Philosophy, Wisdom, and the Cultivation of Idealism

Philosophy education, at its best, instills wisdom and the cultivation of idealism. Sometimes people laugh at both concepts: wisdom and idealism. Wisdom is seen as quaint and old fashioned, and, besides, no one really knows what it means — or at least that is what those people say who think the concept is quaint and old-fashioned. And idealism is often thought to be the opposite of realism, and thus is regarded as useless dreaming: a longing after what is impossible.

Such realists often prize scientific knowledge, regarding it as the best (or the only valid) kind of knowledge. Science tells us the truth about the world. It is grounded in observation, experiment, and logical reasoning. Its trustworthiness is evident in all human advancement, especially the progress we have made in medicine and technology.

There is an important place for the study of “what is,” which is the focus of the natural and social sciences. But we need to recognize and acknowledge that we human beings are not only concerned with what is. We are problem-solving creatures. We are seldom completely satisfied with “what is.” Instead, we are constantly comparing it with “what should be,” and much of our activity is directed towards bringing “what is” closer to “what should be.”

The humanities are where we explore possibility, not just actuality. Art and literature create and explore alternative possible visions of reality. And philosophy more specifically explores ideals. Epistemology and logic investigate what human knowledge can be at its best; ethics explores ideals of human character and behavior; social and political philosophy construct theories of justice, envisioning fairer and more just ways we might organize our collective life; and metaphysics grounds all of these studies in an examination of all of the modes of reality: not just contingent actuality, but the nature of (and relationships among) necessity, possibility, and ideality.

We need to be able to construct coherent visions of what we think the world should be like. We participate in reality, and thereby change it. We can participate impulsively or haphazardly, or we can participate intentionally, guided by vision. Having vision does not guarantee that the changes we make bring our vision into being. This is why, in addition to cultivating vision, we do need also to study what is, and how it all works. Guided by vision and an accurate understanding of what the world is actually like and how it works, we then have the best chance of being able to bring about the beneficial changes we hope to bring about.

This more complex kind of knowledge, that includes both the cultivation of vision and a good understanding of what the world is like and how it works, is very similar to how Plato defined wisdom. In the Republic, wisdom is defined as knowledge of the Good. The Good is compared to the sun shining down and illuminating the world. If your education merely teaches you what is what, so that you can find your way around the world of “what is,” you are missing something. There is more to be known: how the sun shines down and infuses that world with light, color, and shadow. This more complex kind of knowledge is “wisdom.” You are aware not only of “what is,” but “what could be,” and “what should be.” You live your life not just finding your way around, but charting a course for a reason, rearranging that world that you find in order to make it better.

Cultivating a vision itself requires a special kind of education. Cultivating a vision is to cultivate idealism: understanding clearly the ideals by which you choose to live your life, and putting those ideals together into a coherent vision. Doing so well requires thought, care, attention, and dialogue with others. Our values and ideals are not just a matter of “personal opinion” that we dare not speak out loud nor question in others. Values and ideals are not just personal property: they are what link us to each other. We cannot help but be communicating about them all the time: our every interaction expresses our own values and reverberates (positively or negatively) with the values of those we are in contact with.

Initially, we inherit a set of values from the family and culture in which we are raised. But there comes a time when we need to critically reflect on these values, and test whether they really do seem right to us, and whether together they form a coherent system that we can fully trust. We need to explore why others may not agree with how we see the world, and consider the sources and implications of those disagreements. What will we do when such disagreements emerge?

Those who criticize “the idealists” are being disingenuous, because everyone lives by values and ideals. Those who scorn idealists are either unaware of their own ideals, or may be trying to hide them.

The truly wise person is both an idealist and a realist. This person understands and cares about reality, but knows that the present contingent actuality is only part of what reality is. Reality is ever changing, and the truly wise person perceives potentialities as well as actualities, and assesses the potentialities in terms of which of the alternative possibilities would be best. The cultivation of vision is the most advanced form of human knowledge. The wise person cultivates vision, grounded in an accurate understanding of what is, and devotes his or her life to trying to bring a better world into being. And philosophy is the discipline that helps cultivate true wisdom.

There Are No Evil People

There are no evil people. Some specific actions can be regarded as evil, but people themselves cannot ever be regarded as evil. This claim is justified on the basis that the very notion of an “evil person” is self-contradictory.

Let us start by defining “evil” as “doing harm for the sake of doing harm.” While we all recognize that people very often do harm without realizing it or intending it, we are usually not inclined to regard such people as evil. We recognize that people can make mistakes, or can feel forced into corners sometimes with moral dilemmas, but if we have the sense that they are doing the best they can, and especially if they recognize the harm they’ve done and apologize, we will not regard them as evil. And so “doing harm” is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for “doing evil.” For an action to count as truly evil, it must both cause harm and it must have been intended to cause harm.

But even “intent to cause harm” is a necessary but still not sufficient condition for “evil.” Anyone who believes that punishment is sometimes justified would refuse to call the person who metes out punishment as evil. While that person is inflicting harm with intent to inflict harm, the deeper intent is to bring about greater good. Punishment is supposed to aid in the restoration of justice. (Admittedly, the ethical justification of punishment itself is debated, but a full discussion of this is not the intent of this present essay.)

That is why I framed the original definition of evil as “doing harm for the sake of doing harm” – to contrast it with “doing harm in order to ultimately bring about a greater good” as in the intended case of punishment.

So, those who accidentally do harm are not evil; those who intentionally do harm, but in hopes of bringing about greater good are not evil; the only people who possibly could be considered evil would be those who intentionally do harm just for the sake of doing harm.

But to be considered evil in themselves, they would also have to be wholly evil. If they sometimes do good, they could not be regarded as evil, because the good that they do is real and benefits the world in a substantial way. So, if there could be a truly evil person, he or she would at least have to be someone who does harm all the time, for the sake of doing harm.

But it is important to note that such a person would have to be capable of moral choice. Such a person would still have to have a basic understanding of the difference between goodness and harm: otherwise, he or she could not understand “harm” enough to recognize it, choose it, and intend it. Also, the person would have to have the ability to freely choose. If the person were simply programmed to do harm all the time (and could not do otherwise) then the person could not be said to be intending harm for the sake of intending harm, because intention requires choice.

Since the person is capable of moral choice, and understands the difference between good and evil, then the person does have some understanding of goodness. On this basis, we can conclude that the person therefore is not wholly evil. Having the capacity to understand goodness, and having the capacity for choice means that there is always the possibility that sometime in the future this person might decide to choose good. So there is in the person still the potential for some goodness.

Therefore, it is self-contradictory to assume that there could be evil people.

What do you think? Does this argument work? To reply, click on “comments” below.

(This essay is republished from old SLU Philosophy Blog, March 10, 2006.)

One Moral Absolute

In many of my classes, questions of relativism vs. absolute truth come up. One especially important form of this question is the version that appears in discussions about ethics and morality. Those who advocate ethical relativism believe that there are no moral claims that can be said to be absolutely true — it’s up to us as individuals to choose our own ethical values. Those who disagree with ethical relativism claim that some moral claims really are absolutely true. What’s at stake in these discussions is really a question of whether ethics is just something we all make up (individually and collectively), or whether it is in some sense real beyond our individual and collective determinations.

I have been thinking about all of this for quite some time, and knew that I was inclined not to favor ethical relativism, because I believe that ethics matters just beyond our own thoughts about it. But for a long time I hesitated to try to list what I regarded were clear absolutes. Finally, one day I sat down and tried to clarify my thinking on this, and came up with one ethical claim that I knew I regarded as absolute. Here it is:

We owe everyone respect. Or, it can be put another way: Everyone deserves respect.

Upon further thought, I realized that I wasn’t the first one to think of this. What I’m getting at is in fact the very same point that Kant makes in the third formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, Second Section, 429).

While I have heard many say that people must earn respect, I disagree. People must earn trust, but not respect. Trust is appropriately based on what people are willing and able to do, but respect is rooted in who they are.

Here is more of what I think respect is:

  • Respect is the acknowledgement that there is goodness within everyone (even if people aren’t always acting on that goodness!), and trying to appeal to that potential of goodness within others.
  • Respect is the realization that people generally are doing the best they can, given the limitations of their knowledge, courage, background, and experiences thus far in life.
  • Respect involves honoring others’ autonomy and appreciating that everyone is trying to set worthy goals and chart effective paths towards those goals.
  • Respect involves the humility of knowing that you do not always know others’ motivations or feelings. Instead of guessing those motives or feelings, or attributing ignoble motives or harsh feelings to others, it is better to ask, and honor people’s answers.
  • Respect involves not trying to control others. (But respect may sometimes involve trying to persuade people to change — see next.)
  • Respect doesn’t mean letting people do whatever they want, whenever they want, however. If others are behaving in ways that are disrespectful or hurtful to others, it is respectful to call them into account on this (because it is not respectful to allow others to continue in disrespectful, hurtful behavior — they will very likely come to regret this later), trying to persuade them to change the problematic behavior.

These are some preliminary thoughts. I really do believe that respecting everyone is a moral absolute. What do others think?

(Reposted from previous SLU Philosophy Blog, February 12, 2006.)

Is this it? On Female Happiness or the Lack Thereof.

Last week I came across a discussion in the blogosphere (for example, here, here, and here)  about a new study entitled “Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” which was written by Betsey A. Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both from the Wharton School of Business.  The abstract of this study says it all: “By most objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”  My initial reaction to this study was to fear that it would be paraded all over the conservative/right wing blogosphere to prove–once again–that feminism is bad for women.  The “gender traditionalists” would be doing a little victory dance.

But, once I got over that fear, I started really thinking about what it could mean that the more women’s economic and political status has improved, the more miserable they are.  One could throw out the obvious question: what do these researchers mean by happiness?  The data that Stevenson and Wolfers analyzed came from the General Social Survey and “[s]ubjective well-being is measured using the question: ‘Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?'”  So, for the purposes of this study–as I understand it–subjects were asked to report on their own subjective well-being–their own sense of whether or not they felt happy–without any elaboration of what happiness (for the purposes of this study) means.  This is interesting and it is a philosophical question.

What does it mean to be happy?  This is, I would argue, not something that we can measure objectively, nor that we can describe in terms of brain function or hormonal levels.  Happiness is–dare I say it–a culturally variable concept.  Might there be anything that is common in various cultural definitions of happiness?  Is happiness an emotional state? Is it a culturally conditioned response?  I am not sure that these questions can be easily answered.  And, if they cannot be answered easily, what does that say about the findings of the Wharton Professors’ study?

Maureen Dowd highlights one of the claims made by Stevenson: “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.”  I found this statement puzzling.  I can see that children are likely to cause you pain at times: tragedies can befall them, misbehavior on their part can irritate us, lack of sleep can make us grumpy, etc.  But, to single this out as a possible explanation for why women are more unhappy now that they have improved their lot in life makes little sense to me.  Dowd anticipates the retort: why aren’t men just as unhappy then, by claiming that the complicated hormonal nature of women makes them more vulnerable to what can go wrong with children and they are more likely to beat themselves up.

Dowd then moves on to note that women are more likely to take antidepressants due to this aspect of their nature: hormonally and biologically complicated. Hence, because women are more vulnerable to what can go wrong with children than men (and add on all of the other pressures from work), they require some sort of psychotropic vitamin to prop them up and get them functioning at the levels men are usually found to be.  How would we describe that typical emotional state: anhedonia?  Neither unhappy, nor happy, just chugging along–fairly immune to the possible threats to ones’ well-being?

What is perhaps not discussed much in this report is that while men may be happier than men (according to self reporting), they aren’t all that happy. They are OK.  So, women are less than OK .  Maybe what this means is that women are hormonally/biologically less likely to be OK in a crazy, fast-paced, little down time, sort of world.  So what?

One tack is to see the goal of feminism to not be met yet.  Was feminism merely about putting us at the table? What about changing the various institutions from the ground up in ways that might promote well-being, beyond achieving a better professional status, political office, or higher salaries.  Perhaps women moving into these structures–with little transformation of the core values of these structures–women said to themselves: is this it?

In any case, what is worth discussing here is the following: what makes us happy?  And, might happiness lie in something else than being socially rewarded in our current political-economic system?  Go see the Jill Sprecher’s (a former Philosophy Major) film 13 Conversations About One Thing, which alludes to Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness to get this conversation going.


In my Ethical Theory class this semester, the students have been debating relativism.  I had always taken relativism to be the claim that there are no absolute truths.  But it is slowly dawning on me that maybe this is not how those who call themselves relativists really define the term.  What some of them actually say is that relativism means being open-minded about different perspectives.

The first definition of relativism (believing that there are no absolute truths) suggests that no one can ever really be said to be wrong about anything.  In this respect, those who advocate relativism will say, “that’s true for you but not for me” instead of “I think you are wrong on that point.”  So there is acceptance of a weak notion of truth: the term “true” simply becomes a synonym for “personal belief.”

But the second definition allows a stronger belief in truth.  Being open-minded about different perspectives does not necessitate accepting all perspectives as true.  You can be open-minded about a belief but then, after further consideration, reach the conclusion that it is false.

I am sympathetic to being open-minded.  But I think it is confusing to call this relativism, since a lot of people define relativism according to the the first definition.  Why not just call the second definition “open-mindedness” or “perspectivism”?

Regarding the first definition of relativism, I have never heard a convincing argument against some notion of absolute truth — but I am open-minded.  I would like to hear people’s best attempts to put forth such an argument.  I am doubtful that this is possible, because the claim that “there are no absolute truths” is itself an absolute truth is self-contradictory.

I really do believe that some beliefs that people have are simply untrue.  For example, if someone claims that “women are inferior to men,” or that “men are inferior to women,” I do not think that such statements are true at all.  This is why I do not call myself a relativist.