Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Saints, Heroes, and Well-Lived Lives

originally posted Sept 23, 2007:

Here is a web broadcast of an NPR program on "Moral Saints" that features an interview with Susan Wolf. Below are the listening notes on the program:

About the Guest

Susan Wolf is Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her primary areas of research are moral philosophy and the philosophy of mind. She is the author of Freedom Within Reason (Oxford UP 1993), where she makes a case for freedom as the ability to act in accordance with one's values and the ability to form one's values in light of an appreciation of the True and the Good. Professor Wolf's current research focuses on the relations among happiness, morality, and meaningfulness in life.

Listening Notes

What are moral saints and heroes? Saints and heroes are people that go above and beyond the call of duty. In philosophical jargon, this is called "supererogation". Most moral theories divide actions into three categories: that which is obligatory, that which is forbidden, and that which is optional. Would we have better lives if we were more like the saints and heroes? Ken introduces Susan Wolf, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wolf defines a moral saint as a person that is as morally good as can possibly be. Wolf says that while it would be good for there to be moral saints, she wouldn't want to be too close to them. Wolf distinguishes two kinds of saints: loving saints, people that act out of love for everyone, and dutiful saints, people that act out of feelings of duty or obligation.

Wolf argues that it would be very hard to be friends with a saint because they would make you aware of your imperfections. Wolf defines a hero as a person that does one act or one kind of act heroically, and she thinks that it would be easier to be friends with a hero than with a saint. War heroes seem to be a special class of heroes. Are they somehow braver or just unlucky? Should we strive to have a maximally moral life as our life goal? Wolf thinks that it may be obligatory to do something heroic, such as a secret service officer jumping in front of a bullet to save the president. This is one difference between heroism and sainthood. John suggests that we need to distinguish two kinds of loving saints, those in love with an abstract idea and those that care deeply about particular people.

Are there situations in which we could be required to do things that are otherwise above and beyond the call of duty? Wolf thinks there are and that we should raise the bar of what is expected of the average person. Wolf thinks that aspiring to sainthood prevents us from having well-lived lives. If you start giving in to the demands of morality, how do you know where to stop? Wolf thinks that the line is determined partly by what you are interested in and is somewhat arbitrary. Wolf distinguishes between moral relativism and moral pluralism.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:35): Amy Standen asks some people on the streets what they think saints and heroes are.
  • Ian Shoales the Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:55): Ian Shoales give a quick biography of his hero, a war hero, writer, and actor.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Warning: Graphic content mixed with humor!

It'll cost you an arm or a leg

Section three deals with harm, the concept of constraint, and the differences between doing and allowing. Kagan discusses the ethical dilemma of whether it is permissible to cut off George's leg in an attempt to save his life. (see bottom of pg 86) The consequentialist will permit this act only if the end result is the ideal outcome. The absolutist would disagree. Do you consider the final outcome to weigh more heavily than the intent of the act itself?

In further reading, section four widens the scope of constraint, and begins by dealing with the act of lying. Sure, most can agree that lying is "bad" or "wrong." We were taught this at very young ages. But upon reading Kagan, I was enlightened. (1st para top of pg 114) He specifies a very different point of view than the standard opinion of lying. He says, "...the constraint against lying should not be confused with a requirement to tell the truth." In other words, we are not entitled to say something one way or the other and therefore (by virtue of this argument) the act of saying nothing is not in itself lying. So, does 'withholding the truth' still constitute lying in your opinion? If you pretend to do something is this just as bad as having committed the act itself?

What if the act happens to be a faked suicide?? Has this just broken your threshold because it is only directly affecting one person? Getting back to good 'ol George of Chapter 3, if cutting off his leg only saved him then the die hard deontologist would balk. If it saved a thousand - now that's acceptable. Kagan continues after George to use yet another example: Harold & Maude. Cut off his leg to make a serum to save her life! Is Kagan possibly using a rare, and grossly underrated, 1971 movie reference? Unlikely, but nonetheless, I encourage you to seek out this film. In the meantime, I've provided the original trailer. Oh yeah - and you were warned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shelly Kagan

We talked about this in my section, but just so everyone else knows Shelly Kagan, is a man. His picture is to the left. I mentioned this in my section as well, but i wanted to ask it to everyone. What are the ethical implications of naming your son Shelly? Or for that matter how does a name influence a person and what is the ethical implications for any name that is given?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I can't drive 55

well, I misspoke in class this morning. It was President NIXON, not Carter, who signed into law the National Maximum Speed Law of 1974 , which established a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour as an energy conservation measure. "Wildly unpopular," as the Wiki article says, the law inspired Sammy Hagar of Van Halen (not David Lee Roth as I said in class) to write the 1984 hit song, "I Can't Drive 55."

Here, for your musical and ethical edification, is Mr. Sammy Hagar singing about the ethical dilemma he faces in trying to subordinate his selfish individual preferences to the greater good of society. Enjoy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Truman lived under a paper moon

One of my all time favorite movies is Paper Moon. While Nat King Cole sings it best it is the lyrics that really embed the meaning. (worth looking up for those interested - movie and lyrics)

What is real to us? Do we ever truly know our friends or acquaintances? How do we verify if our surroundings are even concrete? Just because we can touch, feel, see - are we actually experiencing reality? Or is it just a fleeting glimpse of someone else's design? And if so, who? What? These questions have been pondered by some of the greatest minds that have ever pondered. But are we any closer to the answers??

Truman was brought up to think his world was real. His entire 'reality' as he knew it was a construct of his creator, Christof. Christof designed this elaborate world to disguise the outside REAL world from Truman. Truman could even taste the salty air surrounding his menagerie, and yet it wasn't true. So eloquently put: "We accept the reality of the world in which we are presented," responded Christof in interview. If Emerson were alive today, I think he would have retorted with one of his lines: "The mind does not create what it perceives, anymore than the eye creates the rose." R.W. Emerson

What are your thoughts?

Morals of money Part I

This clip is essentially a bit of a slight of hand trick mixed in with just enough jabber to confuse anyone trying to count out bills. In life - and especially in the South during Great Depression - you can never know who to trust. Watch as Moses Pray pulls one over on an unsuspecting shopkeeper. He makes it out with a free ribbon (for Addie) and some dough along the way... $5 for $10