Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rediscovering Practiced Philosophy

This is a bit of a detour into a completely different direction for this blog, but I think it is important as it lays the foundation of how I come to many of the views I occasionally express and even plays a role in things as simple as cooking and making cocktails. 

One of the greatest shames of the modern era is that philosophy by and large is no longer a practiced art. The modern form that you possibly take some classes in at university is not really philosophy but just some lessons in rhetoric, logic, history and lots of word games. Modern philosophy is mostly dominated by semantics, defining language in a certain way to make certain precepts to support an argument. This is not really philosophy, in the same way that reading about or arguing about judo does not make you a master of that art. There is a difference in practicing something and talking about it. You can not really know without doing, you may be better prepared by reading and discussing, but it is the act and experience in practice that brings real understanding.

Today there are a few monastic traditions that resemble practiced philosophy, mostly in Buddhism but that is essentially it. Prior to the advent of Christianity the west had a number of its own traditions from the Stoics to the Epicureans to the Cynics. With the domination of Christianity in the west anything resembling practiced philosophy was absorbed into Christianity. This isn't to say that nothing worth while was developed in the Christian Monastic tradition, but nothing I personally find all that useful. The injection of religion is often a lazy way to practice, as most of the heavy lifting is done by a supernatural being of whom the practitioner has no concrete knowledge of. The salvation of the individual relies not on his own hard work, but instead is a gift from the divine. 

The Enlightenment; When applying logic, and reason was trendy,
and probably got you laid.
When non-religious philosophy re-emerged during the enlightenment it was taken up by the
fashionable houses and discussed in salons as opposed to practiced in schools. This proved incredibly useful and in effect laid the groundwork the explosion of scientific discovery, liberal democracy, and a number of the better things in the last few centuries, but religion maintained a grip on practiced ethics and anything that could be described as "spiritual development" (as someone who doesn't really believe in souls or spirits I'm not a fan of this term, but it does encompass a certain meaning when it comes to developing certain traits in ourselves.) While this may work just fine for some people, it doesn't work for many of us. In the void of any coherent moral strategy or practice to strengthen our character, most people practice what can at best be described as a kind of lazy enlightened hedonism, in that we in measured steps seek out what seems to be the good with some forward looking toward the consequences. This is kind of our default mode, with the variation of different schooling and cultural teachings adjusting to some extent what and how we value certain things and just how disciplined we are in delayed gratification.This isn't really much of a strategy.

Of the three main branches of philosophy, logic, epistemology, and ethics, the core of it is really ethics. The other two are just support to assist in arriving  at making decisions, and the making of decisions itself lies squarely in ethics. For when we consider what it is we are going to do next we are in effect asking ourselves an ethical question, we are asking what is the right thing for me to do now. As all of us know from living as human beings, knowing what the right action to take is and preforming that action up to par are not one and the same thing. The role of practiced philosophy is to move you from unsculpted and undisciplined donkey chasing the carrot before you and fearing the lash behind you to a person that can see the decisions before them clearly and make the right one in even trying circumstances. The goal of practiced philosophy is to allow the practitioner to keep making decisions and taking actions that add up to create a better life for the practitioner. As Epictetus once put it, as the carpenter works with wood, so does the philosopher sculpt a human life.

This goat does not subscribe to deontological dogma.
When determining action there are two schools that have dominated the west over the last few decades, the first is deontology, which views breaking rules as always wrong. This has been what religious folk are essentially told and what the state would like us to believe when it comes to their laws. The other view has been consequentialism which believes that ends justify the means and has been by and large the ruling theory of state actors under such theories as utilitarianism. Both of these approaches have some serious limitations. Deontology just can't be taken seriously. There are just no simple hard and fast rules to life, and that is clear to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes observing things. Is it wrong to lie when hiding refugees from genocide? Is it permissible to murder if the state says it's sanctioned? Is it always wrong to steal if the corrupt horde resources? I personally think any theory that turns over moral authority to another agent, especially the state or other power structure is rather bankrupt on the face of it. Consequentialism has proven not a whole lot better. First, determining the worth of external outcomes is a tricky proposition, and often it leads to some really terrible circumstances. It is this line of reasoning that has lead the US to support some really terrible people over the years, and can sum up why I think our foreign policy is such a shambles. The ends justifying the means lead us to support Pol Pot in Cambodia in the misguided effort to counter the Russian influence via the Vietnamese. This simply creates untenable situations, and it asks too much of the participant, we simply never have enough knowledge to predict all of the consequences nor is there any way to correctly measure their worth. Consequentialism fails because it places value on things we can not control, on consequences we can not predict, and often supports horrible things in the hope that good things may follow which seems logically flawed on its face.

The remaining theory, and really what I actually wanted to talk about is virtue ethics, which is what most of the schools of practiced philosophy used, and I think it is clearly the superior choice. The gist is that by developing strong central character traits such as Wisdom, Courage, Prudence, Justice, Compassion and Temperance that the individual can approach each situation and make a better decision in the moment deriving the answer from the traits he has honed. Buddhism essentially sets out a theory of virtue ethics with its eight-fold path which is a list of virtues that if practiced result in the elimination of suffering. Ancient greco-roman philosophies had a similar approach where the focus what not so much on the action itself, but on how the action is a reflection of the inner character of the person making it. In short, if you can develop a virtuous character than your actions will also be virtuous. The reflection of this is that a poor choice in actions is the result of the presence of flaws of character. The arising of negative emotions such as guilt, anger, fear, jealousy are often seen as the lack of application of these traits to ones life, most often a lack of Wisdom when one creates expectations of the world in their head which is not met in reality. In all traditions, they did not look to coddle or make excuses, but to sculpt the individual to be able to deal effectively with the human experience in day to day living.

One of my goals over the last seven or so years has been to develop a practice of virtue ethics. It's been a bit hit or miss at times, and I've certainly been a more conscious practitioner at some points than others. It has however become a permanent fixture in my head, and over all I feel I have benefited greatly from it. While I would like to take credit for most of it, I simply can't as most everything I have stolen from a number of different sources, mostly from Stoicism, Buddhism, and Pyrrhic Skepticism. While I won't ever claim to have all the answers, I do think that we would certainly benefit from developing modern schools of practiced philosophy. While there is quite a bit of literature out there to piece some decent things together we do currently lack any kind of support structure that would come with a more organized school, and those like myself could benefit greatly from having older more practiced individuals to discuss things with or turn to for guidance.  

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