On Hope: Wisdom From My Beloved Professor

So I received some correspondence from a professor of mine who is vastly more enlightened than I am, and has powerful insight into very esoteric fields of study in philosophy and religion. The woman is a true master of minds, and although I am a student of hers, I am pleased to call her a friend as well. Someday I hope to have as much to offer her as she has given me.

I wanted to share a response that she proffered to my post on hope and grief. As brief as it was, it offered a fleeting moment of peace in my mind. It made me think that all of the suffering isn’t/wasn’t for not. I don’t have any more well developed thoughts than that at the moment, but if it was able to get through to me on any level, then it should certainly be of great value to others. I sincerely hope that this helps any fellow travelers out there who suffer…

… Or perhaps I’ve missed the point, and I should take my own advice about giving up on hope. This, and more, warrants further discussion that is soon to come. Enjoy.

Yours in Contemplation,
Kierkegaard

“I never responded to this, but I did read it and think about it. I think giving up hope allows us a kind of freedom from the tyranny of desire you describe. It allows us to return to the present and just appreciate the mundane beauty of life. Consciousness is a miracle, life is amazing, even when it is exquisitely painful and sad. While we are busy hoping for the return of our “true love”, supposing that there is some unique person we are meant for, we miss the opportunity to meet the random stranger who, in the spirit of existentialism, we can create meaning.”

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I Still Care for You

Go download this song right the fuck now. Then drink whiskey with me.

– Kierkegaard

“I Still Care For You” by Ray LaMontagne

“Hear me out
Day follows day
Light turns to clay in my hands

How to explain,
So pristine the pain
It was kindness made the cut so clean

I still care for you

Hear me out
You wanted to me to be
Less your love than a mirror

Can’t you see
What you mean to me?
(even promises may bleed)

I still care for you

The hours grow
Heavy,
And hollow,
And cruel as a grave

Open
Me
You’ll find
Only bones burned to glass.

I still care for you”

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Writer’s Block

"Drawn and Quartered" by Steve Johnson

“Drawn and Quartered” by Steve Johnson

I’ve been struggling for days to come up with a post for you all that will yield some benefit, or help you in your philosophical endeavors, but as of late I am completely without inspiration. Frankly, my heart and mind aren’t in it. I’ve been far too distracted by certain memories and photographs, and have been trying to deal with the catatonic fits of despair that those memories and photographs have caused me. But it’s not as though everything is going terribly, or even comparatively bad; in fact I consider myself pretty lucky all things considered. I still have a beautiful home, lots of nice shit, a job that I love, and enough free time to worry about things to post on my blog. But these are all material pleasures, or at least transitory ones. After talking to my younger sister tonight, I feel like my problems are minute, small, insignificant. Truth be told, they are.

I wake up everyday the exact same way. I hear my alarm go off, I snooze it at least once, I remember times in various hotel rooms where sleep was an enemy of mine, and only in that terrible and sad realization that that time in my life is gone do I rise from my solitary (or sometimes shared) bed. Sleep was an enemy because it meant that I was not taking in every glorious moment of life, and the person that made it all so grand. She was the very essence of sunlight. Life, like the sky outside, is gray again. The light and the warmth has left me. I miss it so.

Everyday I fathom that I’m going to sit down and write a letter; a letter that will finally be able to extinguish the suspicion, the doubt, and the questions about my sincerity and devotion. I tell myself that that will be the day that I find the right words to communicate an pure and passionate emotion to the person for whom it is felt, but then I remember that Ovid wrote tens of thousands of lines trying to do the very same thing, and the object of his affection still rejected him. What hope do I have of trying to touch someone with such great words, or to evoke such swelling emotion, if my mind is still so malnourished?

At this point I don’t even know what it is I’m writing with. I go back-and-forth between conceptions that it is my mind that is the agent of my work, and then reject that assumption in favor of the notion that it is my heart that creates. At some point the shit-head pragmatist inside of me reminds me that it’s my hand, sequentially stroking little squares situated upon some larger square, and so on, blah blah blah. God damn it, I’m even a dick to myself. No wonder She bailed.

I keep thinking that if I just understood what went wrong that I could let go. Maybe then I’d have some thing or event to pin the blame on, instead of just guessing that it’s everything about me that is worthless, and despicable, and wholly unworthy of happiness and love. The philosopher in me tells me that I need knowledge; that I need to understand it all. The Taoist/Buddhist in me tells me that I need to stop grasping, and let Her go. The Christian in me tells me that I’m a no good-piece-of-shit-sinner-and-it-doesn’t-matter-what-I-do-I-am-going-to-hell. The lover within me is telling me to never give up hope, and to keep trying; that it will work out because the greater forces of the Universe brought us together; that although it’s heartbreaking right now, things can be repaired if I prove myself. Much to my chagrin, my ego agrees with my Christian self, and are beating the shit out of me while I crawl and try to find my glasses. The Taoist and Buddhist parts of me are just watching the whole ordeal and shaking their heads in disapproval, while the lover cries violently in the corner, and the philosopher searches frantically for the meaning of the chaos around him. I cry out, and remember when I was safe in bed with Her. This is the state of affairs inside of me. I am being pulled apart.

I am being pulled apart.

Yours In Contemplation,

Kierkegaard

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On Vagueness: Evaluating the Linguistic, Metaphysical, and Epistemic Theories

Achille Varzi. Photo owned by Columbia University.

Achille Varzi. Photo by Columbia University.

Alright philosophers, another serious philosophical post tonight. It’s not that I don’t have more gut-wrenching things to talk about – I most certainly do – but I have been trying to use some of what I learned in my study of Buddhism and Taoism to improve my mental and emotional states. It isn’t working yet, but I haven’t been practicing for long. The first steps are to be aware of the negative and painful thoughts (as if I could not be aware), and to try to consider them rationally. The negativity is supposed to wither away and leave only a matter of fact set of propositions. Again, its not working yet, but I’m desperate for anything to make me feel better about life, myself, and this great loss.

So, here’s a discussion on vagueness. I hope you all enjoy. As always, shoot me a question, comment, or correction if you are so inclined.

Yours in Contemplation,

Kierkegaard

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Vagueness inheres in all human endeavors. Its effects are felt in all of our attempts to think, and communicate about objects and phenomena in the world. But where is the vagueness? Does our language simply not have the development it needs to speak precisely about qualia? Or could it be the case that objects themselves are vague, having no precise boundaries between themselves and other things? Yet another possibility is that there are those definite boundaries, but that we could never know them. These are several theories of where vagueness comes from, and are known as the linguistic theory of vagueness (LTV), the metaphysical theory of vagueness (MTV), and the epistemic theory of vagueness (ETV), respectively. We will discuss each of these theories in turn, and evaluate the strength of the arguments for each. I will conclude that the ETV is the most plausible account for the source of vagueness.

The LTV argues that vagueness does not exist in the world, but vagueness arises from imprecise language. So objects are precise, and with definite boundaries, but we simply cannot communicate about them. The problem arises because there are numerous objects in the world that can be picked out when referring to some thing using a specific word, or term. Achille Varzi takes up this very position, he says, “There is no such thing as a vague mountain. Rather, there are many things where we conceive the mountain to be, each with its precise boundary, and when we say ‘Everest’ we are just being vague as to which thing we are referring to.”[1] This means that there are numerous “candidates” that can satisfy our meaning of the term that we’re using to refer, and therefore, the statement is vague. For example, if we claim, “Sam is on Mount Everest at point X,” it is neither true nor false. This is not because “Everest” itself is vague; rather it is that “Everest” is vague in reference. We would have to be very clear on what we were talking about in order to avoid the vagueness. The solution to this problem is a “tweak” to the truth-values that we assign to such to statements; that tweak is called supervaluationism. By assigning super-truth, or super-falsity to sentences with vague terms, vagueness, it is hoped, can be eliminated. The supervaluation assignments are made by precise specifications as to what will always be true, and what will always be false; no matter what interpretation one comes up with, those supervaluations will always hold. So if Sam is on the peak of Mount Everest, then the claim super-true. This is because the peak of Everest will be included in any description of it. The converse of this is also true. if Sam is 15 miles away from the base of the mountain, then the claim is super-false because no one includes the spot 15 miles away as being part of Everest. But if terms are left unspecified, then claims can be sometimes true, and sometimes false. Varzi addresses this; “It is only when the statement comes out true under some precisifications and false under others that there is trouble. In such cases, the statement suffers a truth value gap.”[2] The solution is simply to have very precise specifications (or “precisifications”, as Varzi says). But even then, it may still be the case that there are sentences which are sometimes true, and sometimes false, and is likely to happen the moment one enters the middle-ground between super-true, and super false conditions. The Sorites paradox seems tailor made for just such a middle ground, and as such, LTV has no real way of avoiding the paradox. Additionally, truth-value gaps undermine its strength. For these reasons, LTV and its supervaluationism provide little in the way of plausibly solving the problem of vagueness.

Next is the MTV, which states that objects in the world are vague, and predicates have vague extensions. This means that objects have “fuzzy” boundaries that make it impossible, even for God, to know where exactly one thing begins, and another ends. Varzi says, “Vague terms refer to vague objects, objects which lack precise spatial or temporal boundaries.”[3] This means that it is impossible to know the precise moment when Sam steps off of Mount Everest. This is because the boundaries of Everest are genuinely, metaphysically vague. In order to justify propositions containing vagueness, then, we employ various degrees of truth.[4] For example, the highest degree of truth would be assigned to the claim, “Sam is on Mount Everest,” if she is standing on the peak. The truth of claim degrades gradually as she descends the peak, and upon crossing some unknown point, becomes gradually more false as she moves away from it. The problem here is that the borderline case still exists, and thus, so does the problem of the Sorites. For the question remains unanswerable, “At what exact point does the claim become false that ‘Sam is on Mount Everest?’” Varzi echoes this concern when he points out that; “… a point exists where one goes from full truth to partial truth, and from partial truth to falsehood.”[5] This lack of resolution, and playing directly into the Sorites paradox makes this argument implausible as a solution to the problem of vagueness.

Finally, we come to the ETV. According to the ETV, vagueness comes from our ignorance about the satisfaction of conditions for the object, not any metaphysical/ontological vagueness. There is some property expressed by the predicate, and an object either satisfies it, or it doesn’t. So there is no real vagueness in the world, but our ignorance about the satisfaction of the properties causes us to think there is. There are, then, many conditions in which the term could be correctly applied, and many of them we can know, but we don’t know all of them. This means that we can use vague terms, but understand the intended meaning via context, but we will never know the full range of applications for the term. Timothy Williamson addresses this issue; “To know what a word means is to be completely inducted into a practice that does in fact determine a complete intention.”[6] In other words, a person (including the speaker) adopts the convention of applying a certain set of commonly used meanings to a particular term, and so in this way, the person understands the term, albeit, not every single circumstance to which the term applies. This is what Williamson means by being “inducted.” This means that people can generally know what others mean by the term “Everest,” although they do not know the specific point at which Everest stops being Everest. On the other hand, someone who is omniscient, perhaps God, would know where that exact boundary is. Since people cannot be omniscient, we have to be satisfied with generalizations about the truth and falsity of claims; they can be either true or false. The chances of our claims issuing in bivalence are determined by whether we are talking about borderline cases, or cases where there is very little vagueness. (If Sam is standing on the peak of Everest, then her chances are 100%; if shes standing somewhere at the bottom, it could be 50%, or otherwise.) Despite our ignorance of the full set of conditions that a term can be used in, we can still make true or false statements about a term if we know the general meaning of the term, and how the term is generally used. (The meaning of terms is determined by their conventional use.) This allows us to say that terms are either true or false, as opposed to neither true nor false, as in LTV, and MTV. ETV avoids the middle ground where bivalence is denied by excluding the middle altogether on grounds that there is a definite boundary. The Sorites is overcome by this approach. For example, it may be true at n steps, Sam is on Mount Everest, but at n+1 steps she crosses that boundary, and is no longer on Mount Everest. Therefore it cannot possibly be true that Sam is both on Mount Everest, and not on Mount Everest (a denial of bivalence). This is consistent with rules of logic, namely, the principle of non-contradiction because it does not deny bivalence. Williamson elaborates; “The denial of bivalence amounts to a rejection of [using vague sentences]. One is rejecting the practice while continuing to engage in it.”[7] This position of denying bivalence is obviously inconsistent, and is represented on p.520 in logical form: ~P ∧ ~~P.

Because the ETV avoids the Sorites problem, and adheres to the rules of classical logic by not denying bivalence (as MTV, and LTV both do), it emerges as the most plausible explanation of vagueness.


[1] Arguing About Language, Varzi. P. 513.

[2] Arguing About Language, Varzi. P.514.

[3] Arguing About Language, Varzi. P. 511.

[4] Arguing About Language, Varzi. P. 512.

[5] Arguing About Language, Varzi. P. 513.

[6] Arguing About Language, Williamson. P. 527.

[7] Arguing About Language, Williamson. P.522.

 

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Suffering and The Self: What Buddhism Says About Both


This is a doozey, folks! Took me 10 hours, but I think it’s a coherent piece that is very informative, and certainly thought provoking. At any rate, it’s the most up-beat thing I’ve written , so enjoy it while it lasts. The dark stuff is coming soon…

Yours in Contemplation,

Kierkegaard

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

gautama-buddha

EVALUATING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SUFFERING AND THE SELF

Of all the fundamental characteristics of human life, none has received such exhausting treatment as that of suffering.  This inevitable condition seems to pervade our existence, heaping emotional weight and mental anguish on those afflicted. People run from suffering however they can; people distract themselves with hosts of things as a means of curing the “sickness until death.” Although many of the distractions are detrimental to the person seeking relief, others are not negative; many seek spiritual or religious ways of healing their hearts and souls, and ridding themselves of the myriad things that break them. While many religions focus heavily upon this very goal, Buddhism expounds voluminously about the causes of, and cure for, suffering. Among the many reasons for suffering, none is given as much attention as the concept of the “self.” Buddhist tradition states that giving up one’s concept of the self, and attaining full understanding will break the cycle of suffering in one’s life, and can lead to an everlasting state of peace called “nirvana.” The focus of this paper will be to examine the relationship between suffering, and the concept of “self,” and to determine if it is a plausible notion to reject such a fundamental concept of self in life. I intend to aver that it is.

SUMMARY

Similar to western Judeo-Christians religions, Buddhism has different sects, or traditions that focus upon different aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, and as a result, different texts are considered “canonical.” In general, however, the Pali Canon (a collection of smaller writings similar to the various books within the Bible), and the several sutras are considered to be genuine buddhavacana (teachings of the Buddha). Such collections will be the basis of the ensuing discussion, specifically the Conze, and Lopez editions of The Buddhist Scriptures[1]. It will be helpful to first outline what Buddhism says about suffering, and to then discuss the self and how it is so linked with suffering.

Suffering is a condition that we all endure, and as one would rightly assume, it has many causes. According to various buddhavacana, suffering (dukkah) is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The first of these, impermanence (anicca), is related to temporary nature of life and all of its extant forms. As creatures of habit, we long for things to remain static, especially when things are in our favor. This leads us to “grasp,” or crave certain things, people, events, and so on. The second Mark is suffering (dukkha), and is actually comprised of three different types of suffering that are interrelated. (More on this later.) The third Mark is no-self (anatta), and reveals that all things are mere constituent parts of something else, and have no individual identity that stands fully alone; all things are connected.

The three kinds, or levels, of suffering (from lowest order to highest) are dukkah-dukkha, viaparinama-dukkha, and sankhara-dukkha. In the first, the suffering is based upon our experience in the physical world. Having material form entails that we are subject to the physical pains of birth, death, disease, hunger, being wounded, growing old, and dying. It is the most basic dukkha, and is unavoidable as long as we have a physical body. The second dukkha comes from impermanence, and our attachment to things that we cherish. Breaking up with a loved one, having a loved one die, losing a job we like, and even getting a bad grade are all the bitter fruits of this type of suffering. When things are good, we want them to always remain good, but life is in an eternal state of constant flux; nothing is ever the same for long, so trying to hold on to something of a specific form will always result in our longing for things as they once were, and as a result, will always lead to suffering. The third level of dukkha is considered to be an all-encompassing condition of suffering that pervades our existence.[2] In a conversation between a king named Milinda, and a bodhisattva named Nagasena, Nagasena describes this kind of suffering in a very poignant and illustrative way:

“So, someone whose thought is undeveloped, gets agitated in his mind when a pain arises in him, and his agitated mind bends and contorts his body, and makes it writhe. Undeveloped in his mind he trembles, shrieks, and cries with terror.” (Scriptures, P.161. 1959.)

We see that the source of sankhara-dukkha is the undeveloped/underdeveloped mind; it grasps for and desires things that bring it sensual, material, or emotional comforts and pleasures. Here, the all-pervasive dissatisfaction with life is a result of life itself failing to measure up to our expectations of it.

Additional discussion on suffering comes by way of the Four Noble Truths. In order to properly develop one’s mind (attain enlightenment), one must understand the Four Noble Truths; The Noble Truth of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering. As indicated by the titles, these truths focus on where suffering comes from, and how to dispose of it. A brief outline of each truth is basically as follows:

  1. There is suffering based on the way life is arranged, and our compositional make-up (the Five Heaps[3]); sensory pain.
  2. Suffering comes from craving and grasping for any and all things; it amounts to fulfilled and/or unfulfilled desires
  3. Giving up desire, craving, and grasping completely and fully, leaving no trace of it behind. This includes the desire for nirvana, and non-existence.
  4. The way to give up desire, craving, and grasping is through seeing things as they “really” are; this is achieved through training the mind to follow the Noble Eightfold Path consisting in right aspiration, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.[4]

Key to all of this is our perception of “the way things really are.” Having an understanding of our constituent mental and physical parts, and understanding the different forms of suffering, where they come from, and how to free ourselves from them make it possible to attain the right perspective in life. Of paramount importance to seeing the “true” nature of things is the concept of “self,” or, “no-self.”

We speak very often of ourselves; what we like and dislike, what we think and feel about certain things, what we want, what we need, etc. In fact, our very perspective of the word is shaded by the obsession that we have with ourselves. Empathy aside, everything in our lives is put into the context of the self. This way of thinking is considered to be very unvirtuous in Buddhist Scripture. (Scriptures, P. 275. 2004.) But make no mistake, Buddhism is not advancing any kind of nihilism, rather, it is rejecting solipsism in the strongest possible terms. In fact, Buddhism appears to advance a sort of metaphysical theory of vagueness, one in which the precise point at which one object begins and another ends cannot be known, and may not even exist. Intimations that suggest support for such a position occur in section 2, chapter 7 of the Conze edition:

“Where all constituent parts are present,

The word ‘a chariot’ is applied.

So likewise where the skandhas are,

The term a ‘being’ commonly is used.” (Scriptures, P. 149. 1959)

We see in this dialogue between Milinda and Nagasena that we are not just one of our constituent parts, and neither are we the sum of those parts, but for the sake of convenience we apply such terms as “self,” “my,” “I,” and other possessives. Because everything is connected, we cannot say that we are “individual entities;” there is no self, no individual to speak of. So when we talk about ourselves, we are speaking from ignorance, and lack of wisdom. As a result of this concept of self, we maintain a tainted view of reality as being only those things that we have direct, personal sensory awareness of. This perspective will lead us to being consumed by sensory delights, and the resulting attachment to those transitory pleasures that keep us from moving closer to nirvana. The critical element to remember here is this; the improper concept of self leads us to being consumed by the obsession to satisfy our desires. These desires, when fulfilled, or unfulfilled, create attachments that prevent us from moving beyond a life filled with suffering, craving, desire, grasping, pain, despair, and so on. This is the crux of the suffering-self relationship.[5]

EVALUATION

Knowing what we know now about the causal link between the concept of the self, and the condition of suffering, we are forced to ask ourselves, “If holding on to the concept of the self is the principle cause for suffering, and suffering is a bad thing that I want to avoid, is it possible for me to avoid thinking of things in terms of myself?” In fact, it is not only possible, but if what the Scriptures say is true, then we can see that we must find a way to think in terms outside of ourselves. The argument may look something like this:

P1) There is suffering

P2) Suffering is undesirable, and is to be avoided

P3) The principle cause of suffering is the conception of the self

C) To avoid suffering, the conception of the self must be eliminated

Soundness aside (P3 can be challenged), we see that the argument is at least valid, and warrants further discussion.

The conclusion, then, demands that we embrace the Third Mark of Existence, the non-self. The no-self doctrine is a way of pointing out that everything is connected, nothing is disconnected, and therefore we are being “unskillful” when we focus myopically on “our own” interests. Words like “me”, “my,” “mine,” and so on, all denote a conception of self that perceives identity as a sum of phenomena-perceiving parts, the direct awareness of qualia, or both. However, it is equally dangerous to confuse no-self with a concept that suggests that there is nothing at all! In fact, passages within the scripture specifically warn against such nihilism-solipsism dichotomies; “Do not cling to the notion of voidness, but consider all things alike…” (Scriptures, P. 175. 2004.) “In it all forms are endowed with the sameness of space, and the mind is held steady with the nature of this same sameness. When the mind ceases to be mind, the true nature of the Innate shines forth.” (Scriptures, P. 176. 1959.) Here we see specific admonitions to avoid nihilism and solipsism, and to embrace to interconnectedness of everything.

One is inclined to ask, “How does one adopt a perspective of no-self? Isn’t it counterintuitive to think that one is thinking with any other mind than his own? What is the thing that is thinking if it is not the self?”  This is a very good question, and one that probably comes to mind immediately when talking about no-self, but it is important (at this point) not to conflate the concept with notions of ontological coincidence, universal consciousness, or other metaphysical conundrums that we cannot address here. It is also important to note that one must not focus on what to replace the concept of self with, they must simply give up the concept. If one focuses on what to replace the self with, then they are clearly still thinking of things in terms of the self, and regardless of what new term they assign to the self, it is still the self. The point of the no-self doctrine is to discard notions of a separate being that is disconnected with everything else, and to not replace that concept with another conception of self-ness. It is identity itself that is intended to be relinquished, and as a result, all of the desires/attachments that are inherent in the self; the resulting abandonment of desire will lead to an awareness of the way things really are, and one may then continue on the path to enlightenment, and the cessation of suffering.

Giving up the most fundamental part of our perception of reality, the existence of ourselves, seems impossible. It is a fact that no matter how intensely focused someone is on abandoning the concept of the self, they cannot rid themselves of self-awareness. But is that what Buddhism is asking of us? Do the Scriptures tell us that we must abandon self-awareness? The answer is plainly, “No.” The no-self doctrine is virtually encapsulated in a shockingly brief three-line stanza:

“‘This is myself and this is another.’

Be free of this bond which encompasses you about,

And your own self is thereby released.” (Scriptures, P. 179. 1959.)

It becomes more and more a tenable proposition to release the concept of the self, and therefore our bond to suffering, when we give focused attention to the entreaties of the Scriptures. In fact, it seems to be a relatively simple idea once we have all of the necessary background information (of course achieving this is undoubtedly more difficult). To recapitulate the crux of the non-self doctrine, I offer the following; we use names to refer to specific objects because it is shorthand for referring to the constituent part of the larger universal one. So, “Dr. Finsen” is just shorthand for the longer description that she satisfies, say, “The constituent part of the universe, composed of the Five Heaps, living in common with all extant things under the Three Marks of Existence, and designated by the word Dr. Finsen.”[6] Additionally, the lack of self makes room for the doctrine of “codependent arising;” a notion that states that “our” well-being is somewhat dependent on how well others are doing. This has intuitive appeal as well. Thinking back to the Chariot Analogy (Scriptures, P. 149. 1959.), we can imagine that care must be taken to preserve all the parts of the chariot in order that the whole may function best. Like all difficult and skill-intensive tasks, this too is possible, but it requires diligent attention and adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path. Difficult? Yes; but not impossible.

Taken together, we see that suffering is a symptom of a kind of myopic, metaphysical self-absorption, and when the self-absorption is eliminated, it allows us to be free of those vexing symptoms. Still, it must be conceded that this is by no means an easy thing to do, however easy to understand it may be. Indeed, the attention and discipline that it would take to finally adhere to the no-self concept can appear out of reach to most, but the cost of not taking those steps, even if very modest at first, is one of living in perpetual anguish and misery for (potentially) many lifetimes.  I must admit that this concept seemed nigh unreachable at first, but I also know that there’s more to life than living life like a down-and-out song. I hope that I can develop enough to finally stop grasping; to let it go and walk away. Until then…

“Drinking Again,” by Frank Sinatra

Drinkin’ again and thinkin’ of when, when you loved me
I’m havin’ a few and wishin’ that you were here
Makin’ the rounds, accepting a round from strangers
Bein’ a fool just hopin’ that you’ll appear
Sure, I can borrow a smoke, maybe tell some joker a bad joke
But nobody laughs, they don’t laugh at a broken heart
Oh, yeah, I’m drinkin’ again, it’s always the same
That same old story
After the kicks there’s little old mixed-up me
Tryin’ to lose a dream that used to be


[1] The Buddhist Scriptures, Edward Conze. Penguin Books. 1959. And, The Buddhist Scriptures, Donald Lopez. Penguin Classics [Kindle Edition]. 2004. Abbreviated hereafter as Scriptures, 1959; and Scriptures, 2004, respectively.

[2] Concepts in this paragraph gleaned from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha.

[3] A.K.A. skandhas. (Scriptures, Loc. 10447. 2004.) These skandhas are what comprise our unenlightened conception of ourselves; they are, form/matter, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.

[4] Concepts about the Four Noble Truths taken from http://www.buddhanet.net/4noble.htm

[5] Scriptures, P. 155-156. 1959.

[6] Some may find comfort in knowing that this philosophy is widely accepted in the philosophy of language, particularly the work of description theorists such as Gottlob Frege.

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The Eggshells of Racism: Tread Lightly

20121129-232015.jpg

Black women. Two words that, without any additional context, are completely innocuous. There is no further meaning or semantic content within the conventional implicature about the descriptive, “two black women.” Suppose then that additional content is furnished, say, that you had a pleasant exchange on the street with two black women, or that two black women helped you find a Christmas gift for your niece. What ever the situation is, let’s assume that the interaction is a pleasant one. What kind of feelings do you have toward the use of the description? Take note of this, and continue reading.

Let’s now suppose that, while recounting an interaction, the exchange was totally neutral; it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, for example, “Today I saw two black women in a blue Maserati Cambiocorsa,” or, “There were two black women ahead of me in line at the bank today.” Or perhaps you merely asked two black women who worked at the market where the tea was, and they told you the aisle in which to find it. There seems to be absolutely nothing in these sentences aside from descriptions of people and things that one witnessed. Again, take note of the sorts of feelings or intuitions you have about the use of the descriptions.

Now let us imagine that the interactions were unpleasant. Let’s say while chatting up a friend you recall a particularly negative interaction with two black female employees at a book store, and recount your experience in the following manner, “The two black women were especially unhelpful in finding a copy of A. John Simmons’ “Moral Principles and Political Obligation.” Or perhaps something that many of us have encountered, “The two black women who worked at the DMV counter were very ill-tempered and abrasive.” Now what sorts of feelings do you have toward the descriptions of the people with which there was an interaction? Is there anything different about how the description reads? Do intimations of racism reveal themselves in the descriptions once the interaction became negative? Under what circumstances could one justifiably say that racism is present at all in the description of events?

One may instinctively inquire as to the necessity of including race in the description at all. I would point them to conventions in conversation that are seldom ever noticed or contemplated. Most of us, when recounting interactions with people not of our own race or ethnicity, tend to include the race or ethnicity of the person or persons when describing them. Some may invoke Grice’s supermaxim of quantity (say only as much as is necessary), and aver that more information than necessary was included in the conversation. One may also invoke the supermaxim of relation (say only that which is relevant), and might well argue that the person’s race is irrelevant to the story.

In response one may swiftly counter by adding that Grice’s supermaxim of manner (avoid ambiguity; be clear, but avoid unnecessary prolixity) would be ignored if the description was not sufficiently enriched. The narrator, then, would be justified in the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics when describing interactions. This is particularly the case when the narrator desires verifiability, or wishes to impart credibility on the story. Suppose your professor assigns you a reading, and the article is placed on reserve at the library; you are dismayed to find that the reading was misplaced, and is unavailable. When informing your professor that the reading is unavailable, you include precise details of the date and time, the means of search that were unsuccessful, and the employees that you interacted with. This method of enriching the descriptions is very common (e.g. journalism, reports, establishing credibility in story-telling, etc.), and provide a means by which the listener can borrow reference (see Frege’s description theory of reference) so that both parties have a sense of the same person or persons being spoken of. Details of this kind are routine in conversation, and serve to make clear the details of the event, and to provide information that may be used for reference borrowing.

A further rejoinder can be made that using the politically incorrect word, “black,” can and should be rejected in favor of the term “African-American.” This would be a completely ignorant, and irrational assumption on the part of the narrator. To assume that the person is African-American ignores the myriad possibilities of other ancestry, national origin, ethnicity, or otherwise. After all, the person can have Pacific Islander ancestry, and second generation immigrant parents who lived in France where the daughter was born. Using the “politically correct” term in this case would be the least correct term to use, and may actually be justifiably accused of racism, or at the very least, a guilty of making a cadre of distasteful assumptions. Black, or “dark-skinned”, are far more appropriate descriptors because there are no assumptions made or implied therein.

Still, someone with a hypersensitivity to racial issues, political correctness, or pedantry may still be inclined to take umbrage at the descriptive inclusion. I submit that those sensitivities are irrational in the proper sense of the word, that is, that insufficient reason is used to come to the conclusion that racism plays any part in the descriptive inclusion. I also submit that being bothered by it is an inappropriate response to a thoughtful, and parsimonious restriction of assumptions in conversation, and description. Perhaps it is even the case that the issue really at hand here is the latent racism within the listener who subconsciously equates the negativity of the interaction with some inherent set of properties of “black people.” More can be said on this matter, but I will have to take up further discussion on the matter at a later time.

Until then, and to those who level baseless accusations of racism, or accuse careful speakers of uncouth or academically unrefined language, I recommend that you remember the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself!” In more plain spoken terms, read Frege and Grice, check your premises, and get off my ass!!!

Yours in Contemplation,
Kierkegaard

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The Stillness That Night Brings

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It’s the night that I find most dreadful. When all the billboards peddling beer, and undressed women stop speeding by; when the frantic rhythm of footsteps slow, and the seemingly implacable ringing of telephones stop; when you stop looking ahead, while watching your back; when the air returns to your lungs, and breathes quiet into your mind; at the still, solitary, silent part of the day… that is when the knots return. The dizzying pace of the day so readily dispatches the angst in some deliberate calculation of this or that. The ever-present questions, always hurried; answered in halves because you haven’t the time to dumb it down for them. They make the perfect refuge from the stillness where the questions that haven’t even an answer in half wait patiently for your anguish. And you know they do. They wait for you.

You fill your cup, and fill it still to keep you always drinking; easy now to keep your mind from wandering there with so many little tasks to keep you at safe distance. But try as you may, the relief finds you, and suddenly you’re out of work. You’re out of work or too exhausted to keep going, and there it finds you. Defenseless. Unarmed. Vulnerable. You’re trickery is useless against the solitude of a quiet room; there’s no one there to fool. The bravado, and commanding presence lose their power when there is no one to challenge. What then, when it is your mind that is your foe?

The suspicion, the doubt, the ill-tempered and lonely thoughts that slowly pour over you, bringing such weight to your brow, and sorrow to your heart; like a heavy velvet drape as black as pitch. It is impossible to see through. The acrid smell of ash burns your lungs and stifles your breath; if only you could start again, restart the world at your command! Resume the frantic pace! Remind yourself that you forgot some critical assignment that mustn’t wait another moment for completion! Run! Run from that great emptiness; that insatiable void where the world is swallowed and some malevolent grace leaves you and your thoughts alone.

The pounding of your head and the murmurs in your chest are enough to make you ill, and you are ill, quite literally. Your panic stricken body lashes out in fits of shaking while the blackness still is creeping to the very core of you. “Is she sleeping?” Perhaps. “But in who’s bed,” you ask. The slowness of the clock seems ever slower as your labored breathing seems so fruitless, and you find yourself stifled; choked by the lowly insecurities that keep you up on nights like these. Longing -no- gasping for the sweet, cool air that only Her attention brings, you finally collapse to suffer all the more in dreams.

Yours in Contemplation,
Kierkegaard

Illustration by Kip A. Bauerfeld

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The Description Theory of Reference: Gottlob Frege v. Saul Kripke

Alright philosophers, so I know I’ve been promising something besides my pensive self-loathing, and I come to you now to make good on that promise. It isn’t about esoteric morality, which I will eventually get to, but at the moment I am working primarily with language. You see, language is an extraordinary thing, and we never even really stop to think about the mechanics of language; how the fuck does it work? How can we have different conceptions of the same object, yet both be talking about the same thing? Or is it even the case that we do refer to the same thing if we have different senses of an object? These are all interesting questions, so I’ll address some of them over the next (insert period of time here). For now, please enjoy this treatment on descriptions, and reference. Oh, and as always, corrections and insight are more than welcome!!!

Yours in Contemplation,

Kierekegaard

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DEFENDING FREGE’S DESCRIPTION THEORY

How an object is “picked out” by language is a complex, and significantly challenging problem that many philosophers have attempted to solve. Unfortunately, philosophers have been known to further obfuscate the questions that they endeavor to answer, and nowhere is this more evident than the debate on how we come to refer to specific objects. Gottlob Frege developed a descriptive approach to this sort of problem, arguing that descriptions of objects provide us with a sense of the object, and we then assign a name to that sense, thus referring to a specific object. Saul Kripke disagrees, and argues through various means that this is not so, and presents several counter arguments in objection to the description theory. Here, we will examine the work of Frege and Kripke, and determine if Frege’s theories can stand against Kripke’s objections.

The descriptive theory advanced by Frege says that the semantic content of a sentence is provided by the descriptions assigned to the object; this means that for any name that we assign to an object, we could just as easily replace the name of the object with a description of it, because they are equivalent. Our understanding of the meaning of a sentence is called the “sense”, which is supplied by the propositions within the sentence, so the propositions provide the “sense” in any sentence. Finally, the sense (or thought) that we have from a sentence is the “mode of presentation” of the object, or referent, that meets the descriptions of it; the sense, therefore, determines the reference of a term or expression. Here we have the crux of Frege’s theory, that sense determines reference. This concept is not too difficult to grasp when put into an everyday situation; imagine that you and your friend are talking about a concert that you both attended the night before, and a guy named Jason was a real “douche bag”. Let’s say that you saw a few “douche bags” that night, so when your friend says, “Hey, remember that douche bag last night?” you would be rightfully confused. Perhaps your friend names the person, “His name was Jason,” but since you didn’t know that, you cannot pick out the referent. Your friend then says, “He was the chubby guy with moles all over his face and was wearing the baseball hat.” (This description will be abbreviated by, “the chubby douche bag.”) Instantly you remember the exact douche bag that your friend was talking about thanks to the description provided by your friend. This is an example of how the description theory refers to specific objects.

Kripke intends to attack the very claim that a sense determines the reference of a term or expression, and does so by leveling three arguments against Frege, namely, the epistemic, modal, and semantic arguments. In the epistemic argument, Kripke argues that a name and a description have different contents, and as such, knowing “Jason is Jason” would be very different from knowing “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” Here, the former can be known a priori, while the latter can only be known a posteriori; this is intended to show that the name and the description are not equivalent, thus disproving Frege’s theory. But Frege can parry this attack easily; we know analytically that “Jason is Jason,” and come to know through experience that “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” However, once we are made aware that “Jason is the chubby douche bag,” the fact that being “the chubby douche bag” is equivalent to being “Jason” becomes an analytic truth. In this way, the content of the sentence “Jason is the chubby douche bag” possesses equivalent propositions, and is the same as saying “Jason is Jason.” This argument would not qualify as the strongest argument against Frege, then.

Next comes the modal argument. Here Kripke argues that while “Jason is Jason” is a necessary truth, it is not a necessary truth that “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” The motivation for this argument is that it is possible that Jason is not a chubby douche bag in another possible world; in those worlds, “Jason,” may not be associated with “the chubby douche bag.” In a case like this, the semantic content of “Jason” and “the chubby douche bag” would differ. In fact, in another possible world, “the chubby douche bag” may actually refer to someone else entirely, and “Jason” in that world may be described as “the athletic and friendly guy.” In this way, Kripke is again trying to disprove that descriptions are semantically equivalent to their associated names. However, this argument based on other possible worlds is easily overcome by “world indexing” each expression, or, by assigning a specific world to which the expression and the associated description obtains. An example of this “world indexing” would be to simply add, “In world A, Jason is the chubby douche bag.” This avoids the trouble of having the proposition be true in one world, and false in another by specifying which world the expression is assigned. The modal argument, therefore fails as well.

Having dispatched the other two arguments, we are now left with the strongest argument of Kripke’s; the semantic argument. As the argument goes, it is possible to talk about an object without having a description in mind that is satisfied by the object. An example of just such a scenario could be a case of mistaken identity. For example, lets say that (in some crazy possible world) there is a vast Reptilian conspiracy that controls the world, including the USA, and her politics. As a result, they have rigged elections in defiance of the will of the American people. As a result, people refer to Barrack Obama when referring to the duly elected President of the United States. But suppose that the American people actually elected John McCain in 2008; this case we see that the duly elected POTUS is John McCain, not Barrack Obama. According to Frege, these people are really intending to refer to McCain when talking about the duly elected POTUS, not Obama. But when people refer to the POTUS, they severally understand that they are speaking of Obama. Although they are mistaken, there is no mistaking who they are talking about; they’re talking about Obama, not McCain. Here we see that it is possible for people to refer to Obama despite there being no description that Obama actually satisfies, so, therefore, sense cannot determine reference. In responding on behalf of Frege, one may say that correct descriptions are critical when determining the referent of a given sense. In our example, mass ignorance has caused the application of a false description to confuse the sense to which it refers. This is not, however, a nail in the coffin for Frege. In fact, enriching the descriptions of Obama and McCain will serve to rectify this problem. Once the descriptions become rich enough to actually satisfy the object to which they refer, then there would be no confusion when referring to “the duly elected POTUS.” As in all things, true and accurate information is required when trying to communicate the way that things really are.

Although the semantic theory poses the gravest challenge to the description theory in that it demonstrates how people can refer to objects without accurate (or even false) descriptions, Fregeans can be confident that this can be remedied, and in general, that the strength of their position lies in having a complete and accurate description, which in turn develops a properly developed sense that accurately refers to the specific object.

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Scrap of paper

I’ve been trying to channel my negative feelings into a more creative outlet. Here’s a scrap of paper that I scribbled down recently. I’ll work on it some more and try to develop the idea a bit, but here’s the unfinished work…

Scrap
This is where hell is.
You’ve summoned the beast with your tarot cards, and your book of oracles.
Memory is a nervous twitch and travels at light speed
How does it feel?
This is time travel, we journey together…
Save for the ropes, no, i travel alone
She is the image of beauty for whom all cliches derive.
Has not the sky turned red?
Or is it just these red blinking eyes like stop lights made of water?
What have you done?
Oh the beautiful grave you’ve made for her…
And the wondrous statue that sits upon it,
Made to resemble her every feature.
But it all shines too brightly for you-
Why?
The pyre you set to immolate, or to honor your vanity?
Whose blood pays the penance for this sin?
Pray it is your own, and let her rest in peace.

Yours in Contemplation,
Kierkegaard

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J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”: The Case Against Paternalism

A note before the reading: This entry is pure philosophy. Once I am able to better wrap my mind around some bewildering events that recently transpired with a certain someone, I’ll try to write about it. For now, there are fewer answers than ever, and I’m more confused by this person than I ever was when studying perdurantism v. endurantism. So here is a fine piece on antipaternalism in the mean time. Enjoy.

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In John Stewart Mill’s, On Liberty, we are introduced to a defense of individual autonomy through a passionate argument for antipaternalism. Paternalism is the limiting of a persons liberty in an effort to protect them from some self-regarding harm, either through laws, or other forms of coercion. It does not apply to other-regarding behavior where it is assumed that society has the authority to justifiably intervene. In this paper, we will evaluate Mill’s two primary supportive theories for antipaternalism; the Harm Principle (HP), and Utilitarianism (UT), as well as determine if there are justified instances of paternalistic interference (PI), and if those justifications create internal tension within the text. Overall, we will determine if Mill’s antipaternalism as presented in On Liberty is successful.

Mill holds the view that individuals know their own interests best, and that others are invariably likely to misapply their good intentions toward that individual, so it is best to avoid paternalistic interference in general. Mill says, “He [the agent] is the person most interested in his own well-being… the interference of society to overrule his judgment … may be altogether wrong.” (Ch. IV, §4) But there are particular instances where Mill does believe that some type of PI is justified. He argues that the only circumstances to which paternalism might be justified relies on the reason of the agent. Specifically, Mill’s “Bridge Scenario” (Ch. 5, §5) elucidates these two scenarios as being either, or both, of the following: (1) the agent does not possess the rational faculties (or is not of the age of reason) to know that his actions are dangerous, or (2) that there is no (obvious) evidence that the individual is aware that his actions are dangerous, or that it is clear that the person does not have the faculties to make such judgments.

But Mill also presents the “Slave Scenario” wherein a person willingly contracts himself into slavery. Here we see that an individual is protected not only by paternalism, but that his liberty does not even extend as far as giving him the right to alienate himself from his rights. He says, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” (Ch. V, §11). Aside from him not even possessing the liberty to sell himself in such a way, but paternalism additionally protects him by not recognizing the contract in the first place, so that at any time, should he change his mind, he is free to quit the agreement. In fact, paternalism in this sense even goes as far as protecting the slave from the slave master by virtue of application of the harm principle; if the slave master is attempting to harm the slave who reneges on the deal, the authorities can (and must) step in to prevent the slave master from inflicted other-regarding harm against his former slave. Here we see, through the Bridge Scenario, the argument for a general prohibition against PI, while the Slavery Scenario makes allowances for very specific, or particularized, allowances for PI.

Mill’s antipaternalism is supported by both his HP, and by UT. To clarify, HP states that ones actions should go unencumbered by the law or other individuals so long as they are self-regarding harms that the agent is aware of. (Ch. V, §6). PI would only be allowed in scenarios that involved other-regarding harms, or harms inflicted by one onto another. For UT, the autonomy of the individual is considered by Mill to be very nearly the ultimate good, so when weighing “the good” in any situation, individual autonomy is to be automatically included in the considerations of what constitutes the most good. Because of the importance that Mill places on individual autonomy, both intrinsically and extrinsically, UT defaults to judging in favor of antipaternalism. But surely reasonable people can imagine limitations, or exceptions to these doctrines, and as it turns out, so did Mill.

It is clear that Mill is of the mind that so long as the acting agent is rational, and fully understands the consequences of his self-regarding actions, then PI is plainly unjustified. However, those who do not understand the consequences could justifiably be intervened upon (as in the Bridge Scenario). It is here that we see the first equivocation of Mill’s antipaternalism, but it is not the only exception that exists within his presentation. The Slavery Scenario also presents a problem for Mill.

The first problem comes from the application of the HP. If it is the case that an agent’s self-regarding actions will, either invariably or merely possibly, cause him a tremendous deal of harm, up to and including death, then one may think that the HP actually provides justification for PI by preventing harm to the agent. But this interpretation ignores the important crux of the principle, namely, that self-regarding actions should remain immune from PI. Further, the kind of reading that would expand the provisions of what is covered by the HP ignores Mill’s efforts to be quite specific about its applications, namely that the rational agent ultimately knows what constitutes goods and harms for himself. In this case, Mill’s view demonstrates that PI would be the greatest harm because of the persons inability to act in accordance with what he judges to be his own good (intrinsically valuable), and that the consequences he would have suffered could have allowed him to learn a great deal, and thus cultivate his intellect and character (extrinsically good).

The application of UT presents the greatest problem because of the requirement to maximize the amount of good for the agent. Normally it would be the case that because the individual agent knows what’s best for himself, he maximizes his own good by acting in whatever self-regarding he chooses. But as we saw in the case of the “Slavery Scenario,” PI is justified on UT grounds because the long-term good of the individual in preventing the contract outweighs the short-term good that would have allowed him to make such a near-sighted decision. This is not to say that Mill has forgotten about the paramount status of individual autonomy as perhaps the highest good of all; rather, Mill is trying to say, iff, in the exceptionally rare cases that the only way to achieve the most good in a given situation is to restrict the liberty of an individual, then PI would be justified.
It is apparent, then, that Mill is outlining two different kinds of PI, one where the authorities have general license to interfere with the self-regarding conduct of rational individuals, and one where the authorities would have license to interfere in only particular situations. It can be said that the HP is the best defense against the “hard” paternalism that allows for governmental authority to interfere with individual liberty based on what it thinks is a harm, and what is a good for the individual. Mill even says as much in chapter IV; “All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem is his good.” (Ch. IV, §4). This includes the permissibility of what may be considered crude, or improper behavior. For example, if an individual wanted to attend a giant week-long music and art festival in the middle of the desert called, “Burning Man,” where people engage in risky self-regarding behaviors such as drug use and promiscuous sex with other consenting partners, then those people should be allowed the perfect freedom to do so without legal intervention. The reason for this justification of liberty, even of self-destructive behavior, is because the individuals in attendance are all mutually consenting to kinds of salacious activities that are the hallmark of the event, and further, because the event is out in the middle of nowhere, far away from the more sensible and easily offended eyes of the general public. In this way, the impropriety is made “non-public”, and so becomes self-regarding harm that does not permit PI. The same would go for the drunkard; as long as the man drinks himself into oblivion in the privacy of his own home, and while doing so he strips naked, dances around, and eventually passes out, peeing himself, he is perfectly within his rights to do so. Neither the government nor his neighbors have any grounds to interfere. However, limitations are justified once harm to others becomes possible, or probable. If, before he passes out, he decides to run outside onto his front lawn fully nude and flash the school children walking home, his behavior is then other-regarding, and can rightfully incur the sanction of the law, and of opinion. Or what about the raver at Burning Man? Would a person, who has had multiple convictions for sexual assault under the influence of methamphetamines, be permitted to take ecstasy? Would his history of harming others make his self-regarding use of the drug without certainty that he would repeat his past offenses justify PI against him? Here, Mill would say yes, PI would be justified. (Ch.V, §6-7). The critical feature in these instances of justified PI is that other-regarding harm is being prevented or punished, not merely self-regarding harm. Society, nor the law, has any place in interfering with a person’s reasoned, self-regarding behavior, and therefore, the “hard” paternalism is rejected. However, this is some danger of exploiting the exceptions, as in the Slavery Scenario, and thus creating a slippery slope; for if PI is justified in that case, why could it not be justified in myriad others with similar characteristics? In Mill’s defense, adherence to the basic principles, as he describes them (HP, UT, and liberty itself), mitigates the dangers of the slippery slope exploitation evidenced by the tension of the Slavery Scenario.

The other type of PI, or “soft” paternalism, is only concerned with ascertaining if the actions are, in fact, the desired result of rational consideration by a person capable of making such judgments; if they are, then the person must be allowed to continue so long as the actions are self-regarding. Mill is far less concerned with this form of PI because it poses far less of a threat than “hard” paternalism because the intervention lasts only long enough to ascertain if the agent is knowingly and willfully performing some action or omission. An argument can likely be made that this is not even PI at all, but is rather some form of concern, which, proving no harm by way of preventing (albeit potentially delaying) the other individual from anything, may even be considered a net good on the UT position.

Despite the attempts at capitalizing on the UT position to defeat the argument via a slippery slope, I find that Mill’s antipaternalism prevails nevertheless. The exploitation of UT to justify all sorts of PI is only successful when one ignores the very basic principle that Mill repeats throughout On Liberty, namely, that individual autonomy is arguably the paramount intrinsic good, and so it must be included in any weighing of goods to determine which course of action maximizes the good. The HP similarly calls upon the good of individual autonomy in that it avers that any diminution of such would automatically be a harm that outweighs the consequences of self-regarding behavior. However, as soon as harm to others becomes possible, Mill acknowledges, and accedes to the necessity of PI for the protection of society, and other individuals.

Yours in Contemplation,
Kyle W. Richardson, J.D.

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