[Day 22] Captain Fantastic – a hidden gem


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)



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.


John Stuart Mill. Utilitilarism.

Plato. Crito. Pennsylvania State University. 1998  

[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!!!


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

[Day 18] Mengzi – the second Sage


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?


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.


[Day 9] Talk with professor – Dr. Rosental (part 1) – The differences in philosophers through time and impact of philosophers to the world (10 min read)

*Dr. Rosental is my lecturer in PHI 190: Introduction to Philosophy. Apart of being Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy Department at Mercer University, he’s also the author of the book Lesson from Aquinas – A resolution of the problem of faith and reason.

Below is my 30-minutes interview with him. Because the interview is too long, I decide to break it into 2 parts. In part 1, we will get to know him, then we will discuss more about the differences between philosophers through time, and contribution of philosophers to world. Part 2 will contain more of his views about philosophers, his advice of book for the youth, and a discussion about current education system, including obligatory schooling, liberal arts, and college education. *


Me: To start the interview, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Rosental: Well, I’m Dr. Rosental. I’m an associate professor and Chair of Philosophy Department. I’m also Director of the Ethics Leadership and Services Minor.

Me: How does it feel to be a professor in philosophy?

Dr. Rosental: I feel pretty good. Philosophy is one of the area that is really limited in job opportunities outside of being professor. I mean, philosophy is always good preparation for anything, but if you want to be a philosopher, there is almost no job except from professor. I felt in love with philosophy at some point in my education, pretty late. And, that’s what I wanted to do. Being a professor means that I get to be paid to do what I love to do, which is pretty great. Not too many people get to do that.

Me: Do you consider yourself a philosopher?

Dr. Rosental: I do. I guess there would be a division. I would draw a division between practical, real world, applied philosophy, philosophy that affect your day-to-day choices, the way you think, the way you act, and what you might call academic philosophy, philosophy of various of studies, research and all that. I prefer that division break down, that academic and practical. So I live the philosophy that I teach, and I try to teach philosophy in the way that are more living and practical.

Me: Do you think there are differences between philosophers in the past and current philosophers?

Dr. Rosental: I would say up to around 1900s, maybe a little bit earlier than that, not only for philosophy but also for all pursuits of knowledge like science, psychology, sociology. I think a lot of people that did that kind of work did it as part of a bigger picture, as pursuing knowledge, not just seeing themselves as philosopher or psychologist. They saw their roles as being individuals who try to figure out as much as they can do, and philosophy played a role in that. Today, we have divided those things. There are philosophers, scientists, psychologist and stuff like that. I think that is pretty common now, getting into division and discipline. In that aspect, I think philosophy is really different than it’s used to be like.

Me: I still cannot draw a line between the philosophers in the past and the current philosophers. Can you explore more on what it’s like in the past?

Dr. Rosental: For example, Newton, who lays the ground work for modern physics considers himself to be a natural philosopher.He’s the philosopher that focus on how the world works. He thought what he was doing was philosophy. Taken another example, William James, who wrote book on psychology and on religious experience considers himself to be a philosopher, even he wrote book we might traditionally consider to be psychology and sociology. There are a lot of figures like that. Today, you would not find that. It is common for a philosopher to work within philosophy department focus on issues that are limited into philosophy. They might talk about science or religion but they wouldn’t do science. That would not be very common. It would be unlikely for them to do so.

Me: So you said that before 1900, all scientists called themselves philosophers?

Dr. Rosental: Yes, and sometimes in 1800s, there were science. “Science” and “scientist” began to be used.

Me: Thank you. Let’s move to other topic. What is your Ph.D thesis and do you still keep your opinion that you stood on when you submitted the thesis?

Dr. Rosental: My thesis was on Thomas Aquinas, who is a very influential 13th century theologian. His emphasis was combining theology and Aristotle’s philosophy. For probably five or six hundred years, his approach was pretty dominant, at least in education that dealt with theology and philosophy. What I was interested in is how he combines faith and reason. As a Christian, he wants to synthesize theology and philosophy. He need to get faith and logic to work together. My thesis was on exactly how he accomplished that, synthesize and synergizing faith and reasons. My thesis is a historical interpretation. I evaluate some but mostly what I did is showing what he actually meant, explaining his views and support it. On that respect, I think I did a right interpretation, well supported, very defensible and I have sharpen a lot of evidences to make my case. I still feel pretty good about that.

Me: Just a side question, why don’t we have a chance to read Aquinas in our Introduction to Philosophy course?

Dr. Rosental: We could have. We read Anselm. Aquinas has different kind of proofs and we could read those instead. I was very close to including Aquinas but you know, there are a lot of materials in that class and  something need to get cut. Outside of those proofs, his materials are really difficult to read. It takes a little bit of setting up to understand what he is writing. He writes generally in what’s called “the disputed question” format, which was very common in Medieval era, but it’s also very difficult to read. It’s more about teaching style really, so I preserve Aquinas for more advance courses.

Me: There is an argument that modern philosophers are focusing on interpretation and digging the knowledge of philosophy in the past, not finding out new knowledge like they used to do. What do you think about it?

Furthermore into that topic, who are your favorite current philosophers and what are their point of views? The fact is, even I, a student who is interested in philosophy do not know the most prominent figure in philosophy now. If it was 50 years ago, I can list a few names, but not for the recent times.

Dr. Rosental: There’s a lot into that question. First of all, I think that it’s important for philosophy to study the past, because if you don’t know the past, you can’t learn from it. You just repeat the same mistakes or reinvent the wheels. Lots of time, I saw people who don’t do history of philosophy say something like “Look, I found a new thing that I put a lot of time and energy into it” and I’m like “That sounds just like Plato”. If you have read Plato, you wouldn’t have to do all of this and just jump into conclusion. But that’s one thing.

Second is I think there’s a lot of questions and issues that are brought up in philosophy need to be re-asked and re-answered over and over again. In one sense, we think of that society and civilization is progressing but in another sense, what never progress is that every time a child was born, you have to start from scratch. You have to start all over again, and as new child, you have to go through all answering and discovering the same questions and answers. They don’t get to load up all the answers in the kid’s brain. If all this going on and repeated, then you have a person. What somebody has to say 2.000 years ago can still be relevant today because kids grow up, ethical issues happen, and you have human interactions and things like that. So, I think history of philosophy is very important.

The next question is about does philosophy progress? Does it add to new knowledge? I think there’s a false assumption built in the question because generally, what happens is philosophers invent a new way to explore the world. When that new way becomes normal, procedural, its methods work out,its techniques, experimentation all work out, then they call themselves something else.

Me: Can you explore more on that?

Dr. Rosental: Sure. All scientist are philosophers. They start to call themselves scientists once the scientific methods became rigorous, formal, and reach a certain level of maturity. All psychologist are philosophers. All social science people are philosophers. To some extent, depending on how you see it, you can think that all mathematicians are philosophers. When they reach a point when they say “We have our own techniques”, then they call themselves something else. So it’s a little bit misleading to say philosophy don’t create anything, because philosophers are the one that are left after they created something, which we give them a new name like psychology, or sociology whatever.

Now that being said, I think it’s also not true to say that contemporary philosophy do not contribute to how we understand the world, to our storage of knowledge. I’ll mention a couple. One of my interest is the mind, what it is and how it works. A lot of development in understanding the mind came from neuron science, but a lot of those questions were guided and interpreted by philosophers. In some cases, the research project was developed by the philosophers and the scientist are like “Oh, we can test that”. The questions for the project were created by the philosophers. Philosophers are also needed to make senses of the data eventually. I think one person for example, who has been very prominent in his area is Daniel Dennet. He has done a lot to contribute to the advance, or understanding of the mind in the last 50 years. He’s still alive.

In other fields, there are a lot of philosophers who have made a significant contribution in practical matters like ethics, politics, justice. One very good example is a bioethics philosopher named Peter Singer. What he does is taking utilitarianism to its logical extreme and thinks it through completely. He started arguing about 40 years ago that according to the principle of utilitarianism, animals can feel pains and pleasures so they need to be counted. Their happiness need to be counted. He has parleyed back into Animal Rights Movement. He’s one of the person who was involved to what today Animal Rights is in, in trying not to eat them so much, not experimenting on them mercilessly for make up or something like that,in making sure that they have better living condition. We’re not doing a very good job about it but as a philosopher, he created this ethical and political movement. There’s a lot of philosophers that are active in the world today. Productive.

*End of part 1.  To be continued.*

More on philosophy:

[Day 1] AI and philosophy (3 min read)

[Day 2] Understand Socrates – Why philosophers should be prepared and willing to die? (10 min read)

[Day 3] Understand Socrates(part 2) – Why Socrates choose death in his trial? (6 min read)

[Day 6] The art of loving – The harmony with self and others (quick read)


Is love an art instead of a mere sensation? Is love something that you can “fall into”, and does not require knowledge and effort? Erich Fromm has started his book,“The art loving” with these questions. In the following chapters, he tries to establish the former premise, to present love as an art with its theories and practices. The book is a great dedication for those who want to understand more about the nature of love, the nature of human, how a man can escape of his fear of separation, and how a man can resonate his mind and body with another person by accepting himself.

It seems to Erich Fromm that most people are more concerned about how to “being love, rather than that of loving, one’s capacity to loved” (1). People read Dale Carnegie, read self-help books, see romance movies to learn romantic acts and manners in order to make themselves more attractive, more “lovable”. Instead of practicing the act of loving, what he sees in the contemporary culture is people trying to have more popularity and sex appeal. He also see that people do not talk about love as an faculty, but as objects; “people think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love – or to loved by – is difficult”(2). He compares the two persons falling in love as a deal for exchanging objects which contain a lot of hidden values. Those secret attributes are the main causes for their conflicts later in life. If you find in your shiny, marvelous shoes that you just bought yesterday to have its pedestal broken, all you have to do is returning the shoes. With a person, the suffering is much more severe. Returning a person is a much more painstaking task, simply because you’re dealing with your peers. Breaking up alone is hard, not to mention divorce. The final point Erich Fromm made is that love is an art, and it requires both knowledge and effort. There is the clear difference between “falling in love” and permanently “being in love”, with the former usually die off easily. The crazier you are falling in ” love at the first sight”, the more likely you have been lonely before that love and possibly after will be after the foreseeable break-up. Without enough knowledge and practices in the art of loving, even a couple who know each other for a long time can sometimes experience isolation without the awareness of the other half. As hard as we try, we cannot physically be beside our partners all the time, nor understand what is running within their heads. However, love should bring joy and unification, not suffering and sophistication. To reach that state, you must master love. To master an art, one must understand its theories and practices, which Erich Fromm later explains carefully.





I hope this introduction is enough to make you feel interested in reading the book. I do not have the intention of writing about the whole one, since I would need more time to find a concrete theme to talk about. Thus, what I’m going to write below are lessons I’ve found reading “The Art of loving”. You may not want to read it as it contains many spoilers:







*Spoiler alert*

Hopefully at this time you have read the book. Here’s what I’ve learned:


  • Because of his unique ability of awareness and reasoning, man always seeks to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of lonesomeness. He can reach it through orgiastic states ( ritual sex in the tribe, drugs, alcohol..) , conformity, creative activity and in love.
  • Love is an activity, not passion. Love is active, not passive.
  • Love is giving, not receiving. The act of giving lies the expression of the giver’s aliveness.
  • Mature love requires care (which is effort/scarification/action),  responsibility, respect and knowledge.
  • Different type of loves.
  • If you only love a “special person”, you do not love anyone. You too are not in unity, you are a separation of two against the world.
  • Selfish is different from self-love. If a person can love others the right way, he can love himself, too. If a person only love others, he cannot love at all.


  • Like any art, mastering love requires 4 factors: discipline, concentration, patience, and supreme concern with the mastery of the art.
  • I’ve had a conversation with my roommate about discipline while reading the book. I quite agree with him about discipline as not a concrete routine but the will to do what you are not wanting to do but you know you should do it.
  • Concentration:  Learning to be with oneself, with no activity whatsoever. Mediation every morning after waking up and evening before going to sleep. Being sensitive about yourself. Living the present.
  • Overcoming of one’s narcissism. Try to develop objectivity, humility, and reasons.
  • Having faith, not in God, but your partner. Believe in his/her fundamental values, and the core of his personality. Have faith in yourself as well.

I guess what the author is promoting is not unification with your partner but also with yourselves and everybody revolves you. With that, you will never lose “the love of your life”, since it cannot be taken.

[Day 3] Understand Socrates(part 2) – Why Socrates choose death in his trial? (6 min read)


“Men of Athens, I honor and love you: but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strenght I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting everyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: 0 my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all”


This is one statement in the marvelous monologue that Socrates gives at the trial which he is accused for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young” (Xenophon). Despite of many opportunities to escape the charges, he chooses death as his final sentence. By understanding Socrates’s perspective about the nature and relation between truth, wisdom, and meaning of human’s lives, we could understand why Socrates choose to sacrifice his life for his philosophy.

As we follow Socrates back to the time when he was named the wisest man on earth by the God of Delphi, we could see a confusion in Socrates’ reactions What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? (Apology, 6).  God cannot be wrong. However, Socrates knows that “I have no wisdom, small or great” (6). Contradiction cannot exist, so Socrates decide to check the premises. To prove God wrong, he must have a concrete evidence on his side, a man that is truly wiser than him. He made his quest by coming to everyone who has a reputation of containing wisdom, including prominent religious leaders, politicians, poets, and philosophers of the time and starts questioning them about their intelligence. He discovered that these intellectual figures all fall into the trap of deceiving themselves and those around them about their wisdom. By continuously asking questions to the core of their knowledge, Socrates discovers a void, chaos, crumbling cluster of ideas conflicting with each other , covered with nice, sweet, peaceful disguise. He then concludes “I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was” (Apology, 8). Socrates believes that he is better off being himself than those figures. He knows something that the other men do not know. He knows that he has no wisdom. To Socrates, knowing that one has no wisdom is better than having the illusion of holding it. To Socrates, that wisdom is the only thing that is real.

To Socrates, knowing that one has no wisdom is better than having the illusion of holding it. To Socrates, that wisdom is the only thing that is real.

One important method  in Socrates’ philosophy is to keep questioning and questioning. Everything must have a reasonable cause behind it, and one should not stop until finding the deepest cause. No premises are concrete; no truth is eternal. All knowledge must be constantly challenged over and over. By asking question and reasoning the answer, we have better chance to understand the world. Socrates could give the answer to others, but it would be against his philosophy to others to accept his premises without reasons. Thus, Socrates shows the contradictions within each person by keep digging the foundation of their knowledge. To Socrates, the act of asking question, the act of finding the truth is philosophy itself.

  No premises are concrete; no truth is eternal.

In his quest to find a wiser man, Socrates has angered some of the most powerful people, which directly led to his accusation of corruption the youth and his death sentence. In the road towards his physical destruction, he had many chances to jump out of it. He could agree with the God with Delphi without questioning. After all, it is a verdict to his favor. He could use a more lenient method of talking with these famous persons he approaches and acknowledge their ‘so-called” wisdom, letting them get away with it. He could plead guilty as his trial, and beg for mercy. He could escape the prison, since all the preparations were made for him by his friends. Why is Socrates so eager and insist on his physical destruction?

First, he does not seem to care the opinions of men he found unworthy. “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).  The judgment of the many cannot alter his way of doing philosophy; that is why he chooses to ignore their hatred and accusation, which he believes are wrong. Socrates also does not seem to care about his physical body. “Good men”, as defined by Socrates, must understand the value of the truth. He must have the ability of seeing through the fog of deception. He must put his conscience, his calling for the truth above all else. He must follow his moral code, even though it will cost him his life. “A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying, he ought only to consider whether in doing he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of good man or of a bad” (Apology, 13).

Socrates’s definition of “good men” is the standard he set for himself. He believes that the world is full of deception in the name of wisdom. He believes the best way to understand the world, to find wisdom, is keep thinking and challenging its premises. Since he knows that it is right, he must act according to it, whatever the consequences. If Socrates backs down because of the fear that he would be harm physically, he has betrayed himself. Socrates knows that the act of betraying himself is his real ticket to hell, not death itself. That’s why he bravely announce “Whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many time” (Apology, 13). The real pain is not in dying. The real pain is in looking at himself in the mirror and not knowing who is standing there. Other men can take away his life, but not his philosophy, his honor to be the man at the highest standard of his.


Plato. Apology.  Pennsylvania State University. 1998

Plato. Crito. Pennsylvania State University. 1998  

Xenophon. Memorabilia. Translations by Henry Graham Dakyns (1838-1911) in the public domain.

[Day 2] Understand Socrates – Why philosophers should be prepared and willing to die? (10 min read)



Why would a person choose to die? We are made not to be in favor of the death, but with the living. All living creatures, animals and plants alike are craving for life, for passing the genetics to next generation and expanding their family as much as they can. They can die, but they will never be prepared and willing to die if not for these purposes. Being ready to die not for those reasons is against nature’s will. Furthermore, due to our superior intellectual ability, we can have much more pleasure both in quality and variety than a mere animal could ever dream of. Being born as a human is clearly a blessing from God. Among the human race, those who can attain the title of philosopher are considered to possess the highest intellectual ability, and among them, Socrates is considered to be the wisest. So, why did he say such stupid thing that both go against nature’s will and the blessing that God has given us? Why should the wisest of all men be willing to die, when they have all the capabilities of fulfilling their lives to its extent? Why should they waste their only chance to find enjoyment and pleasure? To fully understand the reasons of Socrates’s statement, we must go deeper into his perspectives about what is death, body, soul, and the meaning of human lives.

Socrates stated that ” death a freeing and separation of soul from body” (Plato, 8). The body will decease but the soul will live on. We’re much familiar with the “body” concept, but what is the soul? Socrates then stated that the body is the visible side of ourselves. The body approaches the world by its senses. The body always seeks for pleasure, but is not always accurate. Due to its mortality and desires, the body is an obstacle which continuously interrupts, distracts, and prevents us in our pursuit of the reality, the truth. On the other hand, soul is the invisible side of ourselves. The soul approaches the world from afar, “with the unaided intellect, without taking account of any sense of sight in his thinking, or dragging any other sense into his reckoning”(Plato, 7). The goal of the soul is wisdom, and wisdom alone. By living in this world, the soul has to go along with the body, which drags the soul down and pushes it away from true perception. The soul is perfect; the body is not. If one is not careful enough, one’s soul could be contaminated by one body’s imperfection. The soul and the body are like a man and a kid, who are assigned to find the hidden treasure in an unknown land while being chained together. As the man is trying to make progress searching for the location of the treasure, the kids keep screaming, complaining, asking for food, for water, for fun. The kid wants to run, he wants to go to interesting place, he wants to see the circus, he wants to eat ice-cream. He doesn’t care whether the two of them will find the treasure or not, all he cares is his satisfaction. If the man is weak, he would be seduced, and follow the kid. Eventually, he will forget their mission and current state. However, if the man is strong, he will discipline the kid and force the kid to be in his command. Death, therefore, is the break of the chain, when the man is free from what is holding him behind, and get true freedom to reach his goal. By releasing what contaminates the soul, death, therefore, is the purification of the soul.

Death, therefore, is the purification of the soul. 

In here, some of you may ask “I now know what the death, body and soul is, but does the soul really exist? I am just one entity of myself, am I not? Why are there two different entities living in myself but I can only feel one?”.  Socrates continued to prove the existence of the soul by proving that we all have knowledge about abstract concepts that we can never get from our body’s senses. For example, I have lived with Fluffy (my dog) for 10 years, and he has a really nice home for his own. One day, Fluffy passed away. After Fluffy’s death, every time I saw his house, I remembered him. There was an image of Fluffy appeared in my head without I actually look at Fluffy. Socrates called it “the recollection” of knowledge. I had recollected Fluffy’s image from seeing the house, which is not Fluffy. The illusion in my head is never the real Fluffy. It is just a blurred image, with much imperfections, and mistakes compared to my real Fluffy. It is just “the recollection” of Fluffy.


                       By seeing this picture, my mind created a “recollection” of Fluffy. 

It is the same when we come to think about abstract concepts. Let’s take a look of the concept of “absolute equality”. When we’re are asked whether two stones are equal or not, we can easily say either “Ohm, it’s quite similar” or “No, it’s different”. Or say, you have never seen neither horse nor a donkey in your life. But if somebody brings a horse and a donkey in front of you and ask whether these two are equal, you can still have an answer. If we know a horse is not equal to a donkey, even though it is our first time to see them, we must have some ideas about what “absolute equality” is. However, none of us can define exactly what is “absolute equality”. Thus, we must had known the concept before, then we lost it on the way, and now we’re recollecting this knowledge by examples. Just like how I had Fluffy, lost it, and then recollecting its image by looking at his house.


 How do you know these 2 are “unequal” without not knowing “absolute equality”?

But how do we know what “absolute equality” is? Since we have no means to understand what is “absolute equality” after birth, we must have obtained this knowledge before birth. Thus, there must be something that acquires this knowledge before we have our real body. Socrates calls this thing “soul”. Based on his reasons, the “soul” can live independently without the needs of the body, it is invisible, and is possessed with intelligence. Since it has existed before we were born, it will continue to live after we die. Without the existence of something called “soul”, which has the attributes I have described above, we cannot explain why we can have perception of equality, beauty, goodness, holiness… without having any means to know about them before. Thus, the soul did exist. And death, is the separation of the body and soul.

There must be something that acquires this knowledge before we have our real body. Socrates calls this thing “soul”. 

After defining what death, body and soul is, let’s see how Socrates think about the meaning of lives. Socrates argued that as a human being, we must have attachment to something. Say in another way, we must love something, so that our lives are used for attainment of this. A man can love one thing or many things at a time, as loving food doesn’t prevent him from loving water. True philosophers, as Socrates’s understanding about this title, must only be in love with knowledge, and distance himself from other type of love. As we can see before, knowledge is the love of the soul and the other types of love belongs to the body. If he is a true philosopher, true lover of knowledge, he would follow his love loyally, without question to anywhere, even though it could lead him to their death. If he is not willing to die, or even worse, feared of the prospect of dying, his love for knowledge is not big as the love for his body’s desires. As we say a servant is a traitor when he does not sacrifice his life for his king, we can say the same for those philosophers who do not dare to sacrifice their life for the attainment of knowledge. True philosophers, put knowledge as the meaning of their lives, and risk all for it.

As we clearly defined Socrates’s understanding about the concept of death, body, soul, and meaning of lives, we can see that he’s not unreasonable in his statement. As a superior species, we have the ability to control ourselves, our body’s craving to reach more precious things. An animal could use all its energy trying to prolong its life, since it’s a slave of its body, but we humans can value things such as honor, family, love over our lives. To true philosophers, as Socrates’s understanding, knowledge is the only valuable thing. Thus, getting rid of the body, the kid, the distraction, the love for materials, should not be a terror of anyone who claimed to be a philosopher. Only by the death, the separation of the body and soul, the kid and the man, the distraction and the goal, the love for materials and the love for knowledge, a philosopher would attain his ultimate goal of his life. He shouldn’t look for death himself, but when the time come, he should easily put a smile on his face and welcome it with all his heart. Death, to Socrates, is not suffering. It’s the final ritual, the final transformation. If he does it right, he will become a true philosopher.


1st picture: The Death of Socrates, David, 1787.

Plato. Phaedo in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth,
Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1954.

[Day 1] AI and philosophy (3 min read)


Why philosophy matters? Is it better to learn science, to learn practical skills than just discuss about what seems to be good for nothing? To me, learning science is learning how to make a nuke. Learning philosophy is learning how to (or not to) use it. Science is a horse running wildly, and only philosophy has the power to control it.

Science is a horse running wildly, and only philosophy has the power to control it.

As a computer science major (common terms: geek, freak), I’m extremely interested in the rapid development in Artificial Intelligence(AI) field in the last few years. AI is preparing to conquer the world in the next decade. The list of what AI can do now keep expanding, from self-driving car to Facebook chatbot, from speech-to-text recognition to tools that can detect a particular online behavior. However, as the AI technology keeps upgrading, the needs for learning and discussing philosophy becomes relevant more than ever.

Let’s consider self-driving car development.  The few first levels in developing a self-driving car are creating abilities to control the internal factors like engines, oil levels, the wheels… Then,the car must be programmed to understand external factors, how to differentiate between  the road and the pavement, a human and a dog so it can function safely. They’re all technical work. However, the ultimate questions that a self-driving car must fulfill are philosophical ones. If unexpected things happened that force the car to choose between its owner and other pedestrians, what will it choose? What will be the first priority of the car? It is easy to say that is to protect human lives, but what are human lives?Can the car choose to sacrifice its owner arm/leg in order to save a family crossing the road carelessly? If the car choose to save its owner from being hurt with the cost of other’s people lives, who is going to be responsible?


  The trolley dillema

Even if we have created a perfect car that can act like a perfect human, it is still not a human. And what is the perfect human? Should he have perfect goodness? What is the perfect goodness? Who has the authority to judge what is good and what is not? In the discussion with Euthyphro, Socrates has pointed out that even the most holiest person of the time cannot explain clearly what define goodness. Computer science is not made to answer these questions. They are within the field of philosophy.

AI, in a way, is our newest, strongest tools to conquer the world. AI is the iron of our age. Iron can be formed to household tools but can also be turned into destruction items. By questioning the nature of everything, including human lives, philosophy gives us a chance to examine every premises we made, and help guiding us to wiser decision in the future. Philosophy is what keeps us different from AI. AI can do the work, but we are the one who are in control. The more powerful the tool is, the more wiser the owner must be. Without educating and encouraging philosophy within the society, we will eventually create a generation of destroyers. And yeah, that would be the end.


Plato. Euthyphro. Indiana University, 2010.