will see the Way as void.
In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence, spirit is nothingness.
It is interesting to consider how differently the West and the East view the cycle of life and death. Both espouse moral virtues, that is to say principles of life which are considerate toward ones own well-being, and the well-being of others. However, in the West, being alive is considered the most important aspect of well-being, whereas in the east, moral behaviour is most important.

It is not strictly on topic, but I think worthwhile to consider the alternative view of life and death which is put forward by Buddhism and Taoism. They vary significantly, but share a common aesthetic. The specific views here will be Taoist Philosophy.
The Tao
In the West, the idea of a continued existence after death is used to rationalise self-sacrifice. In the East, the idea of death is itself attacked, which has wide implication.

The Eastern ideas about the cycle of life and death are compelling and fascinating. Many of them are quite naturalistic, interpreting the Tao (the way of things) without reference to the supernatural or divine. Others use god myths as a part of their framework.

Under Taoist philosophy, there is no constant you. An easy way to consider this is to remember all the different states of mind you have ever been in, all the states of knowledge and ignorance which you have ever had, all the happinesses and sadnesses.

Under Taoist philosophy, all things which we give names to are just collections of things which have come together for a time, and will separate again in time.

Consider the experiences of other people. In some ways, another's experience of an idea is much like your own experience of that same idea. It is not the idea which makes up your identity, but rather the different relationship to your other ideas and experiences.

The identity “you” is not the declaration of a thing, but rather a name for the relationship between all the ideas which you have. When you die, many of the ideas which went to make up your identity still exist in other minds. Perhaps you might have contributed some of your ideas to another person. In this way, all identities are constantly in a state of change, and death is not the ending of a thing, but an empty phrase meaning that the relationships have changed beyond recognition.

Someone who has undergone a major personality transformation is an example of this, as is the development of a child. In a real sense, the name which applied to the earlier and the later does not refer to the same person at all. One has died and another is born. The cycle of change continues, and the patterns continue to evolve.

Physical objects are built up out of these aggregates also – a car is just a name for the temporary coming together of the components, which are working in unison for a time. The car is not the true entity, nor are its components true entities either. All things exist in a flow of change, as the things which come together to make the whole change also.

In this sense, death and rebirth are not the literal ending and re-creation of individuals, but merely the coming together and parting of particular components in a relational way.

Death is an entirely natural process, but it is not the end of change. The ideas which you held, the things which made up your identity will continue to exist, in the formations of other individuals. Your physical form will diffuse from a named entity back into nature.

The Bushido spirit includes a recognition that death is not a form of harm, and that by gaining Enlightenment, one escapes suffering. Nirvana and Samsara (heaven and earth) are the same place. Nirvana is not somewhere you go, but a way of existence which is entirely achievable within the normal everyday world.

This is not a supernatural position, but is the way of things.

The philosophy brought about from this attitude to death is that one should not seek to exercise excessive control over others. The world around oneself is in a constant state of flux, according to the way of things. One must seek to live in harmony with this, and so the key to moral action is not in determining how to force the world around you be be more moral, but rather on how to live oneself.

To some extent, this helps to resolve the problem of evil. To feel personally responsible for that suffering is to fail to understand that such suffering is the way of things. As it is in your power, you should act in harmony with it – by helping those in need, being virtuous and honest.

However, one only needs to do this insofar as it is in your best interests. If attempting to solve the suffering of others would be to your disadvantage, then it is not worth doing. Your own benefit does not get lost in the overwhelming need of others, but is considered along with it.
To what extent can you relate to the ideas about identity which are described above?
Does the idea of parts of your living on in others bring any comfort?
Taoist ideas are quite incompatible with many religions. How does it compare with yours?
The Tao and Individualism
All of this talk about the illusory nature of identity seems to contradict what was said earlier about the progression from a warrior spirit to individualism. How can someone who does not believe in identity be an individualist?

Partially, the move towards individualism comes chiefly from the West which does not hold to Taoist ideas of Emptiness (the sentiment expressed above about what makes up an identity). Partially, the individual still exists, but that existence is considered in different terms. It is still true that people feel as individuals, desire as individuals etc.

In a very real sense, considering the Emptiness of identity in fact frees one of many of the obligations one might otherwise feel towards others. Instead of being responsible for each suffering person in equal measure (on the basis of their shared moral status), one is responsible of the basis of your relationship to them. Indeed, your relationships to other things in the world is part of your identity.

Bushido appears to be a selfless philosophy, but contains at its core beliefs about nobility and individual merit which in fact lead to self-aggrandisement. The practical relationship between a Samurai and a member of the peasant classes was one of derision and contempt. Bushido is much more than Taoism, even though it is built from it.

In practise, the caste system by which the Samurai was elevated above the common person engendered a belief in their moral superiority – the Samurai was a better person, and the best Samurai was the best person. They swore fealty to a lord or “Daimyo”, who in turn had a superior moral status, also from the noble caste. A lot of the subtlety to the social hierarchy is being glossed over, yet it is felt that the example stands whereby morality has become a matter of individual benefit and individual superiority in a way which is different to ones moral obligations to a tribe.


Anonymous londonluvvy@hotmail.com said...

Hi MP, I typed 'heaven and earth are the same place' into the Google Advanced Search. I got you and a discussion forum for people whose dogs had died.

The other day I saw the quote below in an email I subscribe to & it was the first time I can remember a Christian coming out with this:

From: A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
'They aren't two worlds -- the physical and the spiritual -- there's only one: 'God's Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.'
Many of us pray, "Our Father, who art in Heaven', thinking that God is up there, which creates the duality of two worlds. A lot of people in the west like to keep matter and spirit very comfortably apart. All truth is one, all reality is one. As soon as we take the enfleshment of God, the incarnation which, for Christians, is represented by the person of Jesus Christ, then we start taking things seriously.
You seem a very scholarly person. Do you know there is a very rich Christian mystical tradition (St Teresa of Avila; St John of the Cross; Francis of Assisi, many others....)(the church only likes them when they are dead)--- I have studied these people and practiced in a half-baked sort of way for many years. I have very definitely got somewhere using their writings. I've seen it with my own two eyes that heaven and earth are the same place & I am not some totally holy and serene guru. The things people write about 'saints' are wrong. This stuff is available. If I can do it, so can anybody. Heaven and earth are the same place.

8/08/2006 05:59:00 AM  

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