WyzAnts Scholarship Contest Entry

 Hello all of my loyal fans,
I have a request.  I have recently just written an essay for WyzAnts scholarship contest.  Half of the finalists for this contest are chosen by popular vote.  If you have a moment (and like the essay of course) I would be extremely grateful if you voted on my essay.

Here’s the link

I’ve also pasted the essay below for your reading convenience.
If I could teach everyone in the world one thing, I would teach doubt.  It seems to me that all learning must begin in doubt.  It is mystery that drives us to investigate the world, and doubt is the recognition of mystery.
Many people live in a state of certainty.  They know what is right and what is wrong; they know which politician’s are scoundrels; they know which scientific findings are quack.  A person who is certain does not investigate their world because they believe that they already know what is there: they take their opinions to be obvious, unadulterated reality.  Certainty not only stymies inquiry, but it also causes considerable social harm.  Traditions of certainty perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, and hostile politics, to name a few.
When we doubt, on the other hand, we experience our world as a question.  We inquire because we acknowledge that we do not know.  This fundamental principle has driven philosophers since the dawn of recorded history, and, more recently, it has become the essence of the scientific method – in science nothing is ever proven, but instead is only provisionally accepted given the current evidence.  In the doubtful society speech and dialogue flourish because its members are not divided by their dissenting opinions but instead are united by their shared pursuit of knowledge.
Doubt can not be taught directly.  To deliver doubt as an edict contradicts the essence of the demeanour which I wish to cultivate in my world of students.  Doubt is taught by challenging that which is most certain, to show that inquiry is infinite.
If I could teach everyone one thing, I would teach them to doubt, because doubt liberates us to learn on our own.  Through doubt we become our own teacher, perpetually struggling with the mysteries of life.   

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What characteristics can be laudable?

Hello everyone, I apologize for my second prolonged absence.  I think that I’ll have a little more time over the next two weeks, so I should be able to post semi-regularly (I’ve committed, just don’t ask what semi-regularly entails.)

In my most recent post I examined of whether there are physical characteristics that are more or less laudable to admire (my specific examination being whether the admiration of eyes was somehow superior to the admiration of, say, the admiration of posteriors).  My conclusion on the subject was that there weren’t.  My most dedicated wordpress commenter and commentator, ausomeawestin, disagreed (and if you like my stuff, you might be interested in his).  He proposed that the admiration of certain features (such as admiring someone’s eyes) were higher and more laudable because they were a step away from carnal fleeting pleasures towards more admirable and enduring pleasures.  The immediate question this raised in my mind was ‘what does it mean to laud someone’s taste?’  What is it that we are praising?  My knee jerk reaction is that the only laudable characteristic of a person is their moral status – all other things are superficial.  I reigned myself in from this initial impulse.  Someone’s diligence, for example, can remain admirable no matter what use they put it too.  I think that it would be very easy for me to fall into the trap here of saying ‘without free will, there can be no legitimate admiration’.

I want to make a note here.  Ausome’s analysis made use of Mill’s utilitarianism.  In most of my reflections I am further developing my own personal system, and that is what I am doing here as well.  To quickly review the relevant material, I think that we come into beings as agents as we age, but this agent is not a free agent.  This agent cannot free itself, but instead must be liberated to its own autonomy through chance and circumstance.  Freedom is when an agent rules itself.

It seems to me that the only characteristics of an agent that can actually be laudable are those which are generated by their agency.  In other words, an un-free agent can have no laudable characteristics.  An agent can be in the possession of an admirable body, but this is in a way not a property of an agents identity (though it can certainly contribute to the identity an agent develops).  The admiration of features can only be laudable, by my reasoning, when the act of admiration is an act of agency.  I do not mean by this that all acts of will are laudable, but that the property of laudable can only be applied to acts of will.  Most body admiration, I tend to think, is rather involuntary (what does it mean to voluntarily find a body attractive?  The answer is unclear to me?)  We can laud someone’s behavior in reaction to this experience (not being lewd, for example), but the admiration itself does not seem admirable.

Now, to give auesome’s notion fair treatment, I think I must point out that many find involuntary acts laudable.  Many would laud someone who unthinkingly leaps to the aid of another, for example.  I would disagree with this characterization, however, unless the person has intentionally developed that involuntary impulse (such as an EMS professional).

Let me know what you think,


PS: if you are reading this on blogger, most of the conversation occurs on the wordpress version of the blog.

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“You have beautiful eyes” – Examining notions of shallow vs. non-shallow admiration for physical beauty

In today’s culture, there are body parts which are acceptable to admire, and there are body parts which are more taboo.  You would never, for example, have a main character in a young children’s cartoon admire another characters breasts or butt, but it is plenty common for them to admire eyes or the face.  In the same way, classic chivalric love will tend to focus on the face or general form over features which are generally considered more sexually charged (at least it today’s modern cultural context).

There is, I think, a generally inclination to consider the admiration of eyes or face as more mature or respectable, while the admiration of features further south is generally considered more shallow.  It seems to me, however, that this dichotomy is a false one.  I’m not sure how features of the body can be meaningfully divided into shallow vs. non shallow because any bodily admiration seems like it is the same act.  There is, perhaps, different levels of will required to not focus on particular features.  In this sense, maybe, some sort of division can be made.  However, if this is the feature being lauded, then in a sense what is being encouraged is a kind of deception – those who are admirable are those who can disguise their true interests by admiring different features. That being said, there is evidence that suggests that a beautiful face is of significant importance for general impressions of beauty – when watching porn men spend a considerable amount of time admiring faces (Where Men and Women Look).  Where women look is somewhat contingent on whether they are on contraceptives; when on contraceptives they focus more on genitalia, when not they focus more on features of the environment.  The differences are kind of irrelevant to me when talking about shallowness.

The core notion of shallowness, to me, seems to be that admiring the body is less then the mind.  I’m inclined to concede this general point, appearance I think is the lesser aspect of a person’s identity.  I do not think, however, that there can truly be more or less shallow physical admiration.  I also think that physical admiration is an essential part of romance – sexual admiration is pretty much built into the definition of romantic love.  It seems to me that physical admiration becomes shallow when it is the primary focus.  This in itself is not inherently bad in any sense I can tell – people can, I think, enjoy mainly physical relationships.  It does mean, however, that the other person is fairly exchangeable (to the extent that attractive bodies are more interchangeable then identities).

Let me know what you think,


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The Moral Landscape Challenge Essay

 Hello everyone.  I apologize for my prolonged absence.  I’ve recently been accepted into my masters program, and so I have been applying to scholarships and stuff for the past two weeks.  Most recently I have been working on my submission for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge, which is what I will be sharing with you today.  Any feedback is appreciated.
Though I am generally sympathetic to the principle of wellbeing that Harris promotes in his book The Moral Landscape, I believe that there are a number of problems with Harris’s account.  My goal in this critique is not to demonstrate that Harris is wrong, so much as to argue that The Moral Landscape cannot be considered a complete philosophical project – primarily because Harris fails to engage with almost all of his sophisticated philosophical opponents.
Before I get into my arguments I will outline my understanding of The Moral Landscape.  At the beginning of the book Harris states that we need only grant him two points: that some have better lives then others and that these lives non-arbitrarily relate to states in the world.  I interpret these as the following axioms:
1.      Facts exist, and we can access these facts (at least in principle)
2.      There are better and worse states (which, in aggregate, means there are better and worse lives) and there are facts about these states
I understand Harris to argue as follows: well being is casually determined, therefore by investigating reality we can know how to increase and decrease wellbeing.  Wellbeing is the only thing we can conceivably value; therefore it is moral to maximize wellbeing.  Harris’s ‘moral landscape’ is a metaphor to describe the scope of potential moral action – some actions move us towards mountains of well-being, and some actions take us into valleys of suffering.  I think that both Harris’s ethical and epistemological accounts are flawed, primarily because he fails to meaningfully engage with the philosophers who are the prime thinkers in both fields.
Harris fails to justify the notion that the existence of better and worse lives entails the moral imperative of maximizing wellbeing.  Harris’s main argument for the connection between the two is his ‘worst possible misery’ argument – he proposes that, by any rational standard, anything that makes everyone’s lives worse is bad.  I am willing to concede the point, but I do not think this moves us forward in any way.  To make the point that he is trying to make, Harris would need to argue that, by any rational standard, anything that makes everyone else’s lives worse is bad.  Unfortunately, this argument does not follow from his axiom, nor would everyone concede the point.  This lack of concession is important because Harris’s argument has no force except for its self-evidence. Harris acknowledges this problem, and so sets about dismissing the credentials of his opponents (e.g. psychopaths, the Klu Klux Klan, the Catholic Church).  The problem is that Harris’s dismissal of these opponents is ultimately ad-hominem – for example, he dismisses the knights of the Klu Klux Klan on the grounds that they obviously have nothing of value to contribute on any subject.[1] Though I certainly agree that members of the Klu-Klux-Klan believe in wrong things, the source of their error cannot be that they are Klu-Klux-Klan members – that is circular.  Their moral behaviours must be dismissed on other grounds; otherwise we are merely two groups of dogmatists locking horns with the majority setting the rules.  I think that Harris finds himself at a loss in this respect; he does not see any way to rationally support his ethical principle.  There is one other tactic that Harris uses to justify his ethical account that I want to explore, his notion that we should listen to moral experts.
I believe that one of Harris’s most significant oversights in The Moral Landscape is his failure to enter into discussion with moral philosophy.  Harris makes a somewhat opaque appeal to the notion that we should listen to moral experts (e.g. pp. 19 & 36).  His appeal is opaque because Haris’s criterion for a moral expert is unclear.  He does say at that moral views are more or less true based on how the actions those views entail result in human flourishing (p.64), so by expert he probably means those engaged in investigations pertinent to wellbeing.  If this is what Harris means by expert, then I am inclined to reject his definition – people engaged in such investigation would be experts on wellbeing, but they would not be experts on the study of morality.  Justifying wellbeing as the ultimate moral imperative seems to me an exercise in moral investigation, while studying wellbeing means you are an expert on that which increases wellbeing.  Strangely enough, Harris does not engage with those who would traditionally be considered moral experts, namely moral philosophers.  He dismisses Hume in a short paragraph, but other then that the great philosophers are glaringly absent.  He does not at any meaningful length discuss a number of pertinent philosophers and philosophies.   He does not engage with Kant, or Nietzsche, or existentialism, or pragmatism, to name a few.  Existentialism seems an excellent example of a respectable intellectual tradition that stands in opposition to Harris’s general arguments – could existence precede essence, and our purpose is whatever we make of it?  Harris may have an answer, but engagement with such philosophy is glaringly absent in his book.  It seems especially negligent to fail to discuss Nietzsche in any moral realist project that wants to truly take on the opposition. 
My critique of Harris’s first axiom is very similar to the one I just gave of his second.  Harris seems to assume some kind of correspondence theory of truth.  However, he cannot really be said to have developed this notion in any sense, nor does he engage with any of the philosophers who have worked in epistemology.  I do not have space to develop this criticism further, but it is virtually identical in form if not in content to the previous paragraph.
I believe that the arguments put forward in The Moral Landscape are incomplete.  My main critique is that the book fails to address its most important opponents.  Harris may have responses to many or all of the challenges that I have put forward, but I do not think that The Moral Landscape can stand alone as a complete and well-justified account of morality.

[1]“The Knights of the Klu Klux Klan have nothing meaningful to say about particle physics, cell physiology, epidemiology, linguistics, economic policy, etc.  How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?” (41)

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