Tag Archives: philosophy

How to Argue

I’m currently reading a slim book, “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston and have found the advice in it to be fascinating and uniquely suited to this election season.

Some people love to argue, even if they don’t know how. Other people hate to argue, no matter what. Then there’s others who genuinely want to know the truth and engaging in arguments with people is the way to go about it. I’d like to think I’m on of these people, but I know my own prejudices get in my way sometimes. It’s human nature to want to be right and to feel defensive whenever someone approaches you with a different opinion.

But arguments are not necessarily bad and do not have to be painful. One piece of advice from the book is to “consider counterfactuals”. Many of us argue by using examples and generalizations. We think that when we’ve found a few examples that prove our point, we must be right, but we refuse to consider any examples that oppose our conclusions. Your argument will be stronger if you consider all the ways in which your argument may be wrong and can find an alternative explanation for those examples that contradict your own. Or, you may even (gasp!) change your mind!

Human knowledge and reasoning is limited, but you can get closer to truth and be more sure of your beliefs by arguing effectively.

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My Politics

Watching the Democrats and Republicans (and to a lesser extent, the Greens) fight over policies has made me think deeper about my own political views and where I fit. In general, I consider myself a moderate that leans liberal, especially when it comes to social issues. However, I’ve been wondering why I think this way. Two things have affected my thinking here:

1. A philosophy article detailing how it may not be possible to change your mind. Essentially the argument was that to be able to change your mind, you had to imagine the actual arguments that would be compelling enough to make you change your mind. And, if you can come up with the arguments compelling enough to change your mind, then you must change your mind. So, it seems to be difficult to ever change your mind, as long as you are familiar with all the arguments and know which one is most compelling to you.

2. The book, “Socrates Cafe”, which encourages us to think like Socrates and constantly examine our assumptions, question our most basic understanding of things, maintain an open mind to new thoughts and evidence, and know that which we do not know.

Both of these readings has led me to question my basic beliefs and where I stand on some political issues, especially as I consider who to vote for in the upcoming primaries. Instead of listing my precise stance on certain issues like the death penalty, taxes, healthcare, national security, immigration, etc., I prefer to stake out some larger principles and any specific policies should match those principles, whether the policies are put forth by Republicans, Democrats, or some other party. If more Americans did this, I think we could avoid some of the partisanship, where a person supports their political party, no matter what policies they put forth.

  1. Respect for all persons everywhere
    • Essentially, what I mean by this, is that we should treat all people with dignity and respect, and enact policies that reflect this. One important thing to note is that I don’t believe that respect and dignity end at our border or even with non-citizens within our borders. I’d also say, for clarity, that I am defining a person as a human that has been born, so unborn humans and animals are not included (not to say they don’t deserve any respect, but perhaps a different level than born humans). This includes respect for different races, religions, genders, etc.
  2. Rule of law
    •  This means that no person is above the law, and the justice system works for everyone, rich or poor. While I think that there are some laws that are immoral and need to be reformed, people must follow the laws and work to change them within the system. This doesn’t negate the legitimacy of non-violent protest, but it is preferable to change the laws through democratic processes.
  3. Economic opportunity
    • I think that people should have an equality of opportunity, that is, there should be opportunities for people to demonstrate talent and move up in companies. People should be able to live at some minimum level by working 40 hours a week.
  4. Personal freedom
    • People should have the freedom to do what they please, so long as they do not interfere with the freedom of other people. Basically, people should not be prevented from acting as they wish, nor should they be forced to act as they don’t wish (unless they are interfering with other people). People cannot have an unrestricted freedom to act (otherwise how do we prevent murder, etc.) but generally speaking people should have many of the freedoms we take for granted now, speech, assembly, worship, etc.
  5. Privacy
    • I think this is closely connected with freedom, that there is a certain level of privacy that we should all expect, but there is no right to unlimited privacy. There is always a certain amount of information that you would be required to give up, just to live in a society.
  6. Equal opportunity in politics
    • Wealth should not be a requirement to entry into politics. Additionally, admission to a particular party should not be a requirement to enter politics. While these probably apply already to most local politics, once you try to enter state or national politics, the barriers to entry are rather high. A true democracy is based on everyone having an equal voice.
  7. Education can solve many problems
    • A broad based education can be a cure to many societal ills, across the world. While not everyone needs or should necessarily attend a 4 year university, there is a basic level of education (and our K-12 education in America is very uneven) that everyone should have and will help ensure economic security, lower crime, better politics, etc.
  8. Military interventions
    • A military will always be necessary, but should really only be used in a just war (see just war theory). War is occasionally justified, but we tend to be too quick to go to a military option in some cases, while letting just opportunities to use the military (during cases of genocide for instance) go by.
  9. Respect for property
    • Property is the basis of society. Almost everyone has some property that they have earned or accrued and we should respect that they can use it how they wish, within reason. This is not an unrestricted right to keep all property, but property should not be taken away from people unnecessarily or without some form of due process. This may also apply to taxation, since that is essentially taking away monetary “property”, even if property is usually thought of as more tangible assets. A certain minimum amount of taxation is required to make a society function, but it need not be excessive.

I realize that this may not account for every situation and I can probably be challenged on any of these points, but these are the general things I look for when evaluating policies and candidates for elected office.


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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton, in the spirit of Boethius, wrote this book to show us how six different philosophers offer us some advice for our daily life. Ranging from a consolation for not having any money, to a broken heart, de Botton explicates some major philosophers main streams of thought and how they can offer us relevant advice.

Most people think that philosophy is for stuffy old men and women to sit around and debate ideas that don’t matter or have any effect on our lives. While there is a great deal of modern philosophy that does not necessarily seem to be relevant to how you live your life, the best philosophy is something that should be embraced and used to run your daily life. A philosophy of life can be similar to a religion, without all the dogma. Philosophy can help provide meaning to your life, can help you determine how you should live every day, can help you make decisions.

Philosophy can be extremely pragmatic. Examine any number of works on Stoicism and you can see this for yourself. Philosophy can also seem extremely useless. But, without the theories behind pragmatic philosophy, pragmatism can only get you so far. Anyway, back to my main point.

de Botton has written a great book. He has shown how philosophy can help real people with their problems. And, he may have helped to spark interest in philosophers that some people may overlook. I want to take a closer look at Nietzsche after reading de Botton’s book, and you might too.

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Mental Illness, Gender Equality, Social Activism, and Philosophy

A printed form of a lecture has been making the rounds lately in philosophy land (which normally means a few dozen people), but it is quite good and so I wanted to share it.


The lecture is a remarkable read, even if it is a little long for most internet readers (almost 16 pages). It details the author’s (Peter Railton) journey through his education to become a full-time professional philosopher and, along the way, discusses his experiences protesting during the civil rights era, anti-war demonstrations, fighting for the rights of students to be able to have a say in their university, details his thoughts regarding the lack of diversity of the philosophical profession, and finally, mental illness.

The part about mental illness has been garnering the most attention, since Railton reveals that he has struggled with depression throughout his life and he (rightly) points out the growing numbers of people who struggle with mental illness, sometimes to the point of suicide.

I haven’t personally struggled with mental illness, although I have known some friends who have. However, I do know that America has done a terrible job of treating mental illness, stigmatizing it, and pushing people with mental illnesses to the margins of society (jail, homelessness, etc.) I’m reminded of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization here and his evocation of the “Ship of Fools”. The only question I have is: who populates the ship of fools? The people with mental illness? Or the people who attempt to put the people with mental illness on a ship of fools?

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The Right to Die or Physician Assisted Suicide

I’m currently reading Kant’s “A Critique of Pure Reason”, which may take a little time for me to wade through, so I’m going to focus on some other issues of interest for the time being.

Just the other day, NPR was doing a story about the Right to Die. Put simply, it is the right to end your own life, usually in reference to a person who has a terminal illness, although some would argue that extreme pain and suffering should be enough even without having a fatal diagnosis.

It seems to me that the discussion on NPR was a little off base and not totally charitable to either side. On the one side you have people who are arguing that it is a person’s right to choose what to do with their body and can end their own life if they so choose. On the other side, people argue that there is a sanctity of life and that doctors cannot ethically help kill a person. Wrapped up with this is the general process of dying; the pro-right to die group argues that people want to “die with dignity”, while the anti-right to die group argues that we should provide dignity in death, but we should not help them die.

One question that is almost never raised was: Is dying (or death) a bad thing?

Most people will say (obviously) that death is a bad thing. Aside from a few philosophers (including, but not limited to, ancient Stoics) most of us start with the premise that death is bad and we either want to prevent it altogether, or barring that, die with some sort of dignity (whatever that means).

I should say that dying by itself seems to me to be worse than actual death. Dying could involve pain, both mental and physical, while death itself is simply non-existence. If you are religious, then death would seem to lead a new life in some sort of paradise (it’s misleading to generalize like this, but you get the point). If you’re not religious and death is simply the end, then what do you have to fear? You won’t experience anything, you won’t even be aware of being dead.

I don’t have a firm answer on whether or not death is a bad thing, but how would this change the conversation surrounding end-of-life care? If death is not an evil, then perhaps we would not need to fight so much over whether the right to die is a real “right” or whether we need to keep people alive at all costs. I fully support the idea that dying should be made better (better hospice care, better palliative care, etc.) but everyone is going to die eventually, so let’s stop worrying so much over extending life for the sake of staving off death and focus on quality of life and a quality of dying.

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“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca

I had a remarkably productive weekend of reading and finished Seneca and an article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “Death”. To the casual observer, it may appear that these two works would have nothing common, however, they are both concerned with the brief span of our lives, and while Nagel is not overly concerned in this article to discuss how we should live, if we can accept that death is the end of our life, that entices us to ask, “How should we live?”.

This is a question that philosophy and religion has spent a great deal of time an energy trying to answer. I think philosophy has offered a better solution to date. Most religions offer the promise of an afterlife as an enticement to good living in the present while we are here on earth. It’s similar to the parental trick of using Santa Claus around Christmas time. “Act well and you will be rewarded!” the thinking goes. Philosophy, especially ancient Greek philosophy, and even more specifically, Stoicism, offers no afterlife (although it does not expressly forbid thinking about an afterlife) but focuses on the here and now, life before death, instead of life after death. So, we should act virtuously now because we will have a better life. If acting virtuously also leads to a better afterlife, then all the better!

Seneca is a remarkably cogent writer and I often felt that he was writing just yesterday, instead of 2000 years ago. For those who don’t know, Seneca was writing right around the time that a little Jewish rebellion led by a fellow named Jesus was happening. He details the way people lived in debauchery and I swear he knew exactly what people today would do! Drinking, entertainment, prostitutes, spending vast sums of money on the most ornate houses and chariots (or cars); how is this much different from today? I think what Seneca shows us, in part, is that humans have not changed much in 2000 years. We may like to think that we have evolved and we are much better than the ancient Romans, but really we have not changed that much.

Stoicism offers a life of simplicity, a life of joy, and a life of stress-free (or at least less stressful) living. I have recently begun to attempt to practice some pieces of Stoic philosophy, namely attempting to control negative emotions, not allowing jealousy or anger to take a foothold, focusing on living simply and not extravagantly, desiring the things I already have instead of trying to gain more things, and I have begun thinking about loss more.

Thinking about loss is an important Stoic process. Thinking about losing your cherished possessions, about losing your loved ones, about losing your own life is an important part of becoming a better person. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the person who keeps the thought that everything they love can be taken away at any time is more likely to enjoy what they have and focus on what’s really important. I think about all the times I, or people around me, get upset at the smallest things at work, and I realize that if I could keep in mind that which truly matters, then I wouldn’t allow these things to bother me! They simply don’t matter in the larger context of my life. It is better for me to spend time with my family or doing the things I truly enjoy, than fuming about what someone said in a meeting earlier that day. Stoicism helps us keep our eye on what’s important.

In general, I highly recommend Seneca’s works both as literature, and as reading that may well change your life.

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