[Day 24] Philosophical meditation

Inspired by a video I found from School of Life, I will try having a philosophical meditation session to regain my focus.

I) What am I currently anxious about? 

I’m anxious about the progress of my individual project. I’m supposed to show some results at the beginning of the trimester but during the break, I procrastinate on my task so much so I have not found anything valuable

I’m anxious about the development of my current self. I let myself loose a lot these days and often use unjustified reasons for my laziness. Sometimes I fell like I’m a hypocrite.

I’m anxious about myself. I lack the will needed to achieve something big. These days, I start losing my concentration and resistance to distraction. I think I’m going backward.

I’m anxious about my attitude with people near me. I seem not to care much about anyone else. I do love them, and definitely, help when requested. In normal times, I just cannot show care enough.

I’m anxious about the time just go by without any steps forward. I’m anxious about using my time carelessly.

b) What is this anxiety really about?

The worst that could happen if:

+ I don’t show up with any result after the break: The professor will be disappointed at me. I might risk losing our relationship and opportunities to work within my field in the next 3 years. However, if I keep my grades and my skills high, I can still be ok.

+ I keep my procrastination and laziness: I will achieve nothing in the break. I will also have the bad tendency to follow that path back in the trimester. If I waste my time, I will have fewer opportunities career-wise and disappoint my family and myself. Will have to go back to Viet Nam and work in a corrupted environment, which is the reason I come here. With my skills, I’m still much employable in Viet Nam if I try enough.

+ People think I’m selfish and do not care about them: I might hurt somebody close to me. I might hurt my family. I will be sad about it. However, I can live with that. It is never a bad time to start show some caring.

II) Who am I upset with and why?

I’m upset with myself mostly, for being unresponsible for my life and letting the surroundings affect me.

I’m upset with my aunt, who is under much pressures in her life. Although I know that she means no harm against me, I’m still irritated by the fact that she always finds something to scold me every time we meet. Whatever I do or not do, there is a reason to complain. Sometimes I’m amazed at how creative these complaints are. Half of the complaints are directly towards me, the other half are to a group that I’m the only representative listening. I find troubling at the first few days, then I thought since I know her motives, I will not be affected anymore. I was wrong. Though I’m compassionate with her innocent motive, I do not think it is her right to pass her troubles to me.

I’m upset with my cousins. Both of them are good, astoundingly good. Only when they are in their normal mood. The older cousin is careless sometimes, and often getting rage, not with me but with his family, which I partly can understand why but not agree with it. The younger cousin is ok, but once I accidentally make him fall off the bed, he continuously curses me “Stupid”. I find his manners disrespectful. I feel bad for them, yet I’m much disappointed in them.

b) If this happens to a friend, what do you advise them?

+ Distance yourself with negative power.

+ Know that they mean no harm. It’s just their ways of living.

+ Try mediation.

+ Reschedule your time.

III) What recently made me feel excited, envious, or desiring? 

My most recent excitement is when I went out to the nearby park to see the waterfalls with my cousins and his friends. I did not go with the group. Walking alone in nature is good. I feel reconnected.

I found excited talking with my mom.

I found excited when I made up my own problems, to make a program to play cards. I was deep in my thought figuring the solutions for that task.

b) What might be missing in my life?

I guess I need to go out for a walk/run and reconnect myself with nature more.

c) If feelings could talk, what might it tell you?

I guess it will tell me to stop settling with mediocre pleasure. Go and try new things.

It will also tell me to sleep and rise early.

d) If other parts of my life were more like this, what might they be like?

It will be an awesome, productive and satisfied life.

 

 

 

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[Day 22] Captain Fantastic – a hidden gem

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

As usual, I just finish Captain Fantastic. It is just too good of a film. Actually, I really want to compliment the film to the highest standard, but now I’m losing my words describing it. It is just an extremely complicated mixture of feeling, caused by high crafted story line. The film contains perspective of our modern society from an outsider, the one who choose to retreat from human’s world. It also contains many philosophical concepts and peculiar ways of education. By showing pros and cons of their ways of living compared to a normal people, the movie has portrayed what is currently wrong with this world so that we can have appropriate adjustments for our lives.

Here is the list of lessons I learn:

  • I’m weak, both in intelligibility, spirituality, and physical ability. Seeing the film makes me ashamed of myself. I should have a more disciplined ways of living.
  • Practice physically. Practice mentally. And practice intelligibly.
  • “Interesting” is a lazy word. Describe more specifically. Focus on how you think about the matters, not the description of the matters.
  • A new way to talk about sexual intercourse. It seems to work.
  • Nobody is going to be there and help. Be more independent.
  • A good mixture of social knowledge and book’s knowledge is needed. Placing emphasis on one side and ignore the other is not great.
  • Watching these kids makes me realize my time is limited. I should god damn use them well.

[Day 21] Against utilitarianism – Morality is the tool benefiting society, not for the individual (10 min read)

 

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John Stuart Mill, author of “Utilitarianism” and “On Liberty”

In the book “Utilitarianism”, John Stuart Mill has introduced a moral model with the same name, which put utility as the basis of morals or the greatest happiness principle. In this model, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By ‘happiness’ is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness’ is meant paint and the lack of pleasure”(5). By examining and criticizing Mill’s arguments about the foundations of his theory, this paper will argue that utilitarianism should not be the moral standards for humans.  Furthermore, it will argue that “ethics of utility” are individual traits that are desirable to the group to which that individual belongs, not to the trait’s owner.

Pleasure is one of two major components of Mill’s happiness. He argues that we can rank pleasure’s value based on their desirability “Pleasure P1 is more desirable than pleasure P2 if all or almost all people who have had experience of both give a decided preference to P1, irrespective of any feeling that they ought to prefer it”(6). Even though this comparison method sounds logical, it contains a critical mistake, which involves collective opinions. What is the danger of collective opinions? One might ask. The most dangerous fault of believing in the mass is the fake unity that the mass portrays. For example, if we ask Americans whether we should increase our budget for education, we’re more likely to have an answer that is different than 50%-50%. Let’s assume that 70% of them vote for YES. Does it mean that increasing budget for education is the right thing to do? Not necessarily so. Over the people that voted for YES, 20% of them might think it’s better to increase salary for elementary teacher, 15% might think that we should increase scholarship for college students, 30% might think that’s we should abolish privilege such as scholarships for the elite and spend more for the average people, while the rest who vote YES do not have any specific preferred areas to spend the extra money. If we go into more details, we would find more and more diverse and conflicting reasons for their votes. They opinions looks like the same, but they are not. Everyone has their own reasons for placing one over another. A glance would show solidarity, but a detailed examination would display chaos.

The second fault in collective opinion is that no crowd should be trusted as the judge. What is the justest crowd? How big should it be? What are its attributes? Should it be comprised of the justest individuals? If it is composed of the people who do not have the highest standard, how could it come to the conclusion of the highest standard? If we let the people who are raised and taught Nazi’s ideal, would Holocaust is the right things to do just because it brings more pleasure to them? The ideal size and traits of group’s members is still a big question mark in Mill’s model. If there is no person who can be trusted for his judgment, there are even fewer reasons to let a crowd hold that role. Even Socrates, whose name has been used several times as a symbol of intelligence and virtue in Mill’s work, has strongly disregarded the idea of collective opinions.

“Should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.” (Crito, 8).

Mill also believed that

the way of life that employs the higher faculty is strongly preferred·to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones· by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both…no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool; no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus; no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base” (6).

Mill calls our “sense of dignity” as the reason for making these choices. His assumption is too convenient to make and his trade-off lacks a basis of a fair deal, since it contains many hidden pieces. If a person chooses to be a dissatisfied human other than a satisfied pig, it is not only because the mental pleasure has higher quality than bodily pleasure, but also because of many other reasons. Being a satisfied pig is not secure. A turkey is always well-fed before Thanksgiving. Being humans, or having more intelligence gives an entity more awareness to its surroundings, thus help prolong its life. Moreover, the level of curiosity increases in proportion with intelligence, which leads to boredom in repetitive activity. If a person consecutively eats only one type of food for a year, his pleasure gained from eating would dramatically reduce, even given that food is his favorite. Having more intelligence means that you can extract pleasure from more streams, thus giving you the options of having fun in one activity while waiting for the excitement level of others streams to be refilled. One other hidden factor of the trade-off is that one cannot hold the other parties accountable after the deal. If a person accepts the deal, he would be in a more vulnerable position to be exploited. Thus, he may not have the promised pleasures. Giving these three conditions satisfy, the final decision can be much different. In fact, there are many people in this world who choose the trade-off differently than what Mill expects. We can name lots of millionaires, billionaires, politicians, dictators who have the capacity to be knowledgeable, to be virtuous, but they choose to have a regal life full of sexual and material desires instead. Mill can argue that they are not exposed enough to the other life, but there are still monks and intellectualls who cannot resist the call of bodily desires. By giving reasons to exclude these exceptions, Mill has “cherry-picking” the samples that fit his theory.

After establishing what is happiness and pleasure, Mill starts his endeavor into explaining why utilitarianism is good “you could rationally accept the utilitarianism standard without having grasped that people who enjoy the higher pleasures are happier than those who don’t· That’s because the utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the greatest amount of happiness altogether”(8). Mill wants to push the idea that happiness can be derived from noble character. He argues that selfishness and lack of mental cultivation are the roots of unhappiness. Thus, “anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness”(8). Mill’s assessment about the value of self-sacrificing is not sufficient. Nobleness, or willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others is not a desirable trait for an individual but for a group. That trait is encouraged because it increases the survival rate of the group. Having one and two members deceased does not cause much damage for the group, but for those persons, they have lost everything they have. We help others because of two reasons 1) we felt good helping them or 2) there is something in return for us in the past, present or we expect it to come in the future. For the former reason, we may feel good because we have been taught that helping others is good (the society need their member to have that trait) or we may inherit that instinctively. The need to help others rises subconsciously since we want to make friends, to form our circles, so that we can be more secure. Without being taught about sacrificing or expecting benefits from helping, there would be no circumstances when a person voluntarily help another person.

Not satisfying in introducing his model, Mill took another step in recommending

(1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole.(2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness(12).

This is exactly what happens on George Orwell or Ayn Rand novels, where everyone is taught that their happiness is in harmony with their brothers and sisters. The purpose of these rules is to benefit and stabilize “the whole”. However, like 1984 or Anthem, the definition of “the whole” is vague. What constitutes the whole? For a Georgia resident at Lawrenceville, would “the whole” be his family, his neighbors, his county, his state, his country, his race, humanity or every living entity? What kind of happiness matters?

Mill’s proposition “happiness is the end and aim of morality” (17) lacks the subject being discussed. The right proposition should be “personal happiness is the end of individual and group happiness is the aim of morality”. Without a group, there is no need for morality. Morality, or ethics, is the tool of a group to ensure its existence. It is necessary to teach morality to children, but not in the name of personal needs.

Reference:

John Stuart Mill. Utilitilarism.

Plato. Crito. Pennsylvania State University. 1998  

[Day 20] The Martian – Cool movie

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So I have watched The Martians. Even though it is a little bit cliche and too much Hollywood-like, I still consider it a really good movie. I thought movies like The Martians brings many inspirations and educational lessons to people, especially kids. If I were a kid watching this, I would definitely find science more attractive, and the hidden desire to be an astronaut in the future is having its chance to start burning again.

There are 4 choices (3 in the movie and 1 hidden) that I found interesting:

1st decision:

When NASA did not know that they left Mark at Mars, they consider proposing to the Congress about the new ARES 6. Vincent said it’s a good opportunity because they can use that chance to exploit the feeling of the audience about Mark’s death. Retrieving Mark’s body is never the main mission, but it is a good add-in for popularity. Teddy opposes because he does not want Mark’s body to be exposed to the media, thus reduce the astronaut’s (and Nasa’s) image.

Well, Mark is death. And business must go on. Retrieving Mark’s body is not appealing to NASA, but it is to the public. I find this talk really nice.

2nd decision: 

When NASA found out that there is a chance that Mark is alive. They face the decision between following the law to publish this or ignore it. Despite losing face and having a lot of difficulties in the rescue mission, they choose to publish the news, since they know they cannot cover the lie forever.

Teddy Sanders: How sure?
Vincent Kapoor: A 100%.
Annie Montrose: You’ve got to be shitting me.
Teddy Sanders: Prove it to me.
Vincent Kapoor: For a start the solar panels have been cleaned.
Teddy Sanders: They could have been cleaned by wind.
Vincent Kapoor: Back it up. Look at Rover 2. According to the logs, Commander Lewis took it out on Sol 17 plugged it into the Hab to recharge. It’s been moved.
Teddy Sanders: She could have forgotten to log the move.
Mindy Park: No, not likely.
Annie Montrose: Well why don’t we just ask Lewis? Let’s get on CAPCOM and ask her directly right now.
Teddy Sanders: No. No. If Watney is really alive, we don’t want the Ares 3 crew to know.
Annie Montrose: How…how can you not tell them?
Teddy Sanders: They have another 10 months on their trip home. Space travel is dangerous. They need to be alert and undistracted.
Annie Montrose: But they already think he’s dead.
Vincent Kapoor: And they’d be devastated to find out they left him there alive.
Annie Montrose: I’m sorry, but you have not thought this through. I mean, what are we gonna say? “Dear America, remember that astronaut we killed and had a really nice funeral for? Turns out he’s alive and we left him on Mars. Our bad. Sincerely, NASA.” I mean, do you realize the shitstorm that is about to hit us?
Teddy Sanders: How are we going to handle the public?
Annie Montrose: Legally, we have 24 hours to release these pictures.
Teddy Sanders: We release a statement with them. We don’t want people working it out on their own.

3rd decision:

When NASA facing the decision between risking Mark’s life and the whole crew’s life. Teddy, director of NASA, choose to protect the crews. He has to do that way. However, Mitch, their ground team captain choose to secretly let the crews know about the second option and let them choose. Of course, they choose to risk their life to save Mark. When Teddy knows about this rebellion, he told Mitch that the whole thing is bigger than one person. To his surprise, Mitch said ” No, it’s not. ”

Teddy Sanders: Annie will go before the media this morning and inform them of NASA’s decision to reroute the Hermes to Mars.
Mitch Henderson: Sounds like a smart move, considering the circumstances. Whoever gave them the maneuver they only passed along information. Crew made the decision on their own.
Teddy Sanders: You may have killed them, Mitch. We’re fighting the same war. Every time something goes wrong, the world forgets why we fly. I’m trying to keep us airborne. It’s bigger than one person.
Mitch Henderson: No, it’s not.
Teddy Sanders: When this is over, I’ll expect your resignation.
Mitch Henderson: I understand.
Teddy Sanders: Bring our astronauts home.

4th decision: 

This is the whole movie. This is just like Saving Private Ryan, on a much bigger scale. Millions of dollars and man-hours have been wasted for saving Mark.

Values that I think the film contains:

+ Will, effort of human can conquer nature.

+ Never give up.

+ Learn science. It helps. Be smart and creative. It helps.

+ Value of a human life is insurmountable.

Conclusion: This film may not be a classics, but it’s something to enjoy. It’s kinda Space Comedy The Revenant.

[Day 19] Some thoughts for today(5 min read).

As I’m trying to think about my final thesis for my Philosophy class, I have come over several interesting thoughts and ideas for the last 3 days. On the road trip with 1 of the greatest guy that I know, Will, we’ve had a really great conversation about those.

I) The differences between Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy.

I started the conversation by stating out that the Western philosophy is based on logic and reasoning. It bases on the law of non-contradiction. If one is A, one cannot be not-A. If I’m in America right now, I cannot be in Viet Nam at the same time. This is the mode that Western philosophy operates on. However, Eastern philosophy, like Confucious and Buddha is having the notion of confusion. Contradictions can exist in the East. You can be A and not A at the same time, just like the symbol Ying and Yang. In the past, because of the disconnection on this simple notion, philosophers who believe in the East were ignored by their peers because it is obvious that one cannot be A and not-A. It is the premise that cannot be argued. Even a child can understand that. However, as Will and I both agree, Eastern philosophy is really post-modern in its thinking and people now having a new perspective on it. People start realizing its beauty and actually come back to the East. I’m still a novice on these fields so I have no detailed explanations about how they can resolve this differences.

One thing that Will points out to me that he sees Eastern philosophy in the view of religions. Both Buddhism and Confucism are religions. But somehow while it is considered religions, Will said that he found it is actually philosophy. I agree with him at this point. I think that Buddha and Confucious have many common points. They did not write. All of their teachings were written by their disciplines. Thus, it contains much more metaphor and harder to understand, since you have to understand the context of the conversation, the tone of their voices and many other factors. The meaning is not clearly articulated like written essays like what Plato and Western philosopher did with their thoughts. Thus, it is easier for their discipline to turn their philosophy into religions by using different interpretations. The second thing is both of them tried to teach the Way of Life. It seems that they had no God in mind, and they found some rules or Way that they thought people should live by and then spread it to other people. I believe that everywhere in the world, there is always a strong connection between culture, philosophy, and religion. In the East, those things cannot be separated.

II) Education. Creativity. True writers can relive their emotions due to external needs.

Because I have been struggling with my thesis for days, I start explaining about how frustrating it is to come out with something without detailed instructions. Will told me about his brother, who have the same issue with creative assignments. He does well with assignments that have specific questions, but he would have a really hard time if his teacher just gave him a book and say ” Hey, write something about it”. We talked about whether it is the fault of our education to diminish our ability to create something ourselves. We’re taught to be familiar with instructions, orders, and standardized tests, not creativity. When we were kids, if we told our teachers that we felt this should not be the right way to do things, we would easily be scolded and steered back to the curriculum. After a few times being corrected, we just stop doing that. Thus, developing the habit of creating our own things in college would take a long time.

A reason that we think that might be in place that is the difference between internal needs and external needs. There are sometimes that I feel like writing, I write a lot. That writing means something to me. It’s my internal urge that pushes me to write so I can devote my time and effort to it. However, final assignment, or final thesis, is an external need. I do not do this for my soul but rather for my grade. To me, that cause is not righteous enough so that I can raise my energy to find meaningful topics and ideas. I just do not know what I should write about, and even if I have decided the topic, I do not know what should be included in it. This is a painstaking process. Will told me that he had the same problem with his Great Books final essay. He had thought about it for days, but cannot find the right ideas. However, he was able to find something he was not so passionate about to write just before the deadline was due. He was not really happy about it, but he could pull it through. It leads me to the questions about professional writers and poets like Stephen King and Xuân Diệu. They are known to have disciplines about their writings. That’s how they’re really productive, and their works are actually good and full of emotions. They have trained themselves to not depend on emotions and develop the abilities to relive the emotions whenever necessary. I believe that is a right development for anyone whose profession is literature. I definitely need to develop that, at least for my final assignment.

3) Culture

My argument is this “If people focus too much on culture, they have to pay more for it”. For example, baseball and football are American’s culture. When it first started, it cost much less. In the 1920s, it only cost 25 cents to 1 dollar for a seat. Nowadays, you have to spend around 80$ for 2 people at a Major League Game because of the premium price of the tickets, the food, the drinks, and parking. Even if you takes into account the fact of inflation ( the dollars has lost 10 times of its value since 1920), you still pay several times of what you was paying back in the times. The same things happen with football(in America), soccer(elsewhere in the world) or even with organic food. Once the trend has been formed and people start noticing it, the price becomes higher. Will questioned my argument by putting the case of Halloween, a mainstream culture that actually helps to bring the candy’s price down. I doubt his example by pointing out that candy seems to me a scheme of candy’s manufacturer to sell more candies on Halloween’s day, just like what diamond industry did with engagement ring, or Alibaba does with Singles day. They just create imagined needs out of the blue, brand it culture, and enjoy profits. Will agrees with me about that, and told one example about how KFC sales rockets on Christmas. It appears that they advertised that Western people like to have KFC for Christmas. Since Japanese people at that times have no ways to verify that information, KFC’s manager found their stores getting filled by customers on 25 December. Until today, 3 days of Chrismas are still 3 biggest sales day for KFC all year. That’s not bad for an advertisement from 1974!!!

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KFC for Christmas!! Yay Japanse!!! “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!”

[Day 18] Mengzi – the second Sage

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Mencius, The Three Moves. Anonymous drawing, China, 20th century. Photo by AKG Images

Written by  Bryan W Van Norden . The original post could be found here. I just copy here to note an really interesting article. You should rather read the original one too. 

A man is hiking in the countryside when he suddenly sees a toddler about to fall into an abandoned well. What will he do? Many people will instinctively run toward the toddler to save him. However, some people will simply panic, freezing in the moment of crisis. A handful of people might start to move toward the child, but then stop, because they realize that the crumbling old well could collapse under their weight. Their initial impulse to save the child competes with their desire for self-preservation.

The fact is that we cannot be entirely sure what a human in this situation will do. What we can be sure of is what a human in this situation will feel: alarm that the child is in danger, and compassion for any potential suffering. What if someone did not have these feelings? What about someone who could look upon a child about to fall into a well with nothing but indifference, or perhaps even amusement? We describe those who are this unfeeling as ‘inhuman’, more like a beast than a person.

This thought experiment was formulated by the ancient Confucian Mengzi, the most influential philosopher in world history whom you have probably never heard of. He uses it to argue that, contrary to egoists, and to those who believe that human psychology is a tabula rasa, human nature is hard-wired with an incipient tendency toward compassion for the suffering of others.

Although Mengzi was born long after Confucius died, he is referred to as the ‘Second Sage’ because he shaped the form that Confucianism would take for the next two millennia, not just in China, but also in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Also known as ‘Mencius’ (the Latinisation of his name given by early Jesuit missionaries), Mengzi is attracting renewed interest among Western philosophers. Not only does Mengzi provide an intriguing alternative to Aristotelian accounts of the virtues and their cultivation, but his claims about human nature are supported by recent empirical research. Beyond the intrinsic philosophical interest of Mengzi’s thought, it behooves us to learn more about it because Chinese culture is increasingly abandoning the radical Marxism of the Mao era and returning to a reverence for traditional systems of thought such as Confucianism.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) did not regard himself as founding a school. In the Analects (the collected sayings of Confucius and his immediate disciples), Confucius said: ‘I transmit but do not innovate. I am faithful to and love antiquity.’ Of course, no one with a mind as brilliant as that of Confucius simply repeats the past. All explanation is re-interpretation. But both Confucius himself and his later followers conceived of him as transmitting the Way – the right way to live and to organize society – that had been discovered by sages even more ancient than Confucius. This Way is based upon what contemporary philosophers such as Thomas Nagel refer to as ‘agent-relative obligations’: the filial piety that I owe to my mother and father precisely because they are my parents; respect for those who are elder to me; the loyalty I owe to my friends and to my spouse; and the special affection I have for my children.

This does not mean that I should be indifferent to strangers. The whole point of the child-at-the-well story is that our compassion extends to all humans. However, as one of Confucius’s disciples put it: ‘Are not filial piety and respect for our elders the root of benevolence?’ In other words, it is in the family that our dispositions to love and show respect for others are first incubated.

For Confucius, the cultivation of virtue was intimately connected with the problem of good government. He lived during a time when China was divided into distinct states that incessantly warred against one another for dominance. One response to this situation, illustrated by the Art of War (a work of the fourth-century BCE attributed to Sunzi), was for rulers to seek dominance by perfecting military strategy. However, Confucius argued that the Way to security and peace is by getting virtuous people into positions of government authority. These people would work to benefit the common people, and would lead through moral inspiration rather than brute force.

Mengzi was born in 372 BCE, so he never met Confucius. However, Mengzi was so inspired by Confucius’s Way that he took it upon himself to explain and defend it to the people of his generation. In the eponymous Mengzi (the collection of his dialogues, debates, and sayings), he complains that ‘the words of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world!’ Mozi, the first systematic critic of Confucianism, was best known for advocating ‘impartial caring’, the view that we should care for everyone equally, regardless of whether they are members of our family or complete strangers. (Mohism, the school of thought Mozi inspired, is similar to Western utilitarianism in being ‘agent-neutral’ rather than ‘agent-relative’.)

Both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, as they assume an impoverished conception of human nature

Mengzi argued that Mozi’s impartial caring makes ethical demands of humans that are impractical, given the limitations of human nature. In a debate with a follower of Mozi, Mengzi asked whether he ‘truly believed that a person loves his neighbor’s child as much as his own nephew’. Mengzi also argued that the Mohist position is ultimately incoherent. Both Confucius and Mozi agreed that the Way is dictated by Heaven, a more or less anthropomorphic higher power. But human nature is implanted in humans by Heaven, so there can be no justification for morality other than what is implicit in our Heaven-given nature. In short, there is only one foundation for the Way (our innate dispositions, which favor our friends and relatives), but the Mohists act as if there were a second one (the doctrine of impartial caring, which warps our nature).

Yang Zhu, the other major critic of Confucianism during Mengzi’s era, was an egoist. We are naturally self-interested, Yang Zhu claimed, and both Confucianism and Mohism pervert our nature by demanding that we sacrifice ourselves for others. Mengzi agreed with Yang Zhu that Mozi’s philosophy ignores the constraints that human nature places on morality. But where Yang Zhu went wrong, according to Mengzi, was in the mistaken belief that there is nothing to human nature other than our self-interested desires. As the thought experiment of the child-at-the-well suggests, compassion for other humans is part of human nature. Mengzi also argues that humans have a sense of shame that can at least compete with our self-interested motivations. As evidence, he notes that even beggars who are barely surviving day-to-day are ashamed to accept handouts given with contempt. In short, both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, because both assume an impoverished conception of human nature. Mozi ignored our innate partiality toward friends and family, while Yang Zhu ignored the moral emotions that clearly are a part of our nature.

Mengzi does not naively assume that all humans are fully virtuous. He acknowledges that our innate compassion and sense of shame are only incipient. We often fail to have compassion for those we should, or fail to be ashamed of what is genuinely despicable. Using an agricultural metaphor, he refers to our innate dispositions toward virtue as ‘sprouts’. This metaphor is carefully chosen. The sprout of a peach tree cannot bear fruit, but it has an active tendency to develop into a mature, fruit-bearing tree if given good soil, the right amounts of sun and rain, and the weeding of a prudent gardener. Similarly, the ‘sprout of benevolence’ – manifested in our spontaneous feeling of alarm and compassion for the child about to fall into a well – and the ‘sprout of righteousness’ – manifested in a beggar’s disdain to accept a handout given with contempt – are not fully formed, but can develop into genuine virtues given the right environment and cultivation.

How do we make sure that our moral sprouts bloom into actual virtues? Ethical cultivation is a topic that has been neglected by most Anglo-American philosophers in the past century, who have tended to focus on more abstract, and less ‘messy’, conceptual problems. Classical Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle did discuss ethical cultivation; however, Mengzi’s view on this topic seems more plausible in many ways. Aristotle said that human nature is neither good nor evil, but it allows us to be habituated to virtue. However, Aristotle emphasized that virtue requires doing the right thing out of the right motivation. If we are not innately good, how can habituation, becoming accustomed to doing the right thing, ever give us the right motivation? It seems that habituation can give us, at most, behavioral compliance with virtue, not virtue itself.

In contrast, Plato argued that our souls innately love the good, and retain a dim knowledge of the transcendent truths they were exposed to before they were embodied. The way to purify the soul and recover the knowledge of these truths, Plato claimed, is the study of pure mathematics and philosophy. This theory of cultivation as recollection explains how we can act with the right motivations from the very beginning of moral cultivation. But Platonic ethical cultivation involves giving up our ordinary attachments to our family and an almost ascetic indifference to our physical bodies. Plato summarized the implications of his view by stating that ‘the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death’, because he strives to transcend his sensual desires and attachment to his body. In contrast, Mengzi’s suggestion that the path of ethical cultivation is through rich commitments to family, friends and other individuals in our community provides a much more appealing view of the goal of human life.

Mengzi recognized that humans are partly responsible for their own ethical development, but (like Plato and Aristotle) he held that society should create an environment conducive to virtue. He advised rulers that their first task is to make sure that the common people’s physical needs are met. To punish the people when they steal out of hunger is no different from setting traps for them, according to Mengzi, and he offered detailed, practical advice on almost every aspect of government policy, from tax rates to farm management. In addition, Mengzi made explicit that a ruler who cannot provide for the needs of the common people has no legitimate claim to authority. He asked one ruler what he would do if one of his subordinates was bad at his job. The ruler replied: ‘Discharge him.’ Mengzi then asked what should be done if his own kingdom were in disorder. The ruler, clearly seeing what this implied about his own legitimacy, abruptly changed the topic.

Once the people’s basic needs were met, Mengzi suggested that they should be ethically educated. Later Confucians envisioned two levels of education, the ‘Lesser Learning’ and the ‘Great Learning’. All children should participate in the Lesser Learning, which teaches the fundamentals of morality and etiquette, along with reading, writing, arithmetic and some practical skills. Promising students, regardless of their social background, go on to the Great Learning, in which they learn the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ of morality.

Mengzi’s vision of the Great Learning is suggested by a much-discussed dialogue he had with King Xuan of the state of Qi. The king’s subjects were suffering because he taxed them excessively to pay for his own luxurious lifestyle and to fund his wars of aggression against other states. Nonetheless, Mengzi told the king that he had the capacity to be a great ruler and gave the following incident as his justification. The king had been sitting up in his royal hall when he’d seen someone leading an ox through the courtyard below. He asked where it was being led and was told it was to ritual slaughter. In reply, the king said: ‘Spare it. I cannot bear its expression, like an innocent person going to the execution ground.’

The king confirmed that the story was true, but asked Mengzi what this had to do with being a great ruler. Mengzi replied:

In the present case, your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the benefits do not reach the commoners. Why is this case alone different? … Hence, Your Majesty’s not being a good king is due to not acting; it is not due to not being able. … Hence, if one extends one’s kindness, it will be sufficient to care for all within the Four Seas. If one does not extend one’s kindness, one will lack the wherewithal to care for one’s own wife and children. That in which the ancients greatly surpassed others was nothing else than this: they were simply good at extending what they did.

It is clear that Mengzi was suggesting that the king should ‘extend’ his compassion from the ox being led to slaughter to his own subjects. But what precisely does ‘extend’ mean in this context?

There are three major lines of interpretation. One suggestion is that ‘extend’ refers to a kind of logical inference. The king showed compassion for the suffering of the ox (Case A), and his subjects are also suffering (Case B), therefore the king ought to, as a matter of logical consistency, prevent the suffering of his subjects just as he prevented the suffering of the ox.

Moral education is subtle and context-sensitive, more like teaching an appreciation for literature than how to follow a set of rules

Another interpretation is that Mengzi merely wanted to show the king that he was capable of feeling compassion for his subjects (Case B), since he was capable of feeling compassion for an ox (Case A), which is not even human. Perhaps the king was one of those fooled by the teachings of Yang Zhu into believing that only self-interest is natural, so he needed a vivid reminder of his own ‘sprout of benevolence’.

A third interpretation (defended by the moral philosopher David Wong of Duke University in North Carolina) is that Mengzi was trying to frame the suffering of the king’s people in a way that would enable the king to psychologically project his compassion from the ox to the people. In other words, Mengzi wanted to lead the king to see, not just the ox, but each of his own suffering subjects, as ‘like an innocent person going to the execution ground’. If this last view is correct, then moral education is an extremely subtle and context-sensitive task, more like teaching an appreciation for literature than teaching someone how to follow a set of rules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Confucians such as Mengzi have emphasized the importance of studying poetry and history in educating a person’s moral sense.

Some aspects of Mengzi’s thought are no longer plausible for us today. For example, he believed that the precise details of the ritual practices and etiquette of his particular culture are hard-wired into our nature. However, the extent to which ancient Chinese debates over human nature parallel 20th-century psychological theories is striking. Skinnerian behaviorism is similar to Mozi’s view that human motivations are almost infinitely malleable, and so can be adjusted to be socially useful. Yang Zhu’s position finds its counterpart in the former fad for thinking that evolutionary theory dictates an egoistic conception of human nature.

However, as the psychologist Martin L Hoffman of New York University explains in his book Empathy and Moral Development (2000), developmental psychology supports the claim that humans do indeed have an innate tendency toward compassion. Moreover, this innate tendency is sprout-like (to use Mengzi’s vocabulary), in that it is incipient and requires socialization and cultivation to develop into a genuine virtue. In his book, The Geography of Morals (2016), Owen Flanagan of Duke University notes that Mengzi likewise anticipates the view that humans think in terms of distinct ‘moral modules’. The moral modularity thesis (developed by Jonathan Haidt at New York University, among others) suggests that humans are hard-wired to approach ethics in terms of care, loyalty, fairness, respect for authority, and sanctity. Compare this with Mengzi’s claim that humans are endowed with ‘four hearts’ of benevolence (manifested in compassion for others), righteousness (expressed in disdain to do what is shameful), ritual propriety (which Mengzi connects with both deference and respect), and wisdom. Wisdom is the only ‘heart’ that is not associated with a ‘module’. But Mengzi emphasizes it because it is crucial for any virtuous person to be able to engage in deliberation about the best means to achieve the ends provided by the other ‘hearts’.

What is ethical deliberation like? Two paradigms have dominated modern Western accounts of moral reasoning: the application of rules, and the weighing of consequences. Both paradigms treat moral thinking as analogous to scientific reasoning, either in being law-like or in being quantitative. The former is most commonly associated with Kantian ethics and the latter with utilitarianism. However, Mengzi’s view of moral reasoning seems closer to that of Aristotle, who warned that it is wrong to seek the same level of precision in ethics that one expects in physics or mathematics. A rival philosopher asked Mengzi whether propriety requires that unmarried men and women not touch hands. When Mengzi acknowledged that it does, his interlocutor triumphantly asked: ‘If your sister-in-law were drowning, would you pull her out with your hand?!’ Mengzi’s opponent obviously thought that he had Mengzi trapped, but Mengzi replied: ‘Only a beast would not use his hand to pull out his sister-in-law. It is propriety that men and women not touch hands, but to pull her out when she is drowning is discretion.’ This is representative of Mengzi’s approach to ethics, which emphasizes the cultivation of virtues that allow one to respond flexibly and appropriately to fluid and complex situations.

In the 1300s, the Mengzi became one of the Four Books students were required to study for the civil service examinations, which were the primary route to wealth, prestige, and power in imperial China. Consequently, generations of students literally committed the text to memory up until almost the end of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. During this period, the Mengzi and the rest of the Four Books played a role in Chinese culture analogous to the Bible in European thought, permeating all aspects of intellectual and spiritual life. Conservatives cited the Mengzi to support the status quo, political reformers argued that society had lost sight of the true meaning of its teachings, and countless people sought to transform their personal lives through its guidance.

China’s government sees the wisdom of Mengzi’s comment that if the people ‘are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals’

To this day, many phrases from Mengzi are common idioms, including ‘to climb a tree in search of a fish’ (to use the wrong method), and ‘those who ran away 50 feet laughing at those who ran away 100 feet’ (hypocritically criticising others). However, when China suffered under Japanese and Western imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modernisers blamed Confucianism for their country’s weakness. The denigration of Confucianism intensified after Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in China’s civil war: Confucianism was rejected as part of China’s decadent ‘feudal’ past.

Since the death of Mao in 1976, China’s government has moved in a much more moderate direction. China today is Communist in name only, and visitors to Chinese cities find luxurious malls stocked with high-end consumer goods. Since so few people believe in the old ideals of Maoism, there is a felt need to find new shared values. Insights into the Analects (2006) by Yu Dan, professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University, became a surprise bestseller, reflecting the hunger of the Chinese people for positive portrayals of traditional thought. The government also seems to see the wisdom of Mengzi’s comment that if the people ‘are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals’. Consequently, the president Xi Jinping has been increasingly touting the value of Confucianism, routinely quoting both Confucius and Mengzi in his speeches. (His references to Confucian texts have even been anthologised in Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers.)

To a great extent, Xi’s invocations of Confucianism are as opportunistic as many Western politicians’ references to the Bible. Confucianism is less important for its actual content than as a symbol of ‘our’ identity (to which all Chinese should be loyal). However, there is a danger in telling people to revere Confucius and Mengzi. Confucianism, like every major spiritual worldview, has sometimes been co-opted by those seeking to maintain the status quo. But both Confucius and Mengzi were critics of self-serving governments, and both advocated rule by persuasion rather than by force. If students start reading them seriously, who knows what reformist forces may be unleashed?

Written by  Bryan W Van Norden . The original post could be found here. 

[Day 17] Oscar Schindler – How to judge a man?

forsideschindlerbillede

I just finish watching Schindler’s List. Gosh! How good the film is! I was almost crying several times and actually cried at the end of the movie. Having read and seen few things about the Holocaust,  I’m still not prepared for this.

Oscar Schindler’s story raises a lot of question about morality and life’s model. Schindler is definitely not a saint. For most of his life, he’s an alcoholic, failure, a cheater, a womanizer, a materialistic guy who cares only about money, profit and himself. But he’s also the guys who risk his life, to try his very best, to give away most of his fortunes to save over 1000 Jews over World’s War II.  Because of his courage, sacrifice, and brilliance, children are saved, families are united, and faith in humanity restored. Oscar Schindler is not a God. But he’s a real savior. Schindler is a human savior, with all of his mistakes and faults. There is one conversation in the end of the movies that makes tears coming out from my eyes:

Oscar Schindler: I could’ve got more … I could’ve got more, if I’d just…I could’ve got more …
Stern: Oscar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Schindler: If I’d made more money…I threw away so much money, you have no idea. If I’d just …
Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Schindler: I didn’t do enough.
Stern: You did so much.
Schindler: This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people, right there. Ten people, ten more people…(He rips the swastika pin from his lapel) This pin, two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would’ve given me two for it. At least one. He would’ve given me one. One more. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could’ve gotten one more person and I didn’t. I didn`t …”

Two people more. Ten people more. Would that make any difference? What is a man’s responsibility to the world? To the humanity? What is morality? What is ethics? What is the right thing to do? Should Schindler sacrifice more of his own good to save more lives? A pin can save at least 1 life. One fucking damn human life. Why did not he sell them to save more? FUCKING WHY !!!!

I do not have any answer. Silence takes over my heart and mind. I do not know what is right and what is wrong anymore. I believe the moral duty of one person is only with himself. Even if he takes one more others’ people duty as his, he has already done more than enough. My threshold about morality is low. Take care of yourself. That’s it. If you extend over that line, there is no right and wrong anymore. There is only respect.

Another interesting person in the movie is Goeth. He’s an example for the saying “Absolute power leads to absolute corruption”. I think he was the most powerful victim in the scheme. He wakes up, realizing that he hold to power to decide others’ lives without suffering consequences, and then try it. He wants new experiences. He wants to kill people. He wants to feel powerful. Without constraints and under pressures, people would do unimagined things to their mates.

The Holocaust portrayed in the movies is the same with the other books that I read about it. The Jews were the people turning into animals, step by step, and they got used to it. They did not believe what was happening at the time in the concentration camp because it was so hard to imagine something like that could ever happen. They found reasons to sooth themselves that things would only be better, that this situation is the worst possible. Wouldn’t we the same? If something happens to us right now, would we be the same Jews, not believing in the stories that the Nazi were killing and burning people in mass? How horrible would it be, to be dehumanized, ripped apart from your place, your friends, and especially your families? I could not think about it. It makes me scared, and grateful more than ever what I am having right now. I’m having places to sleep, food to eat, knowledge to learn, opportunities to grasp and people to love and be loved. I would not have to be worried about my safety, or simply the water that I need to drink tomorrow. I have more than I know I have.

Oscar Schindler, you have done more than enough. Thank you.

oskarschindler-dream-2011

[Day 15] Top 10 books I enjoy in 2016

Even though the year has not ended yet, but here some of the books I did enjoy in 2016.

Review:

  1. 1984 (in Vietnamese)
  2. Homage to Catalonia (in Vietnamese)
  3. Atlas Shrugged
  4. How reading Adam Smith can change your life  
  5. Mình và họ
  6. Daring to touch Radha
  7. Antifragile
  8. How not to be wrong
  9. Deschooling Society
  10. The Art of Loving