Philosophy of Scholarships

When I was accepted into my undergraduate degree I received a substantial yearly scholarship.  I would not have been able to afford attending Quest without this scholarship because Quest is expensive, at least by Canadian standards (my understanding is that American students are always astounded by its affordability).  This being said, the majority of my scholarship was not based on my need, but instead on my high-school grades and extra-curricular activities.  It is perhaps for this reason that I first reacted negatively when the president of my university said that it would be his preference if we eliminated preformance based scholarships and made all rewards entirely need based.  I, I thought to myself, deserved that money (and also kind of needed it).  I’d worked hard for my marks and such.  If you’ve paid any attention at all to how I usually structure these examinations you can probably guess that I’ve somewhat reconsidered my position.

What do grades represent?  What are they supposed to tell us about a person?  I’d say that they indicate some mix of intelligence, dedication, affluence, and parental pressure.  Three of the four are probably pretty obvious, and I doubt that affluence is that difficult to figure out – generally the better your material condition (as a youth), the more time you’ll be able to dedicate to school while still having a life.  I do not think that affluence and parental pressure are factors that are good factors on which to base the distribution of money.  I think that dedication may be worth rewarding.  I’m somewhat on the fence about intelligence.

What is the purpose of scholarships?  My understanding is that they exist for one reason: to encourage/enable students to attend an institution.  I think there are a mix of selfish and altruistic motives involved: good students are the the lifeblood of a school’s reputation, but also I think school administrations like to help students.

I think that scholarships are important, but I am currently inclined to agree with my university’s president.  I think that in many ways grade based scholarships reward things that really shouldn’t be rewarded.  I would need to do a whole nother post to examine the basis on which students should be admitted to universities, but I think the scholarships should be need based.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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You are what you do

One philosopher who I’ve never really understood is Judith Butler.  I’ve only read two or three of her articles, and I got literally nothing from them.  I’d pretty much dismissed her work as at least unintelligible, if not nonsense.  I’m not the only one who has had this kind of experience of Butler: she was awarded 1st place in  Philosophy and Literature magazine’s somewhat mean spirited but funny ‘bad writing contest’ in 1998.  Recently I came across an article that purported to explain Judith Butler in more understandable language (read here).  I have no idea whether this is an accurate representation of Butler or not, but I found that which the writer interpreted as Butler’s central claim quite interesting.  She said (that Butler said) that A) sex does not exist outside of gender, and B) that gender is something done.  This is a notion that I am quite sympathetic to – it actually seems like it would be rather difficult for me to reject given what I have previously said about epistemology.  Our identity is as much something we constitute within experience as anything else.  I do have the minor caveat that I probably attribute less of how we constitute reality to society then Butler does, but overall I think we stand on similar epistemic grounds on the matter.  The dichotomy of male/female is something to which we subscribe (by some combination of genetic inclination and social teaching), and, at least when it comes to our own identity, it seems like it can have little reality beyond the way in which it effects our actions.

This got me thinking about identity in general.  I would say (in a very Aristotelian fashion) that you are what you do.  If I say that someone is a doctor, I mean that she doctor’s people – if I say that someone is a good person, I am referring to a general trend in their behaviors.  The reality of these labels are not as simple as we sometimes treat them though.  One interesting aspect I think is how it seems to quite naturally follow from this that we are different people in different environments.  I act (and feel) substantially different when I’m working at my retail job and when I’m writing my blog posts, for example.

One of my friend’s once made an interesting observation: it is important to have an identity within a friend group.  A mutual friend of ours had recently been extremely depressed because she felt that she didn’t have any kind of identity within the group – that she had no skill or expertise that she could claim as her own.  We are, I think, quite driven to find uniqueness in ourselves – we seek identity markers to set ourselves apart (though we also seek other markers to bond over as groups).

So, just some thoughts on identity.  Let me know what you think,


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The Bonds of Fairness

We all have wished that the world was fair at some point or other.  We’ve wished that people would get what they deserve, or that there wasn’t such inequality, or any manner of such thoughts.  Not only do we wish for fairness though, we also tend to see it in the world.  We have karmactically inclined minds – we tend to think that others get what they deserve, that being a good person should be pragmatically rewarding (heaven), and so on.  Unfortunately, our desire for fairness can be a dead weight upon our lives.

When faced with adversity, when faced with struggle, my experience of myself is that I must struggle against my desire for fairness.  That is, I must hold it off so that it does not cripple me.  If I focus on the unfairness of a situation, if I allow myself to dwell on how I feel that my circumstance is unjust and ill-formed, I cut myself off from action.  To dwell on fairness is to demand of the world that it give itself to me, that it yield the fruit I perceive given to others to me as well.  To dwell on fairness so is paralyzing, because it is against action: to act is struggle towards that which should simply be given.  That this is so is not fair (though I am hardly hard-done by when it comes to the gifts given me by the world), but it is a brute reality.

I think it is much better to dwell on my own responsibility then on fairness.  If I take myself to be responsible for my circumstance, then I am moved to action.  No longer can I bitterly complain about my perceived ailments, because I take them to be my own doing.  The only recourse that is left to me is to act, to seize my circumstance and make it otherwise.

I do not mean to say that fairness is bad.  I think it is a good thing to encourage fairness in the world.  It is just that no good can come from dwelling on unfairness.  It is perhaps a piece of sophistry to say that my circumstance is entirely my own doing, but I think most of us are probably already sophists when it comes to fairness.  We take our privilege as given, while swooning over our woes.

Let me know what you think,

Ryan Workman

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In Praise of Pi

One of my favorite books is Life of Pi.  It wasn’t that high on my list when I first read it, but it has grown in my estimation as I have reflected on it.

One of my ambitions is to write stories.  I have dozens of story ideas floating around in my head, some of which I may some day actually write.  One of the ‘ideas’ that I had was ‘wouldn’t it be pretty cool to write a story that would mean entirely different things to different people – a story in which a casual reader would, perhaps, think that the story was an uplifting story of good triumphing over evil, while the more attentive reader would instead find a story of terrible tragedy hidden beneath dogmatism and an unreliable narrator.’  This is not an easy kind of story to come up with.  Reflecting on it though, I realized that Martel had written a story much like the one that I was envisioning, though the divide he created was more between faith and rationalism.

If you haven’t read the book, I warn that there are spoilers.

Life of Pi presents two stories.  Most of the book is dedicated to the first story, the story of a boy lost at sea with a tiger as his only companion.  The boy struggles and overcomes amazing obstacles, including at least one near-mystical experience (the people-eating island).  Then, at the end, this story is challenged as unbelievable, and so a second story is presented.  This story is ugly and horrible, and many of the events in the first story seem to become metaphor’s for terrible tragedy.  One of the key lines from the beginning of the book is that the story is one to make you believe in god.  It seems fairly clear to me that the philosophical point of Pi’s story that if two stories are of equal consequence then why not believe in the better story (i.e. god).  However, though I think this is the point of the story for Pi, it is not necessarily the point of the book.

When I first read the book, I was somewhat disappointed with the ending.  I was disappointed for two reasons.  First I was disappointed that the wondrous story I’d just read was false within the book’s narrative (which shows you many of my general philosophical tendencies).  I was also disappointed though that the characters in the story settled for falsity, that they thought illusion was better then truth.  However, in my reflections, I begin to appreciate the book more and more because of how differently it can be read.  It is in many ways a barometer of its reader’s philosophical and spiritual inclinations.  When one of my brothers saw the movie, his immediate reaction was “so… there was no tiger?”  That statement immediately says so much about him.  The book tells you so much about yourself.  It can be taken as a beautiful story of faith, or a lament of our self-deceiving nature.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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A Different Take on Morality

In my last two posts I talked about moral relativism and absurdity.  Both concepts seem to pose significant barriers to my central philosophical intuitions – namely my concept that both knowledge and ethics is a progressive activity with which we should be continuously engaged.  In both of my previous posts I suggested I thought I might have a way around the challenge posed by relativism and absurdity.  Today I’m going to present some of the ideas that I’ve been working on.

First I would like to summarize what I understand the challenges presented by relativism and absurdity to be.

Relativism challenges the idea of universal morality.  Proponents of relativism argue that moral assertions are really just assertions of an individual or of a culture, and that these assertions can have no reality outside of their context (aka it can be true that Canadians think that stealing is wrong, but stealing itself cannot be wrong.)  There are many subtleties to the matter – many relativists would say that things can be truly right or wrong within a culture, for example – but I think I’ve covered the essence of relativism’s challenge.  This is a problem for me because I am forwarding a normative claim: that it is right or good in some sense to be epistemically and ethically humble.

Absurdity’s challenge is slightly different from that of relativism.  What absurdity proposes is that we are meaning seeking creatures which are incapable of actually discerning whether meaning actually exists.  We can make our own meaning (and existentialism often proscribes this as a response to absurdity), but its hard to get moral prescriptions out of this meaning-making activity.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking lately: perhaps many moral realists make a misstep in their arguments.  I think the essence of moral realism’s goal is to say that there are better and worse actions.  To this end, many moral realists (including myself in the past) have pointed out actions we consider unarguably wrong (The Holocaust, female circumcision, etc.), and tried to use these to support the reality of morality.  The problem is that this approach is dogmatic – to the questioning relativist it can hold no sway because the relativist is unwilling to accede to the premise that the Holocaust is wrong in an objective way.  The realist is proclaiming the Holocaust as objectively wrong, while saying that dissenting opinions on the matter are not relevant.  The error, as I see it, is that realists are trying to find a grounding for morality that ignores the fact that it is us who is voicing the opinion.

All moral reflection is ultimately individual.  There is always an [I] reflecting on how it should exert and direct its powers upon the world.  Ethical reflection is both reflection and action – the [I] examines how it should act, but it also attempts to exert power over the actions of others.  The [I], in other words, attempts to make others an extension of its own ethics.  My core intuition is that I do not think that this precludes there being better and worse actions.

In one of my previous posts (Everything starts in ethics) I proposed that human existence is fundamentally ethical – that our world presents itself to us as an ethical question, and that our living is a continuous response to this question.  To this I also would add my concept of freedom.  You are free when you seize yourself ethically, when you place responsibility for your actions on yourself instead of the world around you.  From this framework I think I find a basis for a kind of morality: right and wrong is a personal matter which encompasses our entire world.  To free ourselves from the push and shove of the world is to engage in ethical activity and struggle with the question of how we think the world should be – how we should act, but also how we should push on others.  Within this framework morality is legitimized as the fundamental essence of human nature.  Being involved in the ethical project is not so much an imperative so much as existence – those who do not struggle with morality are not really individuals but merely conduits of their environment and circumstance.

This is still an idea in development.  If you have any questions or criticisms, leave a comment.  Thanks for reading,

Ryan Workman

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Struggling with Absurdity

Despite my examination of many existentialist thinkers, there is one existentialist concept that I have not really touched upon – the concept of absurdity.  Before I started writing this, I realized I only had a faint notion of what the concept of absurdity actually was.  After some research though, I would say that the concept of absurdity is essentially this: meaning may or may not exist, but it is not within our capabilities to know it.  This situation is called absurd because we are meaning-seeking beings, inclined to find meaning in our world, but actually determining real meaning is beyond our ken.  This concept can be taken many different ways, but a common path is to follow absurdity with the proposition that the essence of human existence is to create our own meaning in the face of absurdity.

With a bit of rewording, much of the thoughts I’ve previously proposed could be argued to be in line with absurdity.  I think that knowledge is an infinite activity, and that no one can know truth.  I take the essence of human existence to be continual confrontation with the question ‘what should I do’, while I think that the answer is unattainable.  It is only a short skip and a jump from that to saying that the existence of meaning is fundamentally unknowable and that the essence of human existence is to make – aka, absurdity.

If I was willing to stop there, I’d be on fairly firm philosophical grounds.  However, I’m not quite comfortable with what I’ve said – I want to insist somehow that people can be wrong, that there is some sort of tangible difference between the reflective and unreflected stance.  I do have some ideas for how to tackle this, but they are currently in the works.

Thank you for reading; let me know what you think.


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An Ethics of Excellence

One of the ideas that I have been toying with in relation to ethics is the idea that we are far too preoccupied with the ethics of others.  This is a tricky concept to articulate because it would be very easy in my examination to commit the very crime that I disavow.  The temptation is to offer the idea as a prescription – this is how people should act.  To proscribe however is to weasel out of the essence of what I actually want to say.

The idea that I want to examine is very simple – I think that we spend too much time being preocupied with whether others are being ethical, and we shirk on introspection.  As I’ve discussed before, we take our negative behaviors to be products of circumstance, while we take the negative behaviors of others to be products of personality.  By the same token, we give ourselves lots of credit for positive behavior, while we are disinclined to extend the same credit to others.  I think that this causes a considerable amount of conflict because it means that people who are angry with each other instinctively place responsibility on the other party.

Conceptually I think that the idea that people don’t hold themselves to the same ethical standards is fairly easy to grasp.  The challenge with the concept of self-focused ethics, in my experience, is actually thinking the idea about ourselves.  If we apply it to others, we haven’t actually grasped the idea.  Though we can apply it to others, it can only be understood when applied to ourselves.  Each of us as an I must be able to say “I take responsibility for my actions.”

The reason that I think this concept is so important is because the only actions that we have control over are our own.  Everyone else might as well be forces of nature for all that we can call upon them to behave differently.  In a sense, I think we should treat others as such – leaves blown in the wind.  Our inclination is to see ourselves as jostled by the forces of the world, while taking others to be autonomously responsible for their actions.

I think we should reverse our priorities. we (and by we I mean I) should make every effort to forgive the actions of other as products of circumstance.  Judging ourselves is a little more complicated.  I do not think we should be too harsh on ourselves, that is just a recipe for ill-health and self-loathing.  However, I do think we should try to be consciously considering how we want to act vs. how we are acting, and always be resisting the negative influence of our environment on our behavior.  To give a practical example, imagine that you’re in a fight.  Our natural inclination (or at least, my natural inclination) is to put responsibility on the other person, while absolving ourselves (myself) of responsibility based on circumstance.  What I’m arguing is that we really shouldn’t dwell on the responsibility of the other person, but instead should try to focus our efforts on our own behavior.

Let me know what you think, thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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