Richard J. Eisner: Writer / Philosopher

Below are samples of my writing, preceded by a list. Most of the pieces are taken from a philosophy club's now-defunct website, where members posted comments and arguments on various topics. When that website existed, I simply, here, gave a list of my writings posted there, a link to the site, and instructions how to find my articles on it. Now that the other site no longer is, if I want anyone to read the articles, I have to post them on websites of my own. Some of the pieces explicitly reply to other members’ remarks. I do not post the remarks to which I’m replying (either because I have no copy of those remarks, or for other reasons); and I was disinclined to rewrite my piece to obviate this explanation, which I hope will suffice. If an essay is posted on its own dedicated website (containing only that essay), I simply provide a link to the website, instead of posting the piece again here.

  1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

  2. Egoism: a Rebuttal     © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  3. Determinism     © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  4. Free Will     © 23 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  5. Why Are We Here?     © 2 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  6. Pascal's Wager Argument: a Rebuttal     © 9 July 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  7. Wager: Rebuttal to Epsilon     © 27 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  8. Democracy     © 7 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  9. Theology and Falsification     © 29 May 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  10. Utopia     © 29 October 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

  11. Knowledge     © 1 April 2006 by Richard J. Eisner

  12. Why Be Moral?     © 2 February 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  13. Four Critiques of Buddhism     © 17 November 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  14. A Foolish Consistency     © 8 March 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

  15. The Impossibility of Knowledge, Free Will, and God     © 24 May 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  16. The Rationality and Ethics of Voting     © April 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

  17. Why the Left Should Vote     © 27 February 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

  18. Conservatism     © 27 November 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

  19. Mark Twain Ghost Speech     © 4 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  20. Boundaries     © 28 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  21. Life After Death     © 29 August 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

  22. Kant’s Categorical Imperative     © 28 March 2010 by Richard J. Eisner

  23. For the Right to Abortion     © 1981 by Richard J. Eisner

  24. Abortion: Reply to Ron     © 22 March 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  25. The Epistemology of Testimony     © 16 January 2011 by Richard J. Eisner

  26. Happiness and Well-being     © 28 April 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  27. Personal Identity     © 23 May 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  28. Suicide: Rebuttal to Mirav     © 26 June 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  29. Suicide     © 24 July 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  30. Egalitarianism     © 22 November 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

  31. Infinite Repetition: Reply to Raveen     © 27 July 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

  32. Infinite Repetition: Rebuttal to Robert     © 23 November 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

  33. Eternal Recurrence     © 27 September 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

  34. Limits of Law     © 21 September 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

  35. Gun Control     © 17 January 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

  36. Does the Universe have a Purpose?     © 23 February 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

  37. Desire     © 5 July 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

  38. John Rawls     © 20 December 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

  39. Justice     © 14 February 2015 by Richard J. Eisner

  40. Nothingness     © 24 November 2015 by Richard J. Eisner

  41. Explanation, Reason, Cause     © 30 January 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

  42. Explanation, Reason, Cause: Rebuttal to Robert     © 10 July 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

  43. Black Lives Matter     © 15 August 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

  44. Social Darwinism     © 15 October 2002 by Richard J. Eisner

  45. Three Short Meditations on Moral Character and Virtue     © January 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

1. Purpose in War: a Rebuttal     © 3 December 2004 by Richard J. Eisner

At the 21 November 2004 meeting of the Philosophy Club, a member—I believe it was Ron—asserted that the United States’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, though the Bush administration’s cause therein was bad, was nonetheless beneficial, and therefore justified (the end justifies the means). I agree that the war was begun and pursued with evil intent, but respectfully disagree with the rest of the aforesaid thesis, as follows.

            Specifically concerning Iraq, this war has caused enormous damage, among which, in addition to the huge tax burden, is massive loss of life and limb; widespread destruction of property, including irreplaceable, priceless artifacts; virtually permanent radioactive contamination of Iraq’s land; and increased world hatred of the United States, with consequent heightened risk for all Americans of terrorist reprisal. These terrible and mounting costs are no more balanced (let alone outweighed, let alone justified) by the admitted evil of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein than the loss of a hand is offset by the presence on it of a wart (and the suggestion that those opposed to this war favor Saddam Hussein makes no more sense than the charge that those against severing the hand are in favor of warts).

            More generally, to judge aggression rather by its outcome than by its purpose would be counter-utilitarian. The reason is that it will often be difficult to prove that a war did more harm than good. And if our condemnation of aggressors must depend on and await such proof, we will be able to punish very few of them, which will impair a major disincentive to such aggression and thus considerably increase it. So the question is whether ill-intended hostility is bad on the whole. I submit that it is. Ron, in denying the importance of purpose in this connection, drew a medical analogy, arguing that, if a surgeon performs an operation from motives other than the patient’s health, say from greed, and yet the surgery is competent and successful, then it was desirable and the physician’s purpose irrelevant. This hypothetical example, however, assumes that, in addition to the surgeon’s ulterior motive of greed, is a valid ostensive purpose (the patient’s well-being). But aggression often has no purpose beyond the ulterior motive, as the United States’s (initial) announced reason to invade Iraq (immanent, serious threat posed by “weapons of mass destruction”) turned out to be a fraud. Hence the appropriate surgical analogy for an ill-intentioned war is, not a well or poorly done operation, but an unnecessary one. Just as surgery, unlike some other medical procedures such as massage, is inherently destructive, so, too, is war. And while a surgeon may sometimes put his medical fee to better use than would his patient, and an aggressor put the spoils to better use than would the conquered; and while occasionally other good may accidentally result; in the vast majority of cases, and overall, the harm (not even counting the dread engendered by the possibility of gratuitous medical or martial incursion) will be far greater. This is why both surgery and war are universally—justly—considered wrong unless undertaken for proper purposes . . . which do not include greed.

2. Egoism: a Rebuttal      © 9 January 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his (on-line) essay “True Morality: Rational Principles for Optimal Living” Peter Voss writes that ethics should be a “system that we enthusiastically pursue, not from duty . . . but for personal benefit . . . ” In essence, Voss is advocating egoism, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “the ethical belief that self-interest is the just and proper motive for all human conduct.”

            I agree that self-interest is a proper motive, but disagree that it is the (sole) proper motive. One difficulty with egoism is that it disregards other people. Voss notes, “This does not mean that what is good for us is necessarily detrimental to others—life is not a zero-sum game. Fortunately, many rational [that is, egoistic] moral principles benefit both ourselves and others.” That “many egoistic moral principles benefit both ourselves and others” suggests that perhaps some egoistic moral principles do not benefit both ourselves and others, which latter category Voss does not address. Imagine you are walking and you happen upon a drowning man, whom you could easily save by tossing a nearby life preserver; but doing so would cause you to be two minutes late for your (very edifying) Book Club meeting. Egoism would compel, or justify, your letting the man drown. (I suppose that would be unfortunate?)

            Another problem with Egoism is that its pronouncement that self-interest is “the proper motive for all human conduct” implies duty, which (duty) Egoism explicitly denies. More important, self-interest, the impulse to advantage oneself, is more accurately characterized as motivation than obligation. Indeed, the theory’s flaw might be capsuled as the confusion of motivation with morality.

            From a broader perspective, there is a fundamental, age-old, quite real dichotomy of the individual’s welfare and society’s (the two do not necessarily conflict, but, because resources are scarce, they tend to); and there is something contradictory about urging the general adoption of a doctrine of self-seeking, about recommending to the group that which is against the group’s interest. Egoism is a pseudo-ethic; it is naked selfishness attempting to look respectable by dressing itself up as a philosophy.

3. Determinism      © 12 March 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

Debra poses these questions:

“1. Do we live in a deterministic world, or do random events occur?

2. If we could roll back the clock to the big bang, or to 5 seconds ago, would events unfold the same way?

3. If random events occur, how small a chance was human evolution?”

I believe in causal determinism. A rerun universe would no more unfold differently than would a rerun movie.

The answer to the query about random phenomena depends on the definition of random, one such (per The American Heritage Dictionary) being “Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.” Thus defined, randomness and determinism are consistent, because causation does not entail purpose. If I fire a gun into the air on New Year’s Eve, and the bullet comes down a mile away and kills John Doe, Doe’s death was random, since it was not intended; but it was causally determined, by the position of the gun when it was fired, the weight of the bullet, the wind speed, and so forth.

Randomness in the larger, metaphysical sense, on the other hand, is, I think, inconsistent with determinism, in that there is no chance that given conditions will proceed otherwise than one certain way. Perhaps randomness and probability, strictly speaking, refer, in this context, just to our state of mind, our expectation. For instance, we might say that rain is seventy percent likely; yet either it will rain, or it will not rain. The “seventy percent” describes the uncertainty of our knowledge about the event, not any uncertainty in the event itself.

Postscript: Einstein’s dictum “God does not play dice with the universe” is problematic, in suggesting an example (dice-playing) of that (randomness) which the statement purports to deny.

4. Free Will     © 23 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

Free will is impossible, thus. It is not sufficient, for free will, that your will cause your action. It is additionally necessary that your will not be caused by something other than you. But your will must be caused by something. If it is not caused by something other than you, it must be caused by you (you must will your will). But, for the same reason, you must also will your will to will, and so back ad infinitum, a situation that cannot be, as our first will is given to us, at birth. Which is just to say that, ultimately, we do not cause ourselves, but rather are caused (causal determinism).

            The problem is that we seem to have free will; and, without it, a man is not truly responsible for his conduct, in which case, arguably, it is wrong to punish him for it. The solution, I think, is to frankly distinguish between the theoretical and the practical, and to posit a sort of utile fictitious free-will analogue. (Although we might regard the latter as the freedom, within limits, to effect our wishes, while our wishes themselves are beyond our control; this, too, finally, is merely a convenient mode of expression, for wishes encompass the inclination whether, and how, to act on an urge, and, more broadly, determinism entails that conditions, including our wishes, proceed in just one certain way.)

            In this quotidian world in which we appear to have a degree of control over our actions, we seem to shape our behavior, to an extent, by predicted consequences. Therefore, since, for example, some persons refrain from robbing banks at least in part because they understand that they may be punished for it; we know that, in practice, if we want to protect our money, we must make a law restricting people’s bank withdrawals to amounts they have deposited or that the bank voluntarily lends them, and penalize those who break the law. Hence practicality justifies—nay, necessitates—the imposition of punishment. Furthermore concerning retribution, the principle that humans are not responsible for their actions would apply also to our act of meting out punishment, and so absolve us for that as well. Or, if we are responsible for penalizing whom we consider wrongdoers, then so also are they for their actions. In other words, the argument against punishment is contradictory, in that it assumes free will as to the act of punishing, but a lack of free will as to the acts punished.

            Similarly rationalizing the use of this pragmatic free-will counterpart is its consistent application, even by those of us who deny the strict form. As I hold others accountable for their deeds, I likewise expect to be held accountable for mine; just as, correspondingly, though I know that, in the end, a writer does not create his compositions, I am nonetheless chagrined at a poor piece of work, and proud of a good one.

5. Why Are We Here?      © 2 April 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

“Why are we here?” is a variant of the proverbial query about “the meaning of life.” One signification of “meaning” in this connection is value (including disvalue), which has both an objective and a subjective sense. The objective form is intrinsic value, whose presence or absence is a fact, or truth, independent of our opinion about it. My own opinion (though I will not rehearse the argument for it) is that intrinsic value is impossible. Subjective worth, on the other hand, is, if you will, the value that what we value (say, our own life, or even life in general) has to us.

            A second definition of “meaning” here is purpose, to which the objective-subjective dichotomy likewise pertains. Since objective purpose overlaps, and depends on, objective worth (as Aristotle said, a thing’s purpose is to seek its essential good); the impossibility of absolute value entails the impossibility of absolute purpose. It seems to me that purpose in this context is just (subjective) intention, and that, therefore, the concept “the purpose of life” is unsound because purpose, being a state of mind, is a property, not of life, but of individuals; and because, contrary to the phrase’s implication of a unity of purpose (“the”), not all our purposes have the same object, not even happiness, which we often sacrifice for other desiderata (what we value [or believe is intrinsically valuable] may be a factor in determining our pursuits). (In further consequence, your “mission in life” does not exist prior to and independent of you, awaiting your discovery of it, but instead arises from you.)

            To the argument that life’s purpose is objective in consisting in its creator’s (God’s) purpose for it, I would offer this response. If God could not possibly change His mind in this regard, then life’s purpose would be akin to intrinsic purpose, which, as discussed, I reject (and God would be extraneous). Or, if God could alter His purpose for life, then it is not necessary or universal, but merely contingent, one percipient’s (subjective) intent. Be that as it may, men frequently purpose to perform God’s will. But I wonder: Considering that any course of events (including our actions) willed by an omnipotent being would inevitably come to pass, regardless of our little effort for or against it; what is the logic in the notion of attempting to discover and do God’s will? Alternatively, what adjustment would we make in our purpose to carry out God’s will if we supposed that God wants us simply to do what is best for humanity?

            A third acceptation of “meaning” of life is a combination of the other two, and is captured by “meaningful.” When we pursue meaning in our lives, we are seeking purpose and value. Which meaning, again, is subjective, and something each person must generate for himself. What we search for in this respect is, not meaning, per se, but rather a sense of meaning; not the meaning, but a meaning . . . which I have found in writing about such philosophical questions.

6. Pascal's Wager Argument: a Rebuttal     © 9 July 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his “Wager” argument, Pascal reasons that, since belief in God, if the belief were true, would infinitely gratify the believer; therefore, however low the probability of God’s existence, so long as that likelihood is finite (not zero or infinitesimal), it pays, and so is rational, even rationally compelled, to (try to) believe. Preliminarily, a clarification. Infinite experience, happy or otherwise, for a finite being, is impossible: attainable neither instantaneously nor cumulatively (no matter how long finite increments accrue, you never reach infinity). Nonetheless, if the improbability of God’s existence is both finite and fixed, some sufficiently large finite quantum of pleasure will outbalance it, and eventually accumulate. Hence, in this context, we should use “endless” instead of “infinite.”

            Pascal’s argument, though, contains a number of significant faults that I think are not repairable. One is the notion that belief is a choice. Even if I could acquire great benefit by coming to believe “Thrice two is four” or “Earth is flat”; I don’t think I could so convince myself.

            A more fundamental flaw is that, almost question-begging, the argument depends upon a degree of the very beliefs that are the subject of its conclusion. If you think it is twenty-six percent likely that God exists, but that, if God did exist and you believed in His existence twice as strongly (more than fifty percent—more likely than not), then you would get unending happiness—in these circumstances, it might be perfectly reasonable to take steps to thus augment your belief in God (if, again, you also believed you could succeed therein). But if you lack those beliefs, if you firmly disbelieve in God or Heaven (let alone if you think that God would better reward nonbelievers), then your spending valuable time attempting to cause yourself to believe in God would be no more rational than, say, giving your fortune to a stranger on the street in response to his assurance that your doing so would bring you eternal bliss (an argument of exactly the same form as Pascal’s).

            A further, equally basic error in Pascal’s argument is this: the argument’s apparent persuasiveness derives largely from its mathematical structure, its irrefutable assertion that an infinite (or an ever-increasing) volume is greater than a definite one. Even granting the (doubtful) supposition that human choice is a mechanical, computational process, however, such reasoning assumes that the elements whose quantities are compared are equivalent, the implicit common unit being happiness. But not all desiderata are commensurable. And a man’s choice among them is ultimately subjective; he may rationally choose (and choose to spend his time pursuing) wisdom (which is explicitly sacrificed here) or glory, for instance, over (even perpetual) pleasure. In fact, a sure advantage, versus a speculative (if potentially larger) one, also amounts to an incommensurable qualitative difference, likewise a matter of personal preference.

            Finally, Pascal’s implication that reason dictates your choosing to believe in God, is ironic. The philosopher’s thesis includes two components: the decision and the belief. Because either choice, to try to believe, or not, is justifiable, depending on your existing beliefs and values; the decision is, as it were, rationality-neutral. But Pascal urges you to adopt a belief you think false, to believe what you disbelieve, to delude yourself. Ergo, Pascal’s proposition, far from being mandated by rationality, involves an irrationality.

7. Wager: Rebuttal to Epsilon     © 27 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

This replies to Epsilon’s 10 July 2005 entry (which responds to my 9 July 2005 comment on Pascal’s “Wager”). Epsilon first argues that a human is infinite, thus: Our existence includes phenomena, like meaning, beauty, and truth, that are not measurable. What is finite is measurable. Therefore, if it is not measurable, it is not finite; and if it is not finite, it is infinite. One flaw in this reasoning lies in the equation of not-finite with infinite, or the assumption that a thing is either finite or infinite. Such inference is valid with respect to entities that have magnitude, but not as to those that lack it, which things are neither finite nor infinite. And the phenomena that Epsilon cites (meaning, beauty, truth) are of the latter sort (Epsilon himself says these are entities “to which measurable magnitude does not apply”). Alternatively, that we include an infinite phenomenon does not mean we include an infinite amount thereof. Space may be infinite; but a man encompasses only a finite portion of it. Nor does our being greater than the sum of our parts imply that we are infinite.

            The reference, in my earlier piece, to the shape of the Earth was (obviously) meant to illustrate the simple point that belief is less a choice than a fact, not necessarily changeable by an act of will. When I read Epsilon’s words (second paragraph), “For anyone who believes in these things [evidence that Earth is round], then it is impossible to convince them that the Earth is flat”; I thought he was agreeing with me. When I read his next sentence, however, “But for one who does not believe in such things, it is very hard to convince them that it is round” . . . I realized that I am utterly at a loss to know what Epsilon’s point is.

            In his third paragraph, Epsilon writes, “[P]ost-rational beliefs do not simply follow the rules of logic . . . because they also follow other rules that cannot be reduced to logical arguments and are therefore more advanced. . . . [W]ho is to say that an irrational belief isn't more advanced than a rational one?” To begin with, Epsilon confuses nonrational and irrational; not-follow and violate. When I eat breakfast, I am not following traffic rules; but neither am I violating them: they simply do not apply. My breakfast is non-legal, not il-legal. But if I jaywalk while eating toast, that the toast is nutritious does not render my action lawful. Merely that a statement does not follow logical rules does not make it irrational; but if it is irrational (if it infringes logical rules), its conformance with other principles will not negative its irrationality. And, since philosophy is a rational affair, the irrational is bad philosophy (the purely nonrational is not philosophy). On the other hand, it is true that an argument might seem illogical just because, ahead of its time or highly sophisticated, it is not immediately understood. But our judgment’s fallibility does not foreclose its viability. That I occasionally miscount my change does not mean I should abandon the attempt. Indeed, the very notion of the advancement of our thought presupposes both judgment, by which we discern the more and the less advanced, and criticism, whereby, through argument, we test each other’s ideas (count our philosophical change, and inspect it for the sometimes overlooked rare gold coin but also for the far more common slug), come to recognize our past deficiencies, winnow out the unsound, and so intellectually advance.

8. Democracy     © 7 August 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

I find Plato’s philosopher-king argument for monarchy unsound and, further, disagree with its conclusion (I favor democracy), as follows. Plato’s argument, most fundamentally, is this. There is something which is intrinsically good. Other supposed desiderata count for nothing; and, unless a human lives as to partake of or achieve the one true good, all is lost, his potentially significant life is naught. Moreover, this final desideratum is not the subject of common knowledge, for opinions about what is good vary greatly, and all such opinions, except the single right one, are wrong. Consequently, just as you would need the special expertise of a physician to know what is a healthy life, you need the special knowledge and wisdom of a philosopher to know what is a good life. And, since the people need a governor who knows what is good, in order to lead them to it, and because philosophers, and only they, can be counted on to know what is good, the ruler must be a philosopher. And just as the patient must follow the orders of his physician, subjects must obey the philosopher-king.

            Plato is of course correct that the purpose of government is to help citizens live good lives. If, additionally, just one sort of life is actually good, it is perhaps not terribly unreasonable to argue that the person most likely to be able to ascertain it be responsible to do so and that his determination therein be followed. But I believe that intrinsic good is impossible. And, if no sort of life is ultimately better than another, there would seem no justification to demand that a person live other than as he desires (consistent with the well-being of his neighbors); and I would construe good here as a man’s own sense of satisfaction, however he pleases to define it. This relative conception of good suggests to me that, by and large, we do what society as a whole find most satisfying, which contraindicates autocracy, for, if one man’s, or even a small minority’s, preferences (even if selflessly motivated) are always adopted, then, on balance, the group will be less satisfied than if, through a democratic, accommodating system, the majority’s preferences are taken, or everyone’s interests are proportionately indulged. It is as if a band of six (mature, independent) individuals needed to choose a movie to watch every week. Suppose one person likes comedy shows; four others enjoy dramas; and the remaining one (the philosopher among them) prefers educational/philosophical films. Under my plan, a democratic mode would fulfill everyone’s interests as far as possible (and maximize net satisfaction), perhaps by viewing a comedy movie one week, a philosophical presentation another, and dramatic shows a number of weeks. Under Plato’s doctrine, the philosopher would be in control, and a philosophical film would be the choice every week. Though the philosopher might think this is for everyone’s edification and good; in reality, all that would be happening is that the philosopher would have his way, have his interests met, all the time; the other members, never: the philosopher would in this respect be constantly satisfied, the others constantly dissatisfied; and overall satisfaction would be less.

            If we interpret philosopher more broadly as one who is thoughtful and conscientious, Plato’s argument involves another problem. Presumably, such good men can also be elected; so the question is, Why is the head of state more likely to be a good man in an autocracy than in a democracy? I see no apparent reason therefor. In fact, the opposite seems more probable. In a monarchy, the governor is randomly determined by birth (or some similar happenstance); whereas, in a democracy, we can deliberately select him on the basis of leadership traits. Plus, if the ruler starts to govern selfishly, only democracy enables the people, without violence, to replace him; and his knowledge that he can be replaced makes his ouster less often needed (“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”). And here, again, optimization of public satisfaction requires, in addition to a benign leader, a mechanism whereby the people’s wishes can be given effect.

            Finally, I prefer democracy to autocracy on grounds, not only of utility, but also of principle, the principle that competent, mature humans have, or should have, a right to equal participation in decisions that affect them and for whose benefit the decisions are supposedly made—in short, that men have a right to determine their own lives. But this principle entails yet another matter of utility. Given men’s instinctive, and, I think, quite reasonable, feeling that they have a right to share in their state’s governance; then, even in the unlikely event that a monarchy conduced to society’s welfare as effectively as a democracy, the people would still be less satisfied, since they would have an additional source of substantive unhappiness in their lives: resentment at being excluded from the decision.

9. Theology and Falsification     © 29 May 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 3 April 2005 Critique of Antony Flew’s essay “Theology and Falsification,” Ron writes, “In this essay Flew relies on an incorrect understanding of what falsification is. Take this comment in particular:

            [Ron quoting Flew:] ‘Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.”’

            [Ron continuing:] “But that has nothing to do with falsifiability. What will convince a believer regarding the truth of a proposition is distinct from whether the proposition is in fact falsifiable.”

            Flew ends his essay by asking religious persons, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?” According to Ron, because falsifiability is an objective property, independent of acceptance or rejection, Flew’s query about what the devotee would accept as falsification of his beliefs is irrelevant.

            But it seems to me that the misunderstanding is Ron’s, not Flew’s, who I think makes a good case for his inquiry’s dual relevance, as follows. One purpose of Flew’s question is to deal with a certain logical double standard sometimes employed by believers. The faithful often cite factual evidence for their opinions. But one assumes that, if evidence could be adduced for a conclusion, evidence might be adduced against it. Flew is addressing the hypocrisy of the religious man who, aware that his offering evidence for his claims obliges him to be at least potentially open to counter-evidence, purports to be open thereto, but whose conduct belies it (he glibly explains away and dismisses aught that might contravene his dogma). Flew confronts this deceit by stating his conviction that the religionist would in fact never accept anything as falsifying his beliefs, and challenging him to show Flew wrong in this regard by saying what he would accept as falsification.

            More fundamentally relevant, falsification is essential to truth, nay, to meaning itself. If you do not know when a statement is false, you cannot know when it is true (“true” is “not-false”). If your acquaintance tells you, “I have several paintings in my home,” but later, upon seeing a chair in your office, he exclaims in earnest, “Oh, you, too, have a painting!”; you can no longer credit his original announcement, for apparently he does not know what a painting is. To know what is a painting, you must know what is not a painting. With respect to a grand religious declaration, like one about God’s existence, or His love, whose presence allegedly benefits men, at least, or especially, the devout; unless the world would look different depending on whether the utterance is true or false, the assertion is meaningless; and, unless you know how the world would look (different) if the belief were false, you do not know its meaning, much less its truth (and the proselytizer has the burden to define and prove his doctrine).

            Postscript: Religion is faith, which The American Heritage Dictionary defines as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” Since the ultimate suppositions of science and philosophy are likewise unprovable, however, we must go on to say that what most basically distinguishes faith from those disciplines is that it involves, not critical thinking, but rather the suspension of critical thinking; and, concomitantly, it seeks, not truth, but comfort (the intuition by which we accept mathematical axioms is qualitatively different from faith, inasmuch as a reasonable man cannot deny them . . . and that a belief is comforting neither implies nor suggests that it is true). So perhaps the central incongruity here is (rational) argument on (essentially a-rational) religion.

10. Utopia     © 29 October 2005 by Richard J. Eisner

The closest we can come to effecting happiness, which cannot be done, is to advance the freedom to pursue it. Essential, however, to the freedom to seek happiness is basic economic well-being, for only when we are relieved of the constant struggle for mere life do we have time and energy to pursue what makes life worthwhile. But utopia, by definition, or at least by connotation, is good for all of its inhabitants, not just for a few, which entails widespread economic well-being, which, in turn, given the scarcity of material resources, requires the sharing of such wealth, and a limit on individual amassment of it.

11. Knowledge     © 1 April 2006 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 15 October 2005 entry, Brian raises, among kindred issues, the central question: Is knowledge (in the strict, philosophical sense) possible? A useful point of departure here is Descartes. He holds that certain of our ideas, including those we acquire through sense perception, such as that we walk and eat, are unknowable, because a powerful demon could deceive us about such matters—we could be hallucinating. But Descartes maintains that we can know other truths, as an example of which, he cites his famous aphorism “I think, therefore I am.” The essence of you is your awareness. When you are aware, you are. At least in this instance, to think is to be aware. When you think “I think, therefore I am,” you think; you are aware; and you are. “I think, therefore I am,” whenever you rehearse it to yourself, is consequently self-confirming, and deception-proof. (Based on these observations, Descartes proposes an axiomatic, quasi mathematical method of philosophy, a means of gaining knowledge, whose most fundamental rule is to receive just utterances [like “I think, therefore I am,” and specifically excluding ones based on sense perception] that are so clear as to be irresistible to the mind.)

            My own view is that we can know no statements at all (only our raw consciousness itself). For our sense of sureness, our sense of “irresistible clarity,” regarding them (statements) is ultimately unreliable, in that we could theoretically possess that same sensation about false or meaningless propositions. Many times in a dreaming or half-dreaming state I have thought some concept was utterly clear, and wished to write it down, but, on waking, immediately realized that the idea was nonsensical. Even if our perception properly corresponds with truth, we have no way finally to check that connection. (Remember, the issue is not, Are we right?, but, Do we know?) Hence, as to any given proposition I might accept, I believe that it is true (perhaps even absolutely true), but that I cannot know it. (Since our lack of knowledge pervades every kind of proposition and manner of reasoning, we cannot work around it by avoiding certain forms or modes of thought; and maybe the only helpful prescription along these lines is simply the age-old advice to be self-critical and to think and write as clearly as one can.)

            Brian mentions the paradox of the use of reason to determine reason’s own limit. But, I concur with Brian, this is no more contradictory than the use of our mind to determine our mind’s own limit, in, say, recognizing, late at night, that we would be too tired to read and comprehend a difficult book. Similarly, though, one might contend that my disavowal of knowledge is inconsistent, as follows. If I do not know the truth of any proposition, then I do not know the truth of “It is impossible that I know.” Ergo, I am leaving open the possibility (or, I believe) that “It is impossible that I know” might be false, and this translates to “It is possible that I know,” which contradicts my original position. The flaw in this “paradox” is its assuming (counter to one of our own premises) necessarily that our claims (in this case, “I cannot know”) are coherent and that we understand them. If “I cannot know” turned out rather to be something like “Waters enhance the tonic chord,” my professed ignorance of the assertion’s truth would be entirely consistent. Which confusion we cannot rule out. Consider this analogy. You have a million sheets of paper. On one is written a mystery sentence. The rest are inscribed, “Thrice four is twelve.” One page is taken at random and you have no information as to which message it bears. You believe that the statement on it is true, but you do not know it; and yet you do not think that “Three fours are twelve” could be false . . .

            In answer to a final question, which Brian asks, Is the aforesaid a limit on all knowledge, or just on human knowledge?; I believe that the limitation is an inherent one . . . in a word, that knowledge is impossible.

12. Why Be Moral?     © 2 February 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

In “Why Be Moral? A Dilemma for Nontheists?” (2001), Keith M. Parsons argues that there is a metaphysical source or ground of moral obligation, that there are objectively true moral precepts, such as “The gratuitous infliction of harm is intrinsically wrong and therefore ought not to be done.” I dissent. Precepts (rules of conduct) are not true or false, let alone demonstrably or absolutely so. There is no fact of the matter (only that fact). Like purpose, duty is merely a state of mind, the sense of duty, existing just when and as we experience it, and whose content is virtually unlimited. For example, a man might (perhaps inspired by a vision wherein the doctrine is revealed as a command of God, who—it is well known—works in mysterious ways) adopt this version of the foregoing no-gratuitous-harm principle: “I should do good to my friends and harm to my enemies; and if the harm is intrinsic, so much the better.” Even if such a tenet is unquestioned and globally accepted, the point is that one could differ (logically, if not socially). Nor do we make something a part of the structure of the universe by consensus. And human nature is not metaphysics. It is useful, even necessary, to construct moral laws and to render moral judgments; but we should understand that we do so in relative, human terms, and not in absolute, metaphysical ones.

            Postscript: Given the subjectivity of ethical obligation, the question “Why should we be moral?” reduces to “Why should we do what we feel we should do?,” which is nonsensical.

            Post postscriptum: Parsons cites as an exemplar of ethical objectivism John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” argument: that a person ignorant of his eventual social circumstances, rich or poor, able-bodied or disabled, and so on, would, to account for his possible relative disadvantage, elect an equitable state. Rawls’s thesis is circular, positing an act as its own reason. Thus, just as I scratch my neck, not because I would scratch it, but because it would relieve my itch; and I forbid my toddler to cross the street, not because I would forbid it, but because it would make him safer; so, too, here, we choose egalitarianism, not because we would choose it, but, rather, say, because we would benefit from it. Which criticism, however, is secondary to the aforesaid more general one: Our vision of the sort of world we should create is not true or false; ultimately, we cannot prove it, but only speak on it, and hope that our words will move others to feel the same.

13. Four Critiques of Buddhism     © 17 November 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

One.    A fundament of Buddhism is the nonexistence of the self. Suffering, however, is not an unindividuated mass, like air, but rather an (individual) experience: When I die, my suffering ends, yours continues. The self is the individual: I am myself; you, yourself. Were there no self, no one would suffer, and there would be no suffering; but, obviously, and as Buddhism recognizes, suffering exists. Hence, there is a self: it is that which suffers.

             Two.    The first of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” declares that the ultimate aim is to eliminate suffering. That is a valid goal, and yet the most efficient means to its attainment is suicide, which seems a bad remedy. The resolution is that the cessation of suffering is only half the object: We live, not merely to extinguish the negative, but as well to effect the positive (such as joy and enlightenment). Death is an unsatisfactory solution because, though it achieves the former, it also precludes the latter. Verily, the termination of suffering is a reason not to live, not a reason to live.

             Three.    Buddhism’s fourth “Noble Truth,” which in essence teaches that enlightenment, and only enlightenment, liberates us from suffering, is equally problematic, thus. If an enlightened person with terminal cancer runs out of pain medicine, he will suffer, despite his enlightenment; nor are philosophers immune to boredom, depression, or sadness. Conversely, a dose of heroin will (at least temporarily) disperse an ignorant man’s anguish; and there is much truth in the old saying “Ignorance is bliss.” In reality, both the wise man and the fool can experience both agony and ecstacy. Wisdom and happiness have precious little to do with each other.

            Four.    The second and third of the “Noble Truths” likewise address the problem of suffering: the second identifies desire as the cause; the third, the removal of desire as the cure. These two statements imply that desire is . . . undesirable. But far from being detrimental to us, desire is essential to our humanity: love, for instance, involves the desire for another, or for his welfare; nay, our very existence depends on our desire to live. This denigration of desire, moreover, taken together with the first Noble Truth’s focus on (the negation of) (the feeling of) pain, and the fourth Truth’s prescription of “enlightenment” as the spiritual panacea, produces an unwholesome bias for experience over accomplishment: a bias, for example, that, confronted with the young Mozart, miserable in the frustration of his desire to compose, might have counseled him to abandon the desire. Surely, though, the world is better off that Mozart followed that thirst. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Mozart, having fulfilled his life’s passion, and actualized his genius, regretted not taking an alternate path—including experiencing the pleasurable sensation of “enlightenment.” (And, apropos, men who have accomplished a body of written work on Buddhism, likely a source of considerable pride and satisfaction for them, urging the rest of us to give up striving for accomplishment, and to just meditate instead—is that not disingenuous?) The truth is that, what is gratifying or meaningful—what constitutes a good life—what makes life worth living—is something each person must determine for himself, in light of his own interests, values, abilities; which determination will be different for the Buddha, Plato, Newton, Freud, and Mozart. To proclaim one sort of life, one sort of pursuit, as right for everyone, is downright . . . unenlightened.

14. A Foolish Consistency     © 8 March 2007 by Richard J. Eisner

In his famous adage “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” just what is Emerson attacking? Not, I think, consistency in general, for consistency is essential to truth—necessary, though not sufficient, for it, and central to the search for it: A thinker tests the soundness of his outlook by probing it for inconsistency, which will indicate the presence of error (if two propositions are inconsistent, one of them is false). I believe Emerson is criticizing sequential, as opposed to simultaneous, consistency, as follows.

             Both wise and foolish consistency involve the impetus for agreement among our opinions. The difference lies in the set of opinions with respect to which harmony is sought: in the first (wise), it is the present body, in which our standard is truth, and we discard old notions as we come to see that they conflict with it; whereas, in the second (foolish), it is the series, wherein, to avoid having to admit that we erred, our principle is conformity with our past assertions, and we suppress new ideas at odds with them. In other words, the former strives for the truth, even at the cost of appearing fallible; the latter strives for the appearance of infallibility, even at the cost of the truth . . . and, by thus inhibiting the quest for truth, foolish consistency constricts the mind.

             Addendum: A corollary to the foregoing is that vital to the pursuit of truth, is self-criticism.

15. The Impossibility of Knowledge, Free Will, and God     © 24 May 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Only a conscious being can have knowledge (or free will or be a god); and a conscious being is contingent, not logically necessary (there is a possible world without consciousness). As to any contingent being, a greater creature, one that could deceive the lesser one, is theoretically possible. Ergo, an entity cannot tell whether any belief is not a deception; and thus (propositional) knowledge is impossible. Moreover, because free will presupposes knowledge (to have absolute volition in doing an act, you must know what act you do), and knowledge is impossible, so is free will. And insofar as knowledge and free will define God; God, too, is impossible.

16. The Rationality and Ethics of Voting     © April 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

“The Ethics and Rationality of Voting” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that voting is irrational because the value for any given voter of the potential difference that his vote would make in an election’s outcome, discounted by the minuscule probability that his vote would make the difference, is less than the value of his time in voting, just as it’s irrational to play the lottery, because the value of winning it, discounted by the microscopic chance of that happening, is less than the cost of a lottery ticket. (And it couldn’t be morally compulsory to use your time counterproductively, to do an act worth less than your time in doing it.) But I think voting is rational. One problem with the foregoing argument to the contrary is the supposition that a person’s vote is inconsequential unless it breaks a tie. Elections that close are indeed rare. But elections are often lost by narrow margins, and specifically by the failure to vote of a relatively small number who neglected to vote on the rationale that their vote wouldn’t change the result. Perhaps more to the point, let’s view the situation at the level of the population as a whole. Most people are drudges, working hard just to survive economically; they don’t live lives of quiet desperation, because they don’t have enough leisure time to contemplate the meaning of their lives. But poverty in this country could be ended simply by redistributing its (considerable) wealth. Such redistribution depends on the government, which, short of revolution, is determined by elections. So voting can potentially change the people’s quality of life, for better or for worse, far more significantly than practically anything else the people might do on any day. As to whether we have a moral obligation to vote, the answer, strictly speaking, is no: moral obligations do not objectively exist—a moral obligation is the feeling of obligation (we have an obligation if and only if we feel we have one.) So “I have a moral obligation to vote” is elliptical for “I feel morally obligated to vote.” (But I feel morally obligated to vote.)

17. Why the Left Should Vote     © 27 February 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

As the rich get richer while the rest get poorer; and as the government inches further and further to the right, with more and more middle- and lower-class people’s electoral participation consisting in electing not to vote; one would think leftists would be clamoring to get citizens to the polls. Many are. Ironically, though, the Left itself is the source of certain familiar anti-voting arguments, which herein I shall rebut and, I hope, thereby counteract.

             One vote-disparaging comment from the Left is that it doesn’t really change anything. Were voting of no avail, however, oppressors would not deny it to the oppressed or the latter struggle to acquire it; nor the Right work so assiduously to get their vote out, and to keep ours in. Surely, you could effect significant change if you could determine the outcome of every election, or even some of them . . . or if enough progressives voted.

             Similarly, the vote is denigrated on the basis that we should focus, rather, on educating the masses about political realities. Insofar as this is code language for revolution; if you can stir enough persons to violently overthrow the government, you can stir enough of them to vote for it, which purpose, given the inherent destructiveness of the bullet, is better achieved through the ballot. Anyway, why should we not vote also?

             A third reason given for not voting is the alleged counterproductiveness or impropriety of supporting the lesser of two evils. But when both options are adverse, we should vote for the lesser of the two evils, very simply because . . . a lesser evil is preferable to a greater evil. And in such circumstances, a refusal to vote for the lesser ill is tantamount to a vote for the greater. If you were in severe pain, would you decline medicine that would reduce but not eliminate the agony, on the ground that less pain is still pain, and so merely the lesser evil? If you found a hundred-dollar bill, would you throw it away because you really needed three hundred dollars? The principle here is that, as between two states of affairs, the better one should be taken. To except from this rule cases wherein the better alternative is bad, just makes no sense.

             Finally, some assert that conditions must fall, to galvanize men to radical change. Howbeit, while degeneration might spur a man to constructive action; it could also demoralize, or rouse amiss. And though small victories could make a man complacent, they may also empower and encourage him to fight for further gains. The two modes—retrogression and melioration—being neutral in their stimulation of salutary conduct; the net effect is that the first makes the world worse, the second makes it better. And transformation may be gradual, as well as sudden. Wherefore, we should strive invariably and straightforwardly for society’s improvement . . . which process we would considerably advance by persuading our comrades to vote.

18. Conservatism     © 27 November 2008 by Richard J. Eisner

The Left are liberal in favoring a redistribution of wealth toward greater equality, but conservative in supporting preservation of the natural environment and of the lives and health of the populace. The Right, mainly the rich, are conservative in supporting the continuation of unrestrained capitalism, essential to perpetuating and expanding the wealth disparity in their favor, despite the resultant harm to the environment and to the well-being of the people; in their willingness to sacrifice which latter desiderata, they (the Right) are liberal. It seems to me that what the Right are really interested in preserving is their own advantage, and that, to the extent to which conservatism is a principle and not a pretext, the true conservatives are the Left.

19. Mark Twain Ghost Speech     © 4 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for attending. My name is Mark Twain. More precisely, it used to be Mark Twain. I’m his ghost. That’s why I look so pale. I am, however, quite confident that I will, in the near future, once again be incarnate, because science is on the verge of discovering how to bring back previously living things, like in that movie . . . oh, what’s the name of that movie . . . yes, Jurassic Park. Thank you. My memory isn’t what it used to be . . . being dead is pretty hard on the mind—it’s because the brain has difficulty getting oxygen, or so they say; I don’t know all the physiological technicalities. I still do pretty well, though, despite the handicap. But being dead has its advantages. For example, you no longer have to brush your teeth, since the teeth stop decaying. On the other hand, I can’t smoke anymore. Don’t ask me why; all I know is that I tried it, and it doesn’t work. Which is a shame, because now I could do it with impunity as regards my health. And I used to love to smoke. It was a habit I took pains to cultivate—with considerable success, I might add. I particularly enjoyed smoking after meals. I don’t miss that so much as I might, seeing as I don’t eat anymore—no need to. Where was I . . . oh, yes, that movie, in which scientists resurrect dinosaurs. Some have called me a dinosaur. But I assure you that, if brought back to life, I would be no dinosaur; I would be extremely relevant, and very useful. In fact, that is why I am here to speak to you tonight—to prove that I have ideas that can help the world solve many of its most pressing problems, which will, I trust, put me very near to—if not right at—the head of the line, to be brought back to life by scientists, as soon as they know how to do it.

             Today, as was true in my own time, one of the most significant problems is the economic situation. Among those who do the most good in this regard are philanthropists. What a wonderful contribution they make. Take Bill Gates. To start with, it’s because of him, and other extraordinary business leaders like him, that we’re the wealthiest nation on earth. Why, if Bill Gates moved to another country, the U.S. would immediately sink to ninth or tenth place. And Mr. Gates benefits not only the United States. His charitable foundation pays for life preserving drugs for millions of impoverished persons in Africa and other nations. This one man alone has saved innumerable human lives. And therein lies one of my most important ideas for helping the economy. This is the plan: institute a special federal tax, earmarked for the “philanthropic fund.” When about 10 billion dollars has been amassed, give it to one man, the designated philanthropist. I hereby offer to perform that function when I am brought back to life. I say “when,” rather than “if,” because, the more I think about it, the more strongly I am convinced that I would be providing so invaluable a service in this respect, that the scientific community will be virtually unanimous in selecting me as one of the first subjects for revivication, if not the very first such subject, when the technology is developed. And my pledge is as follows: Bill Gates gives 20 percent of his fortune. If you’ll give me ten billion dollars—I’ll give . . . 50 percent. Hold your applause, please. And I am prepared to give that much—why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I believe in sacrificing for the greater good.

             Indeed, I even have some creative ideas on how to deploy the money I give away. One of the best of them is this. Public television frequently hosts experts on personal financial management; for example, the author of a book titled . . . oh, what is that . . . it’s something like “Rich Mother, Poor Father”—my sincere apology to the author, whose name I can’t remember either—I probably mangled the book title. I wish I had notes here to work from; but, you know—well, you probably don’t know—ghosts can’t make notes, because we can’t pick up writing utensils. The fingers just pass right through a pen or pencil, so you can’t get a grip on it. . . . It’s tough being dead. . . . Where was I? Oh, yes: these personal-finance gurus. I confess, I don’t fully understand what they say; but they’re so impressive. The one whose name I’m so ashamed I can’t recall, says, “Stop working for money, and let money work for you.” You’ll have to admit, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a powerful concept. I am so thoroughly convinced of the inherent rationality of those ideas, and of their efficacy in enabling people to create wealth in their lives, that I have come to the conclusion that we could end hunger on Earth by the dissemination of these finance books to the poor, because, in the final analysis, poverty-stricken persons around the world are in such a state of deprivation, not so much because they lack material resources—that’s the symptom—but rather because they lack knowledge of sound investment strategies.

             Ladies and gentlemen, I have many more great ideas for improving the world, but I’m afraid I must conclude for now—I don’t possess the stamina I used to possess when I was alive. The spirit is willing but . . . anyway; I shall present the other thoughts in future speeches, to which you are all invited. Thank you very much for coming tonight. Adieu.

20. Boundaries     © 28 July 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

A real and definite boundary is the boundary of consciousness, as it were; each percipient is unique and distinct, never blending into another.

21. Life After Death     © 29 August 2009 by Richard J. Eisner

Following is my view on life after death. Preliminarily, we must define the entity that is supposed to survive (the issue addressed by the concept of the soul). As I see it, that entity, the individual’s quintessence, is consciousness, bare sentience, sans mental equipment, like memory and thought (which may decline or end in a creature, though he remains the same individual).

             I believe that afterlife is logically possible (we came once, we could theoretically come again), but unlikely. Heaven and Hell is pure fantasy. Less easy to dismiss is reincarnation, an individual’s continuing, perhaps endlessly, by successive rebirth in other organisms, most often envisioned occurring between humans. While it cannot be disproved (or proved—if it happened, no one, not even the subject, would know it); I disbelieve in reincarnation as well, for this reason.

             The number of potential awarenesses that have never come into actual being is infinitely times as great as the number which have previously lived, even if the latter number is itself infinite (it is the contrast between the actual and the possible, the possible being infinitely more vast than the actual, even if the actual is infinite). Thus, when an organism is about to be born, it is infinitely more likely that the consciousness that will come to life in it will be drawn from among those which have not theretofore been realized than from among those which have already existed (because the first category is infinitely greater than the second). And so the likelihood that anyone will ever have another life, is infinitesimal—theoretically possible, practically impossible.

             On the bright side, rejoice!; for if you ever did reappear, it is overwhelmingly (though finitely) probable that you would come back, not as a man (let alone a great one), or even as a lion, but rather as a mouse or a flea, because they far outnumber higher animals . . . assuming the distribution of life forms on Earth typifies that throughout the cosmos. More to the point, life, even human life, is, on balance, wretched. Ironically, there may be justice, and mercy, not in the existence of some resurrection everlasting, but in everyone’s life, its joy and its misery, being finite.

22. Kant’s Categorical Imperative     © 28 March 2010 by Richard J. Eisner

Strictly speaking, Kant’s thesis that certain ethical duties are rationally prescribed, involves a category error: A moral obligation is ultimately subjective, nonrational, and arbitrary—it is, in essence, in a given situation, merely whatever you feel, or sense, you should do, for whatever “reason,” or for no reason, and having virtually any content.

             Less formally, Kant’s philosophy contains numerous inconsistencies, at the heart of which lies his bizarre dismissal of consequences. One contradiction: Kant says that only something “whose existence in itself had an absolute worth” (and Kant believes Humanity has an absolute worth) could be the ground of a categorically binding ethical law. Which implies a (consequentialistic) duty to maximize the intrinsic value. Correspondingly at odds with Kant’s dictum to ignore consequences is his admonition to treat persons as ends in themselves, in that to act with regard for a person as an end, is to act with regard for his well-being; and to act with regard for a person’s well-being, is to proceed with regard for our actions’ effects on his well-being. (Kant is right that morality depends on value; hence the impossibility of intrinsic worth, which I have shown elsewhere, likewise means the impossibility of an objective ethic.)

             My emotional response (for what it’s worth) to Kant’s proposal to disregard consequences, is this. In arguing for that position, Kant talks endlessly about rationality. But to feel morally compelled to do an act that you believe will have no effect, or even a bad effect—I can scarce think of anything more irrational!

23. For the Right to Abortion     © 1981 by Richard J. Eisner

A person’s decision whether abortion, or any other activity, should be legal is a matter of individual perception or feeling. I, as one member of society, would choose, and vote, to sanction abortion, on the following considerations.

             One rationale commonly advanced for proscribing abortion is that a fetus, as a person, has a right to life. But I disbelieve in objectively existing or inherent rights, including a human right to life. It seems to me that rights are merely an aspect of social relations: only those “rights” exist that we choose to afford, which decision, again, is subjective

             And I, myself, feel no necessary compunction (let alone one I’d want to impose on others) about killing persons, hypothetically including human fetuses. Circumstances, it seems, may justify homicide; for example, in some cases I favor capital punishment.

             Another possible reason to forbid abortion might be that we value human life itself and so want there to be as much of it as possible. But I think human life is not intrinsically valuable. If anything is, it is happiness, not mere life.

             Then perhaps we should prohibit abortion because we value human happiness, and want to have as many happy people as possible. As I’ve shown elsewhere, however, there can be no intrinsic value. Since I feel morally compelled only to make the universe truly better; having discovered the impossibility of intrinsic worth, all moral questions have for me become mere motivational ones; and my concern has naturally shifted from the group’s interest to my own. Concomitantly, my social outlook has gone from the universe’s betterment to society’s. Thus, though unlikely, even if disallowing abortion somehow resulted in a larger number of happy people, and in greater total happiness (and even assuming this the best means to achieve it); because I think an increase in the number of individuals, even happy ones, would not make already existing men happier (in fact, just the reverse, with our current overpopulation); therefore, given my (exclusive) preference for our happiness over that of the possible universe, neither would this prospect move me to favor outlawing abortion.

             This perspective distinguishes the law barring intentional homicide from a ban on abortion. For me, the most important reason why we who make the laws have a law against wilful homicide is simply our legitimate selfish interest in protecting ourselves, and our friends, from being killed, by others. And yet, disallowing feticide would not serve to protect us, or our comrades, for none of us lawmakers, or voters, or those we know, are (or will become) fetuses.

             I might feel an exception, as it were, to my selfish purpose if abortion caused fetuses distress. As irrational as it is, I feel a difference between missed pleasure and effected pain. I could not live comfortably knowing we were torturing. But while we may dread murder, presumably fetuses do not fear abortion.

             Hence, finding no good reason (basically, promotion of our own welfare) to attempt to ensure the life of every, or any particular, fetus, I find nothing to counterbalance the woman’s choice (who is one of us) to have an abortion. . . . That’s how I see it.

24. Abortion: Reply to Ron     © 22 March 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

This answers Ron’s question how I distinguish abortion from infanticide and child-killing, such that the latter two practices should be outlawed, but not the first. Whereas child-killing, and even infanticide, would cause both the dread of being murdered (which even the very young can feel) and the loss of those with whom we may have interpersonal relationships (including the very young); abortion has no such negative effects, as fetuses neither fear abortion (presumably) nor enjoy personal relationships. Moreover, while tolerating even infanticide could endanger the rest of us who have been born, by creating a slippery slope in which the permissible age for killing is gradually raised or other sorts of exceptions made; permitting abortion does not imperil us, because no slippery slope operates from fetuses toward the already born, as birth is a natural, intuitive, determinate dividing line here. Few, if any, even among those who favor the right to abortion, favor the right to infanticide. The issue of abortion (by definition and in practice) is confined to fetuses.

25. The Epistemology of Testimony     © 16 January 2011 by Richard J. Eisner

Broadly, I believe that (propositional) knowledge is impossible, and that, therefore, we cannot know the truth or falsity of others’ assertions. From a slightly different aspect, we do not choose our beliefs, any more than we choose our thoughts—they simply happen to us (as Nietzsche says, “A thought comes when it will, not when I will”). In the end, we do not know—let alone decide—how we come to believe as we do, or what processes or sources—memory, reason, sense perception, and/or testimony—determine our beliefs. The affair is mysterious, imperfect, and intuitive. How do we find—or seek—the truth? We do our best.

26. Happiness and Well-being     © 28 April 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

A fundamental issue in the philosophy of happiness is whether it consists in an emotional state, on one hand, or well-being or flourishing, on the other. The former definition makes more sense, for this reason. Happiness is a matter of degree, and also has a negative dimension, as implied by the correlative term “unhappiness.” Pleasure and pain fit this description perfectly. Whereas, life satisfaction, a common touchstone of well-being, is in strict usage not a matter of degree. One is either satisfied or not. And flourishing has only a positive side; here, the worst that could be is a total lack of productivity, or zero—death

             The answer to the reverse question, whether well-being is happiness, must be dichotomized between the subjective and the objective. Subjectively, well-being is self-defined. Each decides what makes his life good (which may involve desiderata besides happiness). Objectively, the one and only thing that everyone appreciates in every circumstance is pleasure. One person may value becoming wealthy; another, making fine art. And each may think the other’s idea of flourishing worthless. But whatever you wish to do, you’d rather do it and feel good, than do it and feel bad. And so happiness is the sole element that is necessarily, objectively good for a creature.

             A likely reason why happiness and well-being are sometimes confused is that in practice they are strongly, if imprecisely and waveringly, interrelated: how I feel, greatly depends on how I feel about . . . my creative productivity. When I am irritable, angry, and depressed, I often soon discover that some (subconscious) part of my mind had found, and was dwelling on, a problem with one of my writings. And when I solve such a problem, or complete a new work that I am proud of, I am jubilant.

27. Personal Identity     © 23 May 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

The essence of any sentient being, that which makes it an individual, is its consciousness (its being this percipient). It is what makes identical twins distinct; what would survive if you died and were reincarnated; what makes you the same person today as you were yesterday. You are you by being the one sitting in the theater of your mind and viewing the movie of your life. If a magical operation were performed on your brain whereby somehow someone else’s memory and other mental content were substituted for your own, you would be watching a different movie, but you would still be you in being the one who is watching.

             In contrast, a creature’s personality and mental traits, like intelligence, reasoning ability, creativity, and articulateness, are strictly accidental, or incidental. And yet, it is these accidental features which give us human beings our more meaningful identity, and which are the source of our pride (or humility). Each bare consciousness itself, though at base unique, is in all other respects utterly undifferentiated. It is as if we are all fundamentally separate yet unremarkable humans, but, in virtue of our personal accouterments, (happen to be) traveling in greatly diverse vehicles. Our ability to think, unnecessary for awareness, is part of the vehicle. Average men go about in cheap, nondescript, underpowered rattletraps; whereas, those who are brighter, better at thinking, or otherwise more clever or expressive, are in sleek, precision, high-performance racecars.

28. Suicide: Rebuttal to Mirav     © 26 June 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

In her 27 May 2012 piece, Mirav argues that suicide is immoral, for the following three reasons.

             First, since taking another’s life is immoral, so too is taking one’s own life. However, the difference is that, in murder the killing is done against the victim’s will; whereas, in suicide the act is done pursuant to the victim’s will. This is a critical distinction in innumerable sorts of actions. If I cause you to go to the beach, against your will, I commit an act of kidnaping, which we make a crime for good reason. But if I wish to go to the beach myself, and I do so, my act is perfectly proper.

             Second, Mirav argues, suicide has a negative effect on family and friends. But what if one has no family or friends? At most, this argument suggests that suicide may be immoral sometimes. Mirav also argues that suicide is morally bad in depriving society, and the suicide himself, of that person’s future productivity. But if someone who has contributed much to the world, is now very old, and wishes to retire and not do any further productive work, does he not have that right? I would think so. Therefore, again, the most this argument establishes is that suicide may be wrong sometimes.

             Third, according to Mirav, we did not start our lives (God or a Life Force did that), so we should not end our lives either. Let us suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that a person’s committing suicide is in his best interest (say, he is hopelessly ill and in severe, irremediable pain), and that his suicide harms no one. If we came into being through no conscious agency, but wholly by accident, as it were, why should a person not do whatever is in his best interest (including ending his life)? On the other hand, if we were deliberately created by a god, why would God want us to do what is against our best interest? And if God wanted us to act against our best interest, why, if we had a choice, should we go along with Him in that?

             The mere fact that we did not create ourselves does not seem good warrant for our not destroying ourselves. The proposition reflects a certain symmetry, but symmetry does not necessarily constitute good reason. Here, the connection seems arbitrary . . . like thinking that because you heard church bells ringing when you arrived at work, you should not leave work, even though you are done with work for the day, until you again hear church bells ringing.

             Footnote: Mirav says that she is not “attempting to pass judgment on others.” But her thesis, “the taking of one’s own life is an immoral act,” is a judgment: on those who commit or attempt suicide—a judgment that they have committed, or attempted, an immoral act.

29. Suicide     © 24 July 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

Insofar as suicide has been the subject of moral philosophy, my own discussion of suicide appropriately entails a brief summary of my outlook on morality. Thus, there are no inherent moral obligations or rights; no intrinsically valuable things or acts; no objectively valid ethical precepts. Ultimately, we make such decisions on an intuitive, ad hoc basis; at most, we may develop some loose guidelines. We do not drive our cars in conformance with any certain metaphysically predetermined road markings; instead, we decide how we wish to proceed, and draw the marks to facilitate our chosen movement. So prefaced, here are my own thoughts on suicide.

             I agree with Seneca that what counts is the quality of one’s life, not the quantity—or, longevity is good, just when life is good. When a person’s quality of life becomes negative, such that existence is worse than nothing, and he lacks other incentives to continue living, and he sees no realistic prospect of improvement, suicide may make sense, so to speak, and he probably has, or should have, or should be accorded, a right to commit suicide; in extreme cases, as perhaps those involving terminal illness and intractable pain, we might even help the sufferer to end his life. In most other instances, however, especially where the anguished man is young and physically healthy, the psychic pain, and the loss of the will to live, are transient or can be cured or alleviated. Considering as well that the decision to kill oneself (if successfully carried out), as opposed to the decision to go on living, is irrevocable and momentous, and that we may be unable to tell fleeting suicidal moods apart from more abiding ones, it seems to me that we should, forcibly if necessary, prevent these persons from committing suicide until we have attempted to remedy the painful condition and restore the one so afflicted to a normal, healthy state. This is how I would want to be treated.

30. Egalitarianism     © 22 November 2012 by Richard J. Eisner

“Luck egalitarians” argue that, since the (very) unequal distribution of wealth (in a capitalist economy) is a function at least in part of natural capacities and other advantages that were (unevenly) given by luck (in other words, the individuals who possess them are ultimately not responsible for possessing them), it is unfair to allow resources to be so maldistributed (that is, largely by luck). But if a person’s acquiring an unusually large sum of money is due to any ability on his part, it is essentially the ability to acquire money. And why should a person be entitled to a considerably higher quality of life than others merely because he has a greater aptitude to amass wealth—however he got the talent? It is as if capital were assigned simply by the playing of poker. Why should, say, a great doctor who helps improve the health of the entire populace, but who is a lousy poker player, live in poverty, while the accomplished poker player, whose only skill is in playing poker, and who helps no one but himself, live in luxury (however long and hard he may have worked to develop his game)? If we apportion assets unevenly, the allocation should be in accord with merit, with one’s contribution to society, not with the facility to make money. It seems to me, however, that egalitarianism is preferable even to an unequal distribution of resources based on merit, in virtue of simple utility: In general, with respect to a given population; the greater the disparity in wealth, the less the per capita happiness or welfare. By the law of diminishing returns, a certain amount of money means more to a poorer man than to a richer one: a billion dollars would not make a millionaire a thousand times—or any—happier, but even the relatively small sum needed to give a homeless man a home would significantly increase his quality of life; wherefore, egalitarianism maximizes well-being.

31. Infinite Repetition: Reply to Raveen     © 27 July 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 22 June 2013 entry, Reveen contends (or expresses the fear) that infinite time means that “everything that can possibly happen will repeat . . ..” But this is impossible, because it can never be that everything that can possibly happen, has happened. The universe, like a drop of water drawn from a limitless ocean of potentiality, can and does continuously uniquely change, as by the addition of sentient creatures (awarenesses) that have never before been. Possibility, infinitely greater than actuality, can never be exhausted.

32. Infinite Repetition: Rebuttal to Robert     © 23 November 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

In his 15 September 2013 entry, Robert rebuts two theses I speak in my 27 July 2013 piece. One thesis of mine is that not all possible events could actually happen—not even in theory. Robert counters that, in theory, any (even infinite) number of possible-but-not-actual events could be added to actuality. I agree. But—and here is where we disagree—not all of them could be added. Let us state the problem in other terms. Two events are different if the actors in them are inhabited by different awarenesses. Take one of Napoleon’s battles. The same outward event is different if Napoleon’s body bears my consciousness instead of his. So the realization of all possible events would involve the realization of all possible sentient beings. Ergo, the question can be put thus: In whatever way the infinite number of sentient creatures that have existed is multiplied (to which multiplication there is no limit), could it ever come to pass that all possible awarenesses have already been, such that a subsequent one’s birth would require some previous one’s reincarnation? I think not.

             My other thesis that Robert disputes is that possibility constitutes a larger infinity than existence. Preliminarily, existence is a proper subset of possibility (all that exists is possible, but not all that is possible exists). It is true, as Robert notes, that even if a set contains infinitely many members not contained in a proper subset thereof, the two sets may nonetheless be of the same size. An example is the set of all integers (one, two, three, and so on) and its subset of all odd integers. However, because other infinite sets are of different magnitudes, like the integers versus the points on a line (the latter set being greater), the question is whether existence and possibility are more like the second pair. As existence can be increased infinitely without limit, never exhausting possibility, I think so.

33. Eternal Recurrence     © 27 September 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

We live our same lives over and over, everlastingly. This is Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence theory, which he posits mainly to encourage us to improve our lives—to live as though we would make this life the prototype for eternity. The theory contains a number of weaknesses, however, including several technical flaws. One, it presupposes free will (the ability to change—improve—your life). But free will seems at odds with Eternal Recurrence, in that, if we have free will in this life, we should likewise have it in all (identical) subsequent lives, yet free will in them is ruled out by the idea that this life sets the (immutable) pattern for all future ones. (Or, since eternal means no end or start, we should, as well, have had past lives, which predetermine this one.)

             Additionally, Eternal Recurrence entails the repetition of the identical (finite) sequence of events, like the constant rerunning of a movie. A bizarre implication of which, the seam between the end of the sequence and its re-beginning appears a (very unlikely) suspension of the natural flow of event into event.

             An even more significant drawback; for the theory’s adherents, Nietzsche’s purpose (to stimulate us to live better) might backfire. To see how, we must examine Nietzsche’s definition of living well. Most fundamentally, he advocates acting in one’s own interest. Next, he argues (the “will to power”) that people should, and do, seek mostly power, or self actualization, creative expression, rather than happiness (thus he condemns utilitarianism, which holds that people should, and do, seek happiness exclusively). But here (too) Nietzsche errs. I agree with him about power insofar as not all of men’s motives reduce to the quest for happiness, and that one such distinct and important human drive is that for self actualization. The question, though, is whether it is wise (personally, selfishly) to pursue desiderata besides happiness. I think not, for this reason. A person’s happiness is necessarily valuable to him, advantageous to him in all possible circumstances. But not so his artistic fecundity. Imagine you were alone in the universe, and that you knew that no other sentient beings would ever exist. In that situation, if you also knew that creating art caused you agony, but engaging in some nonproductive different behavior brought you ecstacy, would it not be absurd for you to elect to do your art? (Yes.) Therefore, objectively, happiness, and only happiness, is beneficial to the individual.

             Realizing my creative potential, generating work that will be appreciated by posterity, is my goal merely because it happens to be my goal (I did not choose it, it chose me . . . or perhaps my pride overpowered my reason); and, to the extent that my valuing creative self-expression makes me less happy, I am less fortunate. And yet, I do value it. I also value a man’s freedom to do with his life what he wishes (consistent with other men’s rights), without undue social pressure, especially if he is disposed, and able, to be culturally fruitful (since—even though, if he is so at the cost of his gratification, it hurts him—it helps the world).

             Eternal Recurrence militates against the will to power, and so the (humanity-benefitting) production of great art, as follows. A great artist is sometimes motivated to do art, despite anguish, by the thought that his recognition—by future generations—lasting far beyond his own existence, will considerably outstrip whatever (limited) pain he bears in his lifetime. Eternal Recurrence alters this relationship by making the artist’s limited suffering endless. To the extent that his suffering in producing art thus increases, the likelihood that he will yield to the natural inclination to act in his “real” interest, and pursue a less painful alternative, also rises.

             Complementarily, Eternal Recurrence calls in question our creativity. If we perpetually redo our very life’s work, then, after the first instance (if there is a first instance), it is no longer true creation, but instead mere repetition. And the artist’s devaluing his accomplishment, thereby induces him to give greater weight to the competing desideratum—enjoyment, in turn causing certain less productive but more pleasurable activities to become more attractive to him.

             To similar effect, the theory intimates that we could achieve eternal youth by dying young, which diminishes the artist’s oeuvre.

             Recurrence further potentially dulls the artistic prod in this way. The postulation of an unending series of lives could say to a creator, “Don’t worry about getting it all done now, you’ll have plenty of time”; undermining his sense of urgency in the awareness that this brief life is his one chance—ever, ever—to do work that will leave his mark.

             By way of conclusion, there is, yet, a variation of Eternal Recurrence that both possesses the virtue of being true, and avoids the problem of preferring one value to another, which variation we might call (Quasi-)Eternal Recurrence of the Day. Because your life is just the cumulation of your days; as you live each day, so you live your life . . . if you waste half your time every day, you waste half your life (and the longer you go on living as you do, the less likely it is that you will effect a significant improvement). Hence, live today as if you would so live the rest of the days of your life.

34. Limits of Law     © 21 September 2013 by Richard J. Eisner

On the limits of the law, I both agree and disagree with Lord Devlin.

             Regarding the disagreement, Devlin, in support of legal moralism (the view that the state may legislate against immoral behavior, even that which is otherwise harmless), argues thus: A state is constituted in part by its common morality. Society, to preserve its own existence, has a right to bar acts that threaten the state’s morality, acts that arouse in the populace moral disgust or indignation, such as homosexuality, even when done between consenting adults in private.

             As I see it, the problem with this argument of Devlin’s is that, by and large, allowing a perceived immoral activity will not cause a society to cease to exist. The difference for a society between enjoining such an activity and not enjoining it, is, generally, not the difference between the society’s existence or nonexistence, per se, but only between the society with the activity in question and the society without the activity, or, more precisely, between the society with the activity prohibited versus it not prohibited. So Devlin’s argument is a nullity, since it leaves us with the original inquiry: Should we have the society with the activity in question outlawed, or the society with the activity not outlawed (or, simply, should the activity be outlawed or not).

             And yet, I agree with Devlin’s following pronouncement: “I think, therefore, that it is not possible to set theoretical limits to the power of the State to legislate against immorality. It is not possible to settle in advance exceptions to the general rule or to define inflexibly areas of morality into which the law is in no circumstances to be allowed to enter.” – Lord Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals (pages 12–13)

             As vehemently as I oppose many of the well-known recent instances of legal moralism, including the proscription of homosexuality, which opposition has historically caused me to believe that I am opposed to legal moralism; now that I focus my attention on the issue more acutely, I find that there is some conduct which I favor banning, simply because the conduct, though arguably harmless to humans, just somehow seems to me wrong. An example is the killing of higher mammals, like dolphins.

             I think that, concerning the various principles proposed for limiting the law, such as the harm principle; the offense principle; the avoidance of infringement of human liberty, autonomy, or dignity—these are not principles that determine legislative outcomes, but merely considerations that may occur to us and guide us in making those decisions, which, like all moral decisions, are ultimately ad hoc.

35. Gun Control     © 17 January 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

So-called gun-rights advocates make several arguments to resist calls for more stringent gun control. One argument is that the rights of law-abiding gun owners should not be infringed because of the actions of a few criminals. A flaw in this argument is that, before they go on their rampages, most mass murderers are law-abiding citizens. Another argument is, “Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” True, but people kill people more efficiently with guns. A further response to both of these pro-gun arguments is that they could be used against outlawing the private ownership of machine guns (access to which most persons agree should be restricted).

36. Does the Universe have a Purpose?     © 23 February 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that certain things do, objectively, have purposes, such as the human lung, whose purpose is to enable men to breathe. In contrast, the question of the universe’s purpose asks about the larger purpose—of man, or of existence (Why should man, or anything, be at all?). The answer in turn depends on their value (as Aristotle says, a thing’s purpose is to seek its essential good). Since absolute value is impossible, so too is absolute purpose. So the universe has no inherent purpose, but simply our purpose—as our supportive and comfortable home; and we variously preserve or change the universe to make it better serve that purpose.

             Lastly, a few stray thoughts. One, mere tendency is not purpose, as, for example, a rock’s tendency to fall to earth does not constitute a purpose. Two, it makes sense that we find that the universe “makes sense”: our minds are a product and a part of the universe, and it is not strange that the two have some affinity. But to go from this “makes sense” to “has a purpose” goes too far.

37. Desire     © 5 July 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

The so-called good-based theory of desire (“For a person to desire P is for him to believe P is good”) is demonstrably wrong, since we can desire what we believe is bad (like craving a piece of cake, knowing it’s unhealthy). More generally, the good-based theory is fallacious because desire is a matter of feeling, while belief is a matter of intellect; and the two (head and heart) are fundamentally different, and not infrequently (if not always) in conflict (as with the cake). More generally still (this is an observation a philosopher should use sparingly), in many contexts desire is not susceptible of philosophical rigor, which puts too fine point on it; it is better understood by reference to a dictionary than to a philosophy book.

38. John Rawls     © 20 December 2014 by Richard J. Eisner

I largely agree with Rawls’s “justice-as-fairness” thesis, except his “difference-principle,” according to which social and economic inequalities must be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged class in society. Rawls says that the difference-principle differentiates his conception from the variety of Utilitarianism known as average utility: the principle that society should be structured so as to produce the greatest per capita utility (utility being roughly equivalent to well-being). The difference-principle is indeed inconsistent with average utility. And therein lies its flaw, as shown by this hypothetical example. Take a society comprising a billion and one people. A billion of them are constantly mildly happy. The remaining one also is constantly mildly happy, except for two hours a year when he is mildly sad. This state of affairs could be changed so that the billion become better off, in being constantly ecstatic (ecstatic is much better than mildly happy), but the other man becomes worse off, in that his yearly period of mild sadness doubles, to four hours. Average utility would compel, but Rawls’s difference-principle would preclude, this (clearly-for-the-better) change.

             Yet the difference-principle is likewise inconsistent with justice-as-fairness, because justice-as-fairness implies average utility. Rawls’s basic argument for justice-as-fairness is the veil-of-ignorance thought experiment, whereby he argues that justice-as-fairness is the societal arrangement that would be chosen by a self-interested, rational person for himself to be born into if he were ignorant of the conditions of his birth, like his social position, wealth, income, race, religion, sex, health, intelligence, talents, and motivation. This thought experiment, together with Rawls’s pervasive insistence on equality, implies the standard of the maximum well-being of a randomly selected person, which translates to maximum per capita well-being.

             Thus the difference-principle should be modified or replaced, or excised. And justice-as-fairness should be described, not as a doctrine in conflict with Utilitarianism, but rather as a form of Rule Utilitarianism, whereby following its principles is simply more likely to maximize utility than is aiming at it directly.

             Footnote. Query: Given the importance to a person’s well-being of income and wealth; our ability to distribute them; and Rawls’s emphasis on equality—why does Rawls classify those (income and wealth) as conditions of birth, rather than as social elements to be decided on?

39. Justice     © 14 February 2015 by Richard J. Eisner

My philosophizing about justice is marred by my own interest. My own interest, to be a famous writer, gives me a motive to suppress the work of other writers, to reduce my competition, my doing which would be unjust, to them, and perhaps also to society at large. With my personal interest, can I even know what I think justice dictates? If I can somehow force myself to discover what I might think about it in an unbiased state of mind, I can write down my thought, which is philosophizing about justice. I’ll try.

             Justice is the proper allocation of goods among conscious beings. (Justice may demand reward [an increase of good] or punishment [a decrease of good].)

             Starting in the abstract, if it were up to me, as a sort of hypothetical god, wishing to do justice, and beginning with a blank slate—no existent beings (except me)—how would I proceed? Prefatorily, no matter how many beings exist, even if infinitely many, only an infinitesimal portion of possible beings can actually exist. This bears on justice, for, necessarily, if some are, then some potential beings will enjoy the benefits of existence, and others not. One option would be to actualize no one, maintaining perfect equality among all potential beings. An alternative would be to create a profusion of ecstatic beings. I would prefer this option, since the disparity (some existing but most others not) is unavoidable, and nonexistent beings would not feel the sting of any prejudice against them. I wouldn’t even have to make the existent beings equally ecstatic, for in an abstract world, unburdened by a scarcity of resources, a gain by one would not mean a loss by another. And no such being would be unhappy having less ecstacy than others—by creation, he would be ecstatic, and exactly as ecstatic as he was made.

             But let us consider the real world. Now, justice is not the same as goodness, and the two need not coincide. Imagine there are one hundred ten persons. Fifty of them grievously and maliciously harm the other sixty. You have this choice: Either the fifty wrongdoers die, and the sixty victims turn into very (and equally) happy persons, living together in harmony; or the sixty victims die, and the fifty become very happy persons living in harmony. While the fifty would be equally happy, they would be slightly happier than the sixty—enough so, in fact, that even their total happiness would be greater. Arguably, the latter would be a better but less just world.

             As a practical matter, the supposedly better second situation (the fifty wrongdoers’ surviving) would never be selected if the sixty victims, the majority, had the power to make the decision—they would choose the first situation (their surviving) because it benefits them, and they would rationalize it as being required by justice.

             But even if we say that we would bring about the best possible world, regardless of justice, justice must be taken into account, since we are so constituted that our perception of justice is an element in our happiness. We will be less happy if we think that an injustice has been done—at least if we think it has been done to us. Conversely, of course (by definition), the good is an element of justice. Justice may indicate punishment, but disproportionate punishment is unjust. Generally, an unwarranted, avoidable deprivation of good is unjust to those affected.

             Perhaps we decide our affairs on the basis of three contending forces: our perception of justice; our perception of the good; and self-interest.

             In this messy world, can these three disparate forces ever coalesce, to helpfully point our way? I think so. They can unite if we focus on the element that is both the most easily manipulable and yet also the most strongly determinative of the distribution of people’s opportunity to pursue their conception of the good life (including their ability to express themselves artistically)—money. The constraints on our ability to control the world I think on balance actually help us in this regard. Our task is more difficult than that of a god in an abstract world, for we must deal with men’s tricky feelings and personalities. But our task is easier than a god’s task would be in this world. For example, I would not have to decide how much innate talent people should have. All I would have to decide is how much money they should have, which more superficial responsibility avoids my deepest psychological demons.

             The unification of these three forces through economics is usefully introduced by a meditation on the current healthcare debate.

             Reasons against a right to healthcare are objections by those who have it to giving it to those who don’t have it. Take the prolonging of wait times. This adversely affects just those who already have access to the healthcare service in question. It does not adversely affect those who don’t have access to it, because they now have no wait time—they simply don’t get it; for them, getting it at all, whatever the wait time, would be an improvement. Arguments against a right to healthcare are selfish, implicitly saying, “If I share with you, there will be less for me.”

             The foregoing observation prompts a question. Some who have no, or very little, access to healthcare may want it treated as a right so as to gain access to it themselves. This, too, is self-interested. But is it selfish, in the bad sense in which I imply that the other stance is selfish? No. The difference is that pursuing more than one’s fair share is wrong; but demanding one’s fair share is justifiable, even commendable.

             And I think that, by and large, a fair share is a roughly equal share. Why? One, in this real world with scarce resources, equality means that no one’s well-being, or welfare, comes at anyone else’s expense. Chiefly, though, it has to do with utility: In general, with respect to a given population; the greater the disparity in wealth, the less the per capita happiness or well-being. By the law of diminishing returns, a certain amount of money means more to a poorer man than to a richer one: a billion dollars would not make a millionaire a thousand times—or any—happier, but even the relatively small sum needed to give a homeless man a home would significantly increase his quality of life; wherefore, equality maximizes per capita welfare (which [the maximization of per capita welfare] should be the guiding principle).

             Economic equality, then, furthers justice, goodness, and people’s (enlightened) self-interest because it maximizes well-being.

40. Nothingness     © 24 November 2015 by Richard J. Eisner

Could there be nothing? To start with, there is something—at very least me (or my awareness). One problem with the possibility of nothing is that, just as something cannot come from nothing, nothing cannot come from something. This does not apply to awareness, however, since every sentient creature could die, and not be replaced. (And yet, how do we classify a past experience? Is it a sort of existence? If so, then perhaps the nonexistence even of experience is impossible, because, while it can cease to be now, its having-been cannot be undone. If not—if an awareness’s once having been, does not count as existence—then, arguably, after we die, our having been [except what we create for posterity] is equivalent to our not having been, and does not matter.) But there is also non-sentient stuff, which, it would seem, cannot come to naught.

             In a larger sense, if we imagine total nothingness, what sorts of things would we still allow to “exist”?—those that are in all logically possible worlds, or necessarily existing things, like mathematical truths (“Twice two is four,” for example). Conversely, the sorts of things we think would not exist if there were nothing are contingent things, those that are in some logically possible worlds, but not in others. Saying that, the question seems almost to answer itself. There is a logically possible world that contains no contingent things. And hence nothingness is physically impossible, but logically possible.

41. Explanation, Reason, Cause     © 30 January 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

● To posit that everything has a reason for being, because omniscient and omnipotent God made it all, and He had a good reason for it—is to anthropomorphize the universe.

● The philosophers who espouse the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the “PSR”) talk about things having reasons (plural). But if there is explanation, reason, cause; why should it be discrete, multiple? Why should there not be just one explanation, reason, or cause—for the whole? And where and when does the cause leave off and the effect begin?

● Descartes maintains that necessary truths (like “Twice two is four”) are caused (by God). He’s wrong. A necessary truth cannot be caused, since cause implies that what is caused could have been different, and that at some time (before it was caused) it did not exist. But a necessary truth could not be different, and (necessarily) always was. I give two reasons despite the PSP, the Principle of Sufficient Proof (my own invention, or discovery): the principle that one conclusive proof (or disproof) of a proposition is sufficient.

● There is no “filler”
In the field of stars at night:
Each one is a gem.
All that is, is; conflicts none,
Just our misunderstandings.

42. Explanation, Reason, Cause: Rebuttal to Robert     © 10 July 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

In his “Fallacies and Confusions” (5/3/2016) Robert attacks several of the theses I state in my above “Explanation, Reason, Cause” (1/30/2016).

             He starts with this thesis of mine, which he quotes: “To posit that everything has a reason for being, because omniscient and omnipotent God made it all, and He had a good reason for it—is to anthropomorphize the universe.”

             Robert writes: “First, ‘to posit’ is to suppose. We may suppose anything we like. Our conclusions may be false, or even absurd, but they will follow (if we use good logic) from our suppositions. If our supposition is false—and it may well be—then our conclusion may be false as well.” That’s true. But irrelevant. Yes, a person is free to suppose anything he likes. And when he does, the rest of us are free to comment on its truth and its implications. If, on the other hand, Robert’s point is that I should have said “argue” instead of “posit,” because “posit” pertains just to single, simple propositions, and what I’m criticizing is not a proposition but an argument, it’s a quibble.

             Robert continues: “And if we suppose the universe, or its elements, has purposes, we by no means have to suppose an anthropomorphic being is the source of them . . .” This, too, is true but irrelevant. The issue is not whether a purposeful universe implies an anthropomorphic creator, but whether our supposing a purposeful creator as the reason for the universe’s purposefulness constitutes our anthropomorphizing the universe.

             Robert finally gets to a relevant point in his next paragraph: “Second, suppose there was in fact an omniscient, omnipotent being, full of purposes and intentions, with some great ‘plan’ for the universe, and for us. Such a being need not be ‘anthropomorphic’ at all.” I disagree. Parenthetically, you cannot (rationally) suppose “there is in fact” such a being, since it’s impossible. (See my “On the Impossibility of Knowledge, Free Will, and God”—5/24/2009, above.) But here’s the main point. It’s been said that man was not created in God’s image; but, rather, God was created in man’s image. I agree. I think that the traditional concept of God (which Robert describes) is a peculiar figment of the human mind: it is a man blown up in our imagination to cosmic proportions. Like a man (or an ideal man), it is conscious, intelligent, knowing, wise, purposeful, and well-meaning. We’ve given God human traits, which is to anthropomorphize.

             Robert’s next attack on my opening thesis is this: “Third, the existence of a ‘God’ (an omniscient, omnipotent creator) does not entail that the universe need be ‘anthropomorphic.’ Either Richard misspoke, or he has something like the erroneous view of a pantheistic ‘Brahmin’ of Hindu lore in mind (the universe as a ‘man,’ hence, it is ‘anthropomorphic’). No one I can think of ever thought of the universe as ‘anthropomorphic’ (even Hindus—Brahmin is not seen by them as ‘a man’; that is a Western Judeo-Christian-Muslim conceit). In the West people think of the creator as anthropomorphic [What?! Wasn’t Robert just before arguing against that assertion?], and humans as ‘made in the likeness of God’ (anthropomorphism), but never the universe as a man-like being.”

             No, I didn’t misspeak. But perhaps Robert did. My argument (which Robert has been discussing) is to equate the universe, not with a man, but with God. What Robert probably meant, or would have meant, and probably would have said if he hadn’t misspoken, is a variation on what he did say. (A good philosopher adheres to the principle of intellectual charity, whereby, in going over another man’s argument, you address the strongest possible interpretation of it, rather than the weakest.) What Robert should have said is this: God is not the same as the universe; He is contained within the universe and smaller than it. So even if God is anthropomorphic, that doesn’t mean that the universe is. I agree. But we’re not talking about how Robert or I view it, but about how those who posit the thesis I reference view it. And they equate the universe with God. They don’t see God as smaller than the universe. They see the two as coextensive. If you ask them where God is, they’ll say, “God is everywhere.” (I guess that’s what “omnipresent” means.) Indeed, God is perhaps bigger than the universe. God didn’t just pop up in the universe (which would be more reasonable), but the other way round: God created the universe, and everything in it. And everything has the good reason for being that God gave it. In other words, as these people see it, God is anthropomorphic, and since the universe is totally infused and identified with God, the universe, too, is anthropomorphic.

             About half way through his (approximate nine-page) article, Robert attacks my third point. Quoting me, his paragraph begins, “‘Descartes maintains . . .”. Robert then says that my statement is “simply untrue.” He offers no explanation, analysis, or argument why it’s untrue. Instead, his attack consists of a disparaging remark (“Richard needs to review his Logic 101”), followed by half a page or so of some general statements on the subject of causality, none of which, as far as I can tell, contradict my claim. I’ll comment briefly on two of them. One statement of Robert’s here that at first blush seems to be a specific response, in part because it comes near the beginning, “A Cause ‘C’ of some Effect ‘E’ in no way implies that E could have had a different cause,” actually does not respond to my argument, which is that an absolute truth can have no cause, not that it can have just one cause. Two, Robert says, “[A] triangle is caused by a closed geometric figure having three sides and three angles,” possibly proposing that this is an example of an absolute truth that’s caused. My own original example (“Twice two is four”) could be rephrased in the same way: “Two and two makes (or causes) four.” But my point is not about elements within the statement, but about the statement as a whole—that “Two and two causes four” itself has no cause. So if that’s Robert’s argument, it fails.

             This approach of Robert’s, which could be described as argument by insinuation, relieves him of having to grapple with my argument; of having to determine whether it’s sound; and of having to identify and articulate the flaw in it, if it is flawed. He doesn’t even have to understand it. He perhaps believes that if he makes his writing long-winded enough, and full enough of pedantic jargon, a lay audience won’t scrutinize it, that they’ll assume that he knows what he’s talking about, that what he says is pertinent, and that his criticisms and insults are just—that readers won’t see through him. There’s another word for Robert’s approach: intellectual dishonesty. And this isn’t the first time I’ve called him on it. See my 2/23/2013 entry in the “Moral Luck” topic on this website. [That website no longer exists.]

             Robert’s final attack on me comes at the very end of his item, which he closes with these words: “. . . Richard seems to endorse Reveen’s view that there isn’t anything at all—a curious position to take for a man who takes pains to post his contact information at the end of every post.” Robert’s comment that I endorse the view that “there isn’t anything at all” makes no more sense than his other attacks on me. Again, he doesn’t explain it. It’s not what I believe. More important, nothing in my piece (or in anything I’ve ever written), I think, supports Robert’s conclusion. Indeed, quite the contrary; if I talk about anthropomorphizing the universe, then I believe in the universe, and man; and toward the end of it I say: “All that is, is.” Which includes me . . .

— Richard J. Eisner (7/10/2016; 1-818-343-0123; richard@richardeisner.com)

43. Black Lives Matter     © 15 August 2016 by Richard J. Eisner

Some have criticized the Black Lives Matter movement with the retort, “All lives matter.” Glenn Beck recently commented that that criticism makes no more sense than criticizing him for objecting to a waiter’s failing to bring his order of pie, while bringing pie for everyone else at the table, by retorting, “No, Glenn, all pie matters.” Beck’s focusing exclusively on his own pie is reasonable, since it was just his pie that was not brought. That’s the point. But let me elaborate.

             In the national epidemic of unjustified police killings of civilians, if the victims’ race was not a factor, if the killings were apparently random with respect to race, if the proportion of Black victims and of White victims roughly corresponded to their proportion in the population—in those circumstances, if Black people complained about the Black victims, shouting, “Black lives matter!”; the rest of us could rightly reply, “What about the White victims—don’t they matter, too?! Don’t all lives matter?!”

             But if, as seems to be the case, almost all of the victims are Black; and they’re being killed because they’re Black—the response by Black people of “Black lives matter!” responds exactly pertinently to the situation, which is that, apparently, judging from the actions of those policemen, and, perhaps even more important, of the so-called justice system, which refuses to punish them for it—in their eyes, Black lives don’t matter. If you want the phrase “Black lives matter!” to be inapposite, end the killing of Black people.

44. Social Darwinism     © 15 October 2002 by Richard J. Eisner

One form of Social Darwinism supports capitalism, arguing essentially that, like the competition among organisms in evolution generally, economic competition eliminates the less “fit” persons and so selects the more “fit” ones, thereby improving both our species and, hence, its chances of survival. For the following reasons, I disagree with the conclusion on both counts and, at all events, think capitalism is undesirable.

             To start with, capitalism does not select anyone for anything. In evolution, to fail, to be eliminated from competition, is to cease to reproduce (and therefore to cease). But those who fail in capitalism do not cease to reproduce—in fact, they do not even reproduce any less prolifically. Furthermore, regardless of reproduction rates, there is no correlation to speak of between wealth and personal quality, physical or mental. Few of history’s best minds were financially independent, and some of them who were, became so by winning prizes for their accomplishments, which paid them money to enable them to pursue their work, a process almost the opposite of capitalism.

             Not only does capitalism not improve humanity, but it actually reduces our chances for longevity. With his special combination of intelligence and dexterity, man is the only animal in Earth’s history capable of rapidly and radically altering nature, of rendering it unnatural. Capitalism, with its guiding principle of maximizing profit, encourages the unregulated, unplanned use of the means of such change, leading to toxicity and deterioration of the environment and, like a planetary cancer, to ever-increasing overpopulation, conditions less favorable to man’s endurance.

             (And not only does capitalism not improve us, and hurts our prospects for survival; it also hurts our lives now. That same environmental degradation and growing overpopulation, together with the great economic disparity it also engenders, diminishes the average person’s quality of life.)

             In closing, Freud noted the opposition between the “pleasure principle” and the “reality principle.” As Professor Daniel N. Robinson writes, on Freud: “In repression, our instinctual drives to get pleasure and gratification in the service of our [individual] survival come up against social strictures intended to preserve the species as a whole.” Social Darwinism stands this relationship right on its head by positing that the pleasure principle, individuals seeking to enhance their own personal welfare, explicitly in disregard of that of the group, actually best promotes the group’s welfare. This contradiction in Social Darwinism is resolved, however, when we consider that Social Darwinism is not so much an absurdity, as it is a fraud, perpetrated by the few whom capitalism benefits—the rich.

45. Three Short Meditations on Moral Character and Virtue     © January 2017 by Richard J. Eisner

● The ancient Greek moral philosophers focused on moral character, which, they taught, one should have in order to be happy, or to live well. Subsequent philosophers emphasized instead moral duty. This shift makes sense, I think, because morality is essentially a matter of duty, to others. To pursue something just for your own sake is a matter, not of morality, but merely of desire. (The ancient philosophers accounted for an obligation to others indirectly by positing that a person’s acting properly toward others is necessary for his being happy. Utilitarianism, the modern ethic of striving for the greatest happiness for the greatest number, straightforwardly fuses the ancient reverence for happiness and the later idea of duty to others, or to the group.) What is moral character, in light of the modern understanding of morality? I think that proponents of all theories of moral duty might agree that good moral character is a disposition to treat others well—or, in a word, kindness. And where does moral character come from? Let us consider. In doing good, probably more important than character is ability. The great artist does his art, not to be good, but to be great. Anyone who can do excellent work will do it, because the rewards for it, like recognition, are greater than those for being destructive. Generally, if you are satisfied with your rewards for being constructive—if you like your place in the world—you will love yourself and the world, and you’ll be benevolent. If you are dissatisfied with your rewards for being constructive—if you dislike your place in the world—you will hate yourself and the world, and be malevolent. Practically, though, the surest boost to moral character would be rough equality of wealth. When one person’s advancement is an advancement for everyone, and vice versa, when all persons’ interests are thus aligned, there is an automatic motive to serve the well-being of others—everyone is on the same team.

● The bird watcher says that life without watching birds is not worth living. The painter says that life without painting is not worth living. The musician says that life without making music is not worth living. And the philosopher, who devotes himself to examining the nature of things, including life itself, says the unexamined life is not worth living. Each man has his own pursuits that make his life meaningful for him. But to generalize your own interests as a requirement or prescription for everyone is rather narrow-minded—ironic for a philosopher. Then too, even if it’s important to examine your life, how much time does it take? If you contemplate your life for a year, come to some conclusions, and then move on to live in accordance with those conclusions, is that not sufficient examination?

             As to moral self-examination, most of us contemplate the morality of our actions only when we feel we are in a moral quandary. The great majority of the time, our thinking about our own morality is incidental, taking place, as it were, in the background. We spend our time, instead, thinking about our immediate tasks of work and play: how to arrange our day, our week; how to accomplish our goals: how to make more money, how to find a lover, how to get recognition for our work. The moral philosopher, of course, spends considerable time thinking about morality. But he does so to satisfy his interest in the subject, not to be more ethical—to be a good philosopher, not to be a good person. Perhaps this is for the best. If we were more occupied with our conduct’s morality, we would have less energy to pursue our special talents, interests, and passions, removing the sweetness of life, what makes it worth living.

● Strictly, no moral precept is true or false; no action is morally right or wrong; intrinsic value is impossible, so no action is “intrinsically” better than another. Practically, though, some actions do seem better than others. In deciding how to act, no single ethical theory is helpful exclusively. In the end, I conduct myself, not formulaically, but ad hoc, relying intuitively, as the situation at hand may seem to warrant, on a variety of ethical doctrines, most of which have some use. The moral virtues proposed by virtue ethics are a useful supplement to the rules of deontological ethics and utilitarianism’s guide of maximizing happiness. The virtues are like additional tools in my problem-solving toolkit. I can solve many problems with a hammer and a screwdriver. But when I encounter a bolt that needs tightening, it helps to have a wrench.