Jump to navigation

Prosthetic Conscience

Jason McBrayer's weblog; occasional personal notes and commentary

Wed, 16 Nov 2005

Suffering and rebirth, compassion and justice

My philosophical/religious viewpoint, as I’ve written before, is somewhere between Theravada Buddhism and classical Epicureanism. Both philosophies are aimed at the elimination of suffering. However, Epicureanism is a materialist philosophy, in the classical sense that it does not recognize the existence of anything other than matter and space (atoms and the void, classicaly, matter/energy and space/time today). Epicureanism recognizes the existence of a soul, but contends that it is mortal and closely linked to the body, so that it does not survive the death of the body. According to Lucretius, the soul is composed of a system of highly mobile atoms centered in the heart and distributed through the limbs. A modern Epicurean would say that the soul is a name for the activity of the brain and the nervous system. When the body dies, so does the soul, and that which we regard as ourselves ceases to exist. That is why Epicureans say “Death is nothing to us,” because death is not something we, the living, experience. It is also said that “there is a limit to our suffering.” Nothing can cause great suffering for long, without causing death, and when we die, there is nothing left to suffer.

This point of view is unacceptable to Theravada Buddhists, because, they say, if suffering is ended by death, why not just kill yourself? Rebirth (the continuation of a chain of consciousness in a new body, as distinguished somewhat from the transmigration of a soul) is seen as necessary, in order to emphasize that there is no “easy out” of the system, and to solve the problem of suicide.

On this issue I side narrowly with the Epicureans. I do not believe in rebirth, though I agree with some Buddhist ideas that are closely associated with rebirth, especially that the consequences of our actions (karma) extend past our death. However, I believe that the Theravada teachers are right to be concerned with these issues, and that my lack of belief in rebirth disqualifies me from considering myself a Buddhist. In order to maintain my balancing act between Buddhism and Epicureanism, I need to come up with Epicurean answers to two questions.

  1. If your suffering ends when you die, why not commit suicide, then?

  2. If death is the end (for you), then why should you care about the consequences of your actions that will only occur after your death? For example, why be concerned about the environment? (This issue is hotly debated on an Epicurean mailing list.)

For the first question, we have some classical answers. The main one is that ataraxia, the state of happiness that is the goal of Epicurean practise, is something that is achieved while one is alive. When you are dead, you do not suffer, but you do not experience pleasure either (or anything else, for that matter). A person who is prudent and mindful, and avoids vain pleasures, takes luxuries only as they come rather than seeking after them, and enjoys simple pleasures that are easy to obtain, can always (according to Epicurus) achieve tranquility and a positive balance of pleasure over suffering. It is never too late or early to begin the practise of wisdom.

My answer to the second question is speculative. I see the goal of ending my own suffering as necessary, but also consider the ending of suffering of all sentient beings desirable (though perhaps impossible). And I see the two goals as compatible. The Epicurean ideal of justice is the arrangement of things to mutual benefit. In general, if I act prudently, I make it easier for others to avoid suffering, because I am not competing with them for things that are scarce. These good consequences propagate into the future. Actions that would bring about harm to others after my death that would not also harm my goal of pleasant tranquility are probably relatively rare.

A Buddhist manual on insight meditation I read recently discusses the goal of universal compassion. We wish for our enemies to be healthy, happy, successful (etc.) because if they were all those things, they would no longer have any cause to be our enemies. I believe that this Buddhist idea is consistent with but greater than the Epicurean idea of justice. And so I am trying to increase my compassion along with my mindfulness. If I am compassionate as well as just, I decrease not only my own suffering, but that of others, even after my death, because every action, no matter how small, is entangled in chains of causality that began along with the universe and will not end until it does. I do not think it is a duty of Epicureans to be compassionate, however. If they are simply just, then they will “live unseen” and do little or no harm to the future, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Justice by itself is more than most people achieve.

[ Posted: 18:43] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Sat, 11 Jun 2005

Suffering and power

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain.’

George Orwell, 1984

I hadn’t remembered this passage, but I think this is why, in my view, Epicureanism implies anarchism — power/authority/rulership requires suffering, and the goal of Epicureanism (as for Buddhism) is the end of suffering. One of the ethical lessons of Epicureanism, also, is that you cannot escape suffering by imposing it. If you acquire political power, you are cursed with the anxiety of maintaining it. If you cause suffering in some other way, you must always fear discovery and retribution. If you want to avoid suffering, yourself, you must therefore avoid causing suffering by either lawful or unlawful means. This is essentially a materialist explanation of karma.

[ Posted: 09:35] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Mon, 25 Apr 2005

Let’s let atheists back into politics

A good article by Mike Whitney in the Smirking Chimp. Despite a few minor factual errors (dude, the American Revolution was before the French one), it emphasizes how far atheism has fallen in America, from being a central part of the philosophical foundation of our political system to being the last taboo. I don’t know the solution — maybe some kind of organized presence, or atheist pride marches. What will be the atheist Stonewall?

[ Posted: 14:31] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Thu, 31 Mar 2005

Superstition-based institutions

David Morris suggests replacing the term “faith” in our common discourse with the term “superstition.” There’s certainly good precedent in Classical literature.

[ Posted: 11:44] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Thu, 27 Jan 2005


“I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. “ —Mark Twain

[ Posted: 12:53] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Wed, 29 Sep 2004

Strict fathers, nurturing parents, and Epicurus

So I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s recent book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which is apparently a summary of Moral Politics. The main idea he tries to get across in this is that conservative and liberal discourse are dominated by two different ‘frames’, both of which are based on metaphors of the nation as family. The conservatives use a ‘strict father’ metaphor, while the liberals use a ‘nurturing parent’1 metaphor. I’d like to talk about some of my favourite philosophical and political topics in light of these two models, and today I’m going to talk about Epicureanism.

How does the strict father model do in terms of Epicurus? As you might expect, the answer is “not very well.” Epicurus would agree with conservatives that the world is a dangerous place, and perhaps that it always will be. However, according to Epicurus, it is possible for anyone to have perfect security if they have true knowledge, and if they have prudence. Epicureans reject competition, because what is good is easy to get. There will always be winners and losers among those who play the game, but it is possible to step outside of the game and live unseen. In direct opposition to the strict father, for Epicureans there is no absolute right and wrong – justice is the arrangement of things to mutual advantage between people, and what is mutually advantageous can change with the times. The pursuit of pleasure is not immoral in itself; if pursued rationally and with prudence, it is the beginning of morality. Obedience to authority has no value in and of itself, and is at best a poor substitute for wisdom and prudence. Punishment is worthless, because it does not teach one prudence, but only to avoid punishment. One of the biggest differences is how the strict father model and Epicureanism view wealth. The strict father model views wealth as equivalent to well-being, and the goal of self-interest. Epicureanism, on the other hand, views happiness (or freedom from suffering, which in Epicureanism is the same thing) as the goal of self-interest. The pursuit of wealth beyond what is needed to secure freedom from physical want is incompatible with prudent self-interest, because the desire for wealth can never be fulfilled, and is therefore an unending source of suffering. Wealth also makes you the target of envy and of competitors, and so violates the advice to live unseen. The strict father model emphasises punishing the bad and rewarding the good. However, according to Epicurus, prudence, wisdom, and virtue naturally lead to happiness, and their opposites to unhappiness. There is no need for us to intervene in this process.

The nurturing mother model does a little better, but it is not an exact fit by any means. The central metaphor is somewhat apt, as Epicurean ethics focuses on the development of knowledge, judgement, and prudence, and these are things that must be both taught and practised. The cannot be mandated or imposed by external force, but one can be nurtured in the process of acquiring them. And in Epicureanism, as with the nurturing mother, it is a moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Fairness, honesty, friendship, and freedom are all Epicurean values as much as they are nurturant values. Where they differ is mostly in relationship to the value of protection. In the nurturant mother model, the child is to be protected. From what? From just about everything. However, it is not clear that Epicureans would make protection an important virtue. To acquire wisdom, it is necessary to see that imprudent actions result in undesirable consequences. It’s true that you can observe others’ mistakes, but to really learn from them you may need to experience them yourself. Epicureanism can show you the path, but you still have to walk it.

So, that’s my summary of Lakoff’s political family metaphors and Epicurus. Stay tuned for me to discuss them in relation to anarchism.

1. Lakoff says the ‘nurturing parent’ is gender neutral. I think this is a crock. Nurturing in our society is highly gendered, and feminine. But Lakoff can’t say this because it would play into the hands of culture warriors on the right who say that liberals are for the Mommy State. But this is exactly the point – “Mommy State” is only a put-down because femininity is devalued in our society. As bad as a “Mommy State” is, the idea of a “Daddy State” is infinitely more terrifying.

[ Posted: 14:06] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Mon, 19 Jul 2004

Denny’s Classic Diner as Simulacrum

In Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (known mainly as the hollowed-out book Neo used to hide discs in The Matrix), a simulacrum is defined more or less as a copy without a model; a copy of a copy whose relationship to the original is so tenuous as to undermine the idea of there ever being an original. Denny’s Classic Diners are a simulacrum.

Originally diners started out as diner cars on trains. Sometimes they were decommissioned and served as stationary structures. Later, prefabricated structures were built along the same lines as diner cars and used in much the same way. Still later, diners were made that weren’t necessarily prefabricated structures, but still more or less architecturally referenced the original diner cars and prefab diners; these were in the 50’s, and so often had lots of chrome and Space Age styling. Denny’s Classic Diners are a copy of those 50’s diners, except that they’re not; they’re really just the same as any other Denny’s. They don’t really have any relationship to the original, which hardly anyone probably even remembers at this point (more people will remember the 50’s diners). So if you eat a sundae at Denny’s, remember that you’re eating the Dessert of the Real ;).

[ Posted: 21:18] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Fri, 16 Jul 2004

Darwin and Epicurus

Wrote this last weekend on paper, didn’t get around to posting it until now.

It’s often said, especially in popular science books, that “Darwinism gives no moral guidelines about how we should live.” (This example comes from Why We Get Sick by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams) The statement is usually made in an effort to distinguish the modern Darwinian perspective from the “Social Darwinism” of the century before last (which the aforementioned authors correctly note used only the metaphors of Darwinism and not any of the actual theory as scientists would recognize it). The intention is good, but the statement isn’t actually correct. Darwinian theory can do several things to inform moral judgment. The fairly obvious example is that Darwinian theory can tell us whether a particular moral theory is compatible with our nature (as it is; there’s nothing to say that human nature can’t be changed through any of several means). But the more significant factor is the insight that Darwinian theory can give into Epicurean philosophy. In particular, Darwinism can help with the Epicurean analysis of desire. It can explain why we have desires to begin with, and why those desire can lead to suffering. It can explain why there are unnecessary desires, and why there are unsatisfiable (vain) desires. It also helps explain why a desire can be satisfiable but unnecessary, but not necessary and unsatisfiable. Because Epicureanism can tell us how we should live prudently, happily, and justly, Darwinism has something to contribute to telling us how we should live.

Brief note: when I wrote this, I used the adjective “satisfiable” to describe certain desires which in most translations of and discussions of Epicureanism are described as “natural.” I used this not because I think it’s a better translation of the Greek originals (which I haven’t read, and couldn’t read), but because it seems to better express what seems to be implied by Epicurus’ analysis of desire, and does not imply the judgments that “natural” does to a society with the deep Platonic/Aristotelian bias that ours has. If I understand correctly, Epicurus calls those desires “natural” the satisfaction of which are abundantly available in nature. These would include, for example, the desire for food (which has a natural limit), but not the desire for wealth (which has none). Some desires are satisfiable but unnecessary (e.g., the desire to eat meat), but there are no desires that are necessary but unsatisfiable. Calling these desires natural or unnatural is a little confusing.

[ Posted: 11:40] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]

Tue, 22 Jun 2004

Intellectual morality

Was searching around on the net for the phrase lathe biosas and came across Societas Via Romana, and eventually on this article. Basically it talks about the idea that no one knowingly and willingly does evil – people do evil or harmful acts because they are ignorant of the full consequences of their actions. Even though Epicurus rejected much of Socratic/Platonic and Aristotelian thought, Epicureanism maintains this conception of morality, and probably takes it a bit further. According to the principles of Epicureanism, one should avoid doing harm to others because doing so will usually bring harm to yourself (you could be caught, or make an enemy, or at the very least, you will have to live with the insecurity caused by knowing you could be caught). Knowing this, no one would knowingly do harm to someone else if they could avoid it.

[ Posted: 10:33] | [ Category: ] | Permalink | Comments: ]


Powered by PyBlosxom