O.P. Recommends Freakonomics: Is Migration a Basic Human Right?

Airport Terminal in Salt Lake City, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

I just listened to this episode of Freakonomics Radio podcast the other day, which I enjoyed very much and learned a lot from, and I think you’ll love it too. Freakonomics Radio is hosted full time by Stephen Dubner, one of the two authors of the famous book of the same name, published in 2005, with occasional guest hosting by its other author Steven Levitt. The book and podcast consider individual, social, and political situations from the view that human behavior is best explained in terms of the incentives that motivate us.

The podcast episode I’m recommending here is called ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ and I can hardly think of a more timely question. As Syrians fleeing death and destruction flee their war-torn country, we are invited to consider this question: do nations’ rights to maintain secure borders trump (how funny …no, actually ironic that I need that particular word right here!) the individual human right to survive and to flourish?

I love Freakonomics, despite the fact that it adopts, at times, a dismissive and even scornful tone towards philosophy (as do some of my other favorite podcasts), but that’s okay: there’s so much good information and clearheaded processing of it that its informative values trumps (groan) what might be philosophically lacking. After all, I believe, philosophy is at its best when it’s informed and disciplined by evidence, and it’s such a firmly established, fascinating, and eminently useful discipline that it can withstand critique and dismissiveness from economists, science enthusiasts, and so on. But to my edification and delight, the guest in this episode, Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, gives a spirited defense of philosophy almost right off the bat.

Here’s a little excerpt for those of you in a hurry, but for the rest, I recommend you just skip this and go listen to the whole thing. Enjoy!

DUBNER: …As much as you may not like those reasons, aren’t they very much a symptom of the way humans have behaved throughout history? Borders, I mean.

TABARROK: So, borders are very common in one sense. As you say, when you look around, that’s the way the world is organized. And we’ve just gotten so used to them that we don’t even ask very much about their fundamental justification. And it’s when you come to ask about the fundamental justifications for borders that they begin to look very strange. Because they run counter to almost all of our moral writings and intuitions and philosophies. …

DUBNER: …I’ll be the skeptic for a moment — I could just say, “Well, that’s what philosophers do. Philosophers talk about ‘in a perfect world where all people were X, Y, and Z, things would go like this.’” But we all know that philosophers have no idea how the world actually works.

TABARROK: So, you know, our moral intuitions and indeed our laws today are that you shouldn’t discriminate against someone because of their race, because of their gender, their sexual preference or other issues. But for odd reasons, it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against someone because they were born somewhere else …Now, to defend philosophy, for very long periods of time, racism was perfectly normal; people have been doing it for thousands of years. And then people began to ask, “Well, what justification is there for treating someone so differently just because of their race?” And when people couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, when they were forced into this discomforting area that they can’t justify this terrible injustice, things began to change. …


Sources and inspiration:

Dubner, Stephen. ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’, Freakonomics Radio podcast, episode 231.


Social Transparency and the Epistemology of Tolerance, by G. Randolph Mayes

Surveillance cameras, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsLast week I learned a new word- apotropaic -and darned if I haven’t heard it three times since then!

Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing and has at least briefly experienced it as uncanny. It is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Generalized, the BMP is our inclination to mistake an increased sensitivity to P for an increase in the number or frequency of P itself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the BMP in relation to social transparency. The free flow of social information is a defining characteristic of the current era, and I tend to be far more sanguine about its effects than most. But I have started to think that the BMP presents a serious challenge to my optimism.

Most of my peers tend to be very possessive about their personal information. They feel like they own their beliefs, ideas, tastes, interests and habits. Consequently, they regard those who acquire knowledge of such without their permission as thieves. They are also haunted by Orwellian metaphors, and tend to react to increasing levels of social transparency in the public sphere with alarm as well. The idea of cameras at every street corner, shop window and traffic intersection feels dirty to them, despite its obvious value for public safety.

I dislike snoops as much as they do, but I distinguish between my preferences and my rights. I see unrestricted access to information as a cornerstone of liberal democracy. For me, the most fundamental human right is the right to learn. Whenever we choose to prevent or punish learning of any kind, there has to be an excellent reason for it. For some kinds of highly sensitive information these reasons exist, but they are consequentialist by nature and do not spring from any fundamental right to control information about ourselves.

I like glass houses. I think a world in which it is nearly impossible to hide the fact that you are an abusive husband or a pederast cleric is clearly preferable to one in which what goes on behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. In a liberal society, there is no greater disincentive to such transgressions than the certainty of others finding out. My friends are all yesbut. As in yes, but this is exactly what concerns them. They follow Orwell in thinking that a socially transparent society is fundamentally an informant society, conformist by nature.

But the evidence is that they are just wrong about this. We are living in a time of unprecedented tolerance for diversity and self-regarding eccentricities. This has not been achieved in spite of increasing social transparency. As long as homosexuals, transgenders, apostates, recreational drug users and the mentally disabled were confined to the darkness of the closet we could ridicule them with impunity. But it is difficult to continue in this vein when the clear light of day reveals that many of them are people we love.

Now here is my concern.

If increasing social transparency is not managed very carefully, it could backfire spectacularly, thanks to the BMP. When social transparency increases quickly, we suddenly become aware of the many intolerable things that have been happening right under our noses. Consequently, we get the impression that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we become receptive to irrationally harsh responses.

What do I mean by careful management? Two things, at least.

First, it means creating future generations of adults who are more epistemologically sophisticated than mine. We grew up thinking that being responsible and informed citizens meant paying careful attention to reliable news sources, caring about the less fortunate and following our conscience. But that is a serious error.

The news is almost entirely about relating recent interesting events; it rarely provides a statistical context in virtue of which the general significance of these events may be responsibly evaluated. This is why it is possible to be an informed and conscientious citizen by the standards of my generation and still be completely unaware of essential global facts, such as that we are living in a period of unprecedented world peace or that the global poverty rate has been cut in half during the last 20 years.

If we aren’t aware of the role BMP plays in our reaction to constant reports of police brutality against minorities in the U.S, gang rapes of girls in India, the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, the public whipping of atheists in the Third World, and terrorism everywhere, then our reactions are likely to be intemperate and counterproductive.

Second, we are going to need to find the moral strength to punish wrongdoing less severely. What? Yes. To see why, consider that whenever someone decides whether to do wrong she makes an implicit expected value calculation in which the probability of being caught figures centrally. For this reason, the severity of the current punishment is itself a function of the probability of detection. In an increasingly transparent society, the probability of detection rises. Hence the previous levels of punishment are now intemperate and must be recalibrated.

As an example, consider new surveillance capabilities which can detect every single traffic light violation. Many people oppose the proliferation of this kind of technology, despite its obvious ability to save lives. Why? I think it is partly because they foresee an intolerable rise in the cost of innocent mistakes. In this sense, Orwellian concerns are absolutely on point. If we are unwilling to attenuate the severity of our punishments, applying the technology of transparency to crime detection is the road to the police state.

Social transparency has so far been part of the recipe for a more tolerant society, but so far it is tolerance for things that we are learning to hate less. Adopting more temperate responses to crimes we perhaps hate even more than before is a whole nother thing.

I hope future generations will be enlightened enough to do it, but in the meantime some apotropaic magic would come in real handy.

– Randy Mayes is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University. His main teaching and research interests are naturalism, moral psychology and the nature of rational inquiry, and he has published work on the the concepts of explanation, privacy and cruelty (bio credit: Sacramento State University Department of Philosophy). This piece was originally published at The Dance of Reason blog.

Traveling Philosophy Series: Frederick Douglass Edition, Prologue, Oakland, CA

African American Museum and Library, Oakland, CA

Frederick Douglass’s Traveling Philosophy series will begin in earnest when I arrive on the East Coast. But behind every Traveling Philosophy series is research, and I have some excellent resources here where I live in Oakland, California. It’s still a little up in the air as when I’ll actually be able to make it to the East Coast for a long enough period to cover the ground I’d like to, since I intend this series to be the most comprehensive I’ve done yet. So, I’ve decided to do something a little different this time, to start the account of my journey with my discoveries and thoughts on the acts and ideas of Douglass I encounter while researching his life.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been gathering materials at my local library branch, the main branch near beautiful Lake Merritt on 14th St. But for many happy afternoons this early December, I’m on the other side of downtown, still on 14th St, in my new favorite study space, the lovely African American Museum and Library in Oakland.The AAMLO is a local Beaux Arts gem, the original main library building from 1902 until it moved to its current much larger location in the early 1950’s. (See the photo, right, of the museum’s green plaque for a brief history of the library and museum; you can click on the image to enlarge it for ease of reading, if you like.)

Sculpture of Frederick Douglass, AAMLO

The AAMLO is a new discovery for me this December, and as I enter, I’m greeted, to my delight, with a handsome (if rather stern) sculpture of the hero of my series. It’s this effigy of Douglass, in fact, which inspires me to just jump right in and start his Traveling Philosophy series here in Oakland.

So I’ll begin, as I mentioned, with stories and reflections on his life and work. My trip to the East Coast, tentatively planned for late winter / early spring, and the stories of that journey will be followed by a second series of essays inspired by my discoveries in the course of my travels. I hope you enjoy this new format, and as always, welcome any feedback you wish to offer!

An interior view of AAMLO

AAMLO is a reference library only, so all materials I use must stay here. That’s perfectly fine with me, it’s such a lovely place to work, and lucky for me, it’s quite close by to where I live and work. Since I’ll be returning here a lot, I pick a quiet, cozy corner, and get to work…

One afternoon, after reading and making notes for quite some time, I feel the need to stretch my legs and rest my tired eyes. I go upstairs to the museum, a long gallery which runs the length of the building and which used to be the main reading room.

Crowning the main stairway which leads to this upper gallery, there’s a huge collage of great figures in African American history. It just so happens that the image of Douglass is under the name of Spinoza, among the list of names of great thinkers of the past which embellishes the frieze. Cool. Baruch Spinoza is next on my list of great thinkers to follow, but that’s a story for another time. I’d bet they’d have the most fascinating conversations, though, if they could speak the same language. Though they were very different in their histories, their particular beliefs, and their personalities, yet they were both lovers of reason, and they both lived authentically, true to their beliefs, models of intellectual integrity as they refused to obey the unjust rules of the societies they lived in.

An interior view of AAMLO, Oakland, CA, 2015 Amy Cools

A view of AAMLO’s main gallery on the upper floor

The museum tells the story of the African American people who did so much to make Oakland the vibrant and diverse city it is today, and how America’s legacy of laws and practices both helped and harmed the African American community here and throughout California. The African American community in Oakland grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 1900’s, much of it made up of refugees from the Old South, and through hard work, came to make up a significant proportion of its thriving middle class. Oakland’s economy centered around its busy port and manufactures, and as the work dried up after the stock market crash of 1929, it was no surprise that the economic woes hit African Americans the hardest: when jobs become more scarce, it was not the favored demographics that suffer from it most, as you may expect: Oakland’s working black population lost well over a third of their jobs.

Douglass himself experienced job discrimination in his time working on the Maryland docks as a caulker, hired out as a wage earner in the Baltimore shipyards for his master before he escaped to freedom. In his Narrative, Douglass relates the story of a severe beating he received at the hands of white shipbuilders who resented the competition of low-paid black labor, both slave and free. Douglass was driven from his job by violence; in 20th-century Oakland, it was a combination of job discrimination, rules and laws which prevented black people from joining or forming unions, and differential treatment by law enforcement. Not everything had changed since Douglass’s day.

A view of an exhibit in AAMLO's main gallery, upper floor, AAMLO, 2015 Amy Cools

A view of an exhibit in AAMLO’s main gallery

So as black Oaklanders suffered many of the worst effects of the economic downturn, the ills of poverty hit black communities the hardest, and harsh, unjust policing practices and drug policies exacerbated the problems that they may have been meant to alleviate. Many, however, passionately believe that there was no honest intent to help, just to oppress and destroy the black community. Whatever the case may be, the desperation of so many of Oakland’s black people makes it no wonder that the Black Panther Party was founded here in Oakland in the 1960’s. Then as now, a strong cultural tradition of racial justice activism and civic unrest flourished, sometimes, as again to be expected in an environment where so many felt disenfranchised and disrespected, to excess.

If he were alive to witness it, Douglass may have disapproved of many of the Black Panther Party’s militant tactics, but like the B.P.P. and Malcolm X after him, he came to believe that some kind of armed resistance may be necessary to achieve liberty and full equality for black people, and that if violent resistance was necessary to change the laws, it was just, given the depth of oppression and injustice black people suffered. He was, for example, an admirer of John Brown, a passionate abolitionist who unsuccessfully tried to start an armed slave rebellion and was hanged for treason as a result.

What Douglass thought about whether or not it’s right to use violence in the cause of furthering human rights, and if so, how much, against whom, and when, is a big topic, one for another essay in this series. Stay tuned!about whether or not it’s right to use violence in the cause of furthering human rights, and if so, how much, against whom, and when, is a big topic, one for another essay in this series. Stay tuned!

* Listen to the podcast version of this piece here or on iTunes

* Follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass with me… 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Originally published in Boston by the Anti-Slavery Office, May 1st, 1845.

Really, America? Ban the Refugees, Let the Troops Do All the Work?!?

Like so many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been dismayed, though not really surprised, at the vitriol aimed at Syrian refugees and Muslims in general, following the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino. Much of it is voiced in the form of inflammatory but silly memes, but now, even some of our presidential candidates are chiming in. Reactionary religious and ethnic hatred are at least as old as human history, and so are political capitalizations on them.

These memes and the anti-Islamic proposals they promote, such as calls for the U.S. to stop taking in Syrian refugees, to ban all Muslims from entering the country, or to force all Muslims to register with the government, as far as I can tell, are mostly coming from some on the conservative end of the political spectrum. However, the backlash against all this reactionary hate-mongering is coming from both liberals and conservatives, and their arguments are bolstered by the best in our political system and its founding documents, focused, if not always perfectly, on the protection and expansion of human rights.

Besides the basic problem of the xenophobic, anti-human-rights nature of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric, there’s something about the whole thing that’s been bothering me, something that I hadn’t really seen addressed in so many words. I jotted down this thought in the notes for this piece, and I hadn’t had the chance to finish it until tonight.

Then, today, just a few hours before I planned to write this, I heard a re-broadcast of a news story that appears to confirm my suspicions. A recent poll from Harvard revealed that the majority of millennials, age 18-29, say we should send more troops to fight ISIS and say they wouldn’t even consider enlisting.

This was my thought before I heard that story: for all the rhetoric calling for an increase in the war effort against Islamist violent extremism, and all the preaching about supporting our troops, it seemed to me that many of the same people who want to send more military abroad to fight to protect people’s freedoms want little or nothing to do with the effort themselves. They want others, namely our soldiers, to take all the risks, shoulder all the burdens, and do all the work of defending and promoting American values, but don’t want to participate even in a relatively small way by helping out the people who are most victimized by Islamic radicalism, who vote with their feet by fleeing from violent Islamist groups to ethnically diverse, religiously free nations.

It looks as if this poll reveals that this ‘you go do it, brave soldiers in uniform, but leave us out of it!’ attitude is likely true for at least for one significant slice of the population.

What happened to the idea that if we, the people, decide to go to war, it’s we, the people, who should fight it? Makes me feel nostalgic, in the way that you can feel nostalgic for a time you’ve never experienced yourself and are not sure ever really existed, for the ‘greatest generation’ of World War II and earlier wars. Wasn’t it the case back then that most ordinary citizens felt duty-bound to participate in the war effort that their nation was fighting, even if in some small way at home? Didn’t they involve themselves, if necessary, in the work, the sacrifice, and the danger of doing the right thing, even if doing so meant some risk to themselves? It’s not even that they have to worry about conscription anymore! Isn’t the mission of promoting the American values of multiculturalism and religious freedom, protecting the innocents that flee for sanctuary to our shores and in our neighborhoods, worth our support and participation, even if we do face the risk that a few terrorists might sneak in among the innocents?

It seems that decades of complacent materialism and the all-volunteer military, among other things, have eroded some of that true civic pride and moral courage it takes to show the world that Americans are willing to do the right thing, no matter what.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Sources and inspiration:

Gabriel, Trip. ‘Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register’. New York Times website, Politics: First Draft. Nov 20th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/20

Khalid, Asma. ‘Millennials Want To Send Troops To Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want To Serve’. NPR.com. Dec 11, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459111960/millennials-want-to-send-tro

Walsh, Deirdre, Jeremy Diamond, and Ted Barrett. ‘Priebus, Ryan and McConnell rip Trump anti-Muslim proposal’. CNN.com. Dec 8, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/08/politics/paul-ryan-tru

Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large.

The Buddhist religion—though some prefer to see it as a philosophy—is one such tradition. An ancient and diverse faith, Buddhism is perhaps best known for its thorough and egalitarian moral philosophy. And while it is indeed diverse (containing a huge number of schools, most with their own interpretive methods and styles of meditation and ritual practice), compassion (or karuna) is treated as an important trait of an enlightened being, and a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, in all sects. Thus, throughout the various iterations of Buddhism—from the forest-monk Theravada of Thailand to the Zen habits of Japan—one finds a remarkably consistent system of normative ethics, and a conceptual framework for promoting the wellbeing of all sentient creatures.

That all being said, the ontological concepts which necessitate Buddhist compassion are perhaps most concisely expressed by the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) tradition—one of two or three major branches into which Buddhism is often divided. Buddhism maintains a unique connection between metaphysics and ethics, and the deeply profound philosophies of many Mahayana thinkers, and those presented in a number of the Mahayana sutras (Buddhist sacred texts), can be seen as an attempt to navigate and define that sort of connection.

Where does one begin in exploring such a notion? The corpus of Buddhist literature is impossibly vast, and anyone could spend a lifetime pondering so many mystical works and their commentaries. I would argue, however, that in order to form at least a basic understanding of the Mahayana ethical-metaphysical relationship, we need look no further than the ancient and seminal Heart Sutra.

Written as a dialogue and teaching, the Heart Sutra is a brief monologue on the part of a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who has postponed his or her salvation in order to remain in the world and aid sentient beings) by the name of Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara (known as Guanyin in China and Chenrezig in Tibet—the latter where the Dalai Lama is considered his living manifestation), whose name roughly translates to “the lord who looks down,”—that is, he looks down upon the world of the unenlightened with charity and love—is a bodhisattva representing perfect compassion. Befitting this disposition, the Avalokiteshvara of the Heart Sutra provides a mortal monk, Sariputra, with a profound teaching, a parcel of great wisdom intended to eradicate the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara’s great revelation is that all phenomena are, in fact, “empty.” (Red Pine, p. 3.)

To clarify, the bodhisattva is saying that everything in the world lacks an inherent “self,” or essence. This concept finds its origin in the oldest, pre-Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and the Buddha himself noted that “no-self” is, along with impermanence (anicca) and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), one of three “marks” which constitute the nature of reality. Anatta, for the historical Buddha, and for the older Theravada school, mostly implies that nothing in the world can be said to be one’s “self,” (atman), and thus identifying anything as representing the essence of oneself—a “self” made up only of non-self parts (cf. Hume’s “bundle theory”)—is delusory. The self-concept, for the Buddha, is an illusion of essence which binds human beings to false worldviews and causes them to misrepresent reality, thus barring them from enlightenment.

The falseness of self-hood forms a bedrock of Buddhist philosophy. In the “emptiness” (sunyata) of the Mahayana, however, we find anatta further developed. (Nagao, pp. 173-174.) We owe this development chiefly to Nagarjuna, a first-century Buddhist philosopher who founded the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, and developed the philosophies (one most notably being sunyata) inherent in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. In his text, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna famously states, to this effect, “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” Thus emptiness, in this sense, is not mere nothingness, but an open space in which all potential exists. Hence one cannot truly differentiate being and nonbeing, total emptiness and total “allness,” infinite nothing and infinite something. One implies, or necessitates, the other. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara explains this to Sariputra when he says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” For the Mahayana school, emptiness is not merely the surrogate for essence, and a blank space where one imagines the self, but the numinous nature of all things.

Now, this emptiness implies another notion (this one common to Buddhism on the whole), “dependent origination.” (Pratityasamutpada.) According to this doctrine, all phenomena exist dependently, depending upon one another in order to maintain their existence. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.p.) Thus, there is no free, permanent, inherent, and individual existence for any beings or objects. Their causes and conditions are inextricably linked to the unending web of phenomena arising and passing away in the universe. One thing cannot be said to be truly separate from anything else when it exists, in time and space, alongside all else, and when it requires for its existence the (falsely!) extraneous forces of nature, matter, and energy. Thomas J. McFarlane, writing in his 1995 essay “The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,” sums this up nicely when he states, “According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in… the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given.”

An easier, less flowery way to illustrate these three ideas—no-self, emptiness, and dependent origination—in tandem may be to imagine something made up of familiar parts: A tree, for instance. We all know that trees are made of a variety of components—trunk, roots, branches, leaves. Where, then, lies the “treeness” of the tree, in the tree? Is the tree its roots? Is the tree its leaves? No? Why not? One may say, “‘tree’ is the name we give to the sum of the parts of the tree,” but then, of course, “tree” is reduced to a mere name and concept, not a thing-in-itself. Whatever can be called a “tree” is ultimately made up of non-tree parts, and thus there is no “treeness” at all. Similarly, the self, though imagined as one’s essence or “soul,” can be divided into mental phenomena and parts of the body. (All of which are subject to constant change, hence anicca.) There is no “selfness” for this self, only the experience of a very familiar concept by the same name. Thus Avalokiteshvara tells Sariputra, “Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.”

We now have a grasp on no-self (anatta), and can see how easily it translates to no-essence-anywhere-at-all (sunyata) by analyzing everything down into its (non-) fundamental components, components which themselves are also made up of other components, and so on and so forth. One can continue dividing things and concepts forever, down to an infinitesimal. (Granted, this is a conceptual exercise, and the author omits any claims about concrete physics for lack of sincere knowledge of the subject. Regardless of Planck lengths and fundamental particles, confer “infinite divisibility.”)

But how does emptiness translate into connection, into pratityasamutpada? Let us continue with the metaphor of the tree, and observe how the tree is not only constructed of non-tree parts, but dependent on the conditions of the world at large for those very constructs: A tree, like all lifeforms, requires a number of inputs from its surrounding environment in order to survive and thrive. Water, soil, and sunlight most readily come to mind. Water, for instance, rains down from clouds, which themselves are formed from atmospheric water vapor. Soil is produced over many years by the degradation of organic matter, and organic matter is contained by other lifeforms, which exist by dint of their evolutionary ancestors. Sunlight reaches the Earth from the Sun, which itself was formed billions of years ago from sparse bits of matter produced in the Big Bang.

What sort of philosophical quandary do we run into here, then? For our purposes it is best to put the question this way: “At what point is the tree no longer itself?” That is to say, “At what point is any “one” thing separable from the causes and conditions that give rise to it, or the causes and conditions that it gives rise to?”

If we take this notion—this pratityasamutpada—to its logical conclusion, we come to recognize that we are, in order to exist, dependent upon components and conditions outside of ourselves; that everything, in fact, is; that the entire universe is one integrated system, and in some sense an entity-unto-itself.

One response to such a situation—and an understandable one, at that—may be that of deep compassion: the fact that we are dependent upon all else, and all else upon us, in some sense (and albeit in a small way), gives us reason to care for the world (and other beings especially) as if the welfare of other things and beings was the same as ours… as if we have no “self” apart from that of the world at large, the welfare of which—from crabs to carpenters—is our concern as beings endowed with the capacity for both suffering and empathy. No doubt, it’s this very suffering which binds us to one another. We, knowing our own pain, can experience it vicariously, through others. Philosophers as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, Hume, and Schopenhauer understood the universality of pain and empathy, and thus their importance in morality.

The Buddha, of course, realized the same. And while you may not find a be-all-end-all answer to the big ethical problems in one particular system, opting instead (as many do) for an eclectic approach to moral philosophy, you have to admit that Buddhism provides one of the most intricate (and practical) answers to our moral quandaries.

As long as human beings have questioned the nature of their freedom and manners of life and livelihood, philosophy has helped fill the void inherent in the realms of “good” and “evil” and everything in between. Buddhism presents us with one particularly bright light, helping to illuminate the murky and ever-indefinite realm of philosophical inquiry.

About the author ~ Ryan V. Stewart is a writer and student from Connecticut. He has been actively writing since 2006, and blogs about everything from mysticism and philosophy to environmental issues, the arts, and personal peeves at The Grand Tangent. He’s interested in the intersection of mysticism, comparative religion, and philosophical analysis (among other things). 

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Red Pine, trans. The Heart Sutra. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. Print.

Nagao, Gajin. Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications, 1992. Print.

“Paticca-samuppada.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ed. Anonymous. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. .

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure, beginning with research and study in Oakland, CA, then off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. He spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a historian-philosopher; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail that we have certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

So I’ll begin my tale here in my home city of Oakland, CA, where I begin my research and exploration into Douglass’s life and ideas, then off to the east coast of the United States I’ll go, from March 19th thru April 2nd! There, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

~ Listen to the podcast version of this series intro here or on iTunes

Here is the story of Frederick Douglass as I discover him:
Traveling Philosophy Series: Frederick Douglass Edition, Prologue, Oakland, CA
Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt
Frederick Douglass on the Constitution
Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist
Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites
Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 1
Frederick Douglass, Easton and St. Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 2
Frederick Douglass Havre de Grace and Philadelphia Sites
Frederick Douglass New York City Sites
Frederick Douglass New Bedford, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Boston Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn, Massachusetts Sites
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites
Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist & Descendant of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

More about Frederick Douglass:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, in Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Photobook: Frederick Douglass and Edinburgh, Old and New
O.P. Recommends: ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That: Frederick Douglass in Scotland’ by Andrea Baker for BBC Radio 4
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Originalist Interpretations of the United States Constitution
O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass’ Drunk History Episode
Say What? Frederick Douglass on Race Relations
Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Patrons of the Frederick Douglass series: RH Kennerly, Elizabeth Lenz, Alex Levin, Cory Argonti Cools, Bryan Kilgore, Michael Burke, Gaia So, Veronica Ruedrich, Blair Miller, Alex Black, Devin Cecil-Wishing, Roxanne and Fred Smalkin and family, and Jim Callahan and Nerissa Callahan-Stiles and family. ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

A Moral and Political Critique of Republican Primary Debate 2015 Arguments, Part 2

This is the third installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. So far, this series includes critique and commentary on selections from the second Republican debate and the first Democratic one.
As with the first two, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.
CNBC Republican presidential primary debate, October 28th 2015
The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, which is in turn as transcribed by the Federal News Service.

: Governor John Kasich, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Mr. Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Mrs. Carly Fiorina, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Rand Paul.
Moderators: Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, John Harwood, Sharon Epperson, Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer.

….HUCKABEE: …I’ll tell you what a weakness is of this country: there are a lot of people who are sick and tired because Washington does not play by the same rules that the American people have to play by.

Hear, hear. Let’s see if the candidates propose concrete reforms that will ensure everyone has to play by the same rules. And as long as we’re using the analogy of a game, let’s hope that if one of these candidates are successful, they’ll also try to make sure that everyone gets to start out with at least roughly equivalent equipment: access to the same information as to how the game is played, a ball that can hold air, a tennis racket with all its strings in place, a pair of athletic shoes with intact soles, so that they have a chance to successfully compete with those who grow up receiving the best equipment money can buy.

RUBIO: …I would begin by saying that I’m not sure it’s a weakness, but I do believe that I share a sense of optimism for America’s future that, today, is eroding from too many of our people. I think there’s a sense in this country today that somehow our best days are behind us. And that doesn’t have to be true. Our greatest days lie ahead if we are willing to do what it takes now…

Many on Rubio’s side of the aisle are convinced that such things as high taxes, possible (they say inevitable) future insolvency of the Medicare system, illegal immigration, and over-regulation are what’s mainly holding America back and making us feel pessimistic about the future. While some of this might be true and especially for some people, I suspect that the seeming hopelessness of reforming our political system, bought and paid for through crony capitalism, corruptive campaign finance laws, and the revolving door between Washington and Big Finance / Big Business, informs American pessimism more than anything else. In short, we no longer feel like the government is of, by, and for the people. There are a few leading Republicans once again paying lip service to the idea that government could actually be a noble and worthy institution if we reform it. Yet the idea that now pervades the Republican party, that government is little else than a necessary evil and an inherently oppressive busybody, does not help in the least to inspire confidence or a feeling of civic unity and national (not nationalistic!) pride.

CARSON: ….we’re talking about America for the people versus America for the government.

…aaand there goes Carson, chiming in with that anti-government rhetoric. Maybe if those seeking to lead that government would identify it with the people, and in a hopeful and confident manner, portray it as capable of reform and of doing good instead of wishing it were so small and weak that it could be ‘drowned in a bathtub’ (a charming little Grover Norquist-ism) Americans would be better served, and the promise of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights could be more fully realized.

FIORINA: But I also think that these are very serious times; 75 percent of the American people think the federal government is corrupt. I agree with them. And this big powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected…. Ours was intended to be a citizen government

Now that’s a good start. Now let’s see if you want to keep government big enough to actually be useful. Remember, we started out with a small, weak government under the Articles of Confederation, and that didn’t work out so well, to say the least.

CHRISTIE: I don’t see a lot of weakness on this stage, quite frankly. Where I see the weakness is in those three people that are left on the Democratic stage. You know, I see a socialist, an isolationist and a pessimist. And for the sake of me, I can’t figure out which one is which.

I’m halfway with him on the isolationist part, but not militarily: I’m referring to the economic isolationism of protectionism, which removes vital opportunities for the improvement of human lives and for the exchange of ideas. That’s my primary complaint about Bernie Sanders, who appears an extreme and unapologetic protectionist, which is a deal-breaker for me. But more on that when I return to the Democratic debates.

HARWOOD: … You [Kasich] said yesterday that you were hearing proposals that were just crazy from your colleagues. Who were you talking about?

KASICH: Well, I mean …to talk about we’re just gonna have a 10 percent tithe and that’s how we’re gonna fund the government? And we’re going to just fix everything with waste, fraud, and abuse? Or that we’re just going to be great? Or we’re going to ship 10 million Americans — or 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families?

Here, as in the previous debate, Kasich’s taking on the role of the realistic, practical, get-it-done politician, criticizing some of the extremist, crowd-pleasing, but impossible solutions offered by his rivals. Here, he’s challenging his fellow debaters to be responsible and accountable in their rhetoric, and to offer workable solutions, that hold up under scrutiny, for real problems, and not to pander to the reactionaries in the party.

FIORINA: Let me just say on taxes, how long have we been talking about tax reform in Washington, D.C.? …We now have a 73,000-page tax code. …There are loads of great ideas, great conservative ideas from wonderful think tanks about how to reform the tax code. The problem is we never get it done…

QUINTANILLA: You want to bring 70,000 pages to three?

FIORINA: That’s right, three pages …You know why three? Because only if it’s about three pages are you leveling the playing field between the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected who can hire the armies of lawyers and accountants and, yes, lobbyists to help them navigate their way through 73,000 pages.

Fiorina picks up on the analogy of the game here, and makes a very good point: if the tax code that everyone has to adhere to is too long and complex, it gives the wealthy an unfair advantage over average citizens who can’t afford to hire specialists to help navigate its requirements and discover obscure loopholes and tax breaks to take advantage of. Three pages sounds unrealistically short to me, and her claim that it’s now 73,000 pages sounds exaggerated, but her basic objection to the length and complexity of the current tax code is fair and reasonable. Our tax code should not automatically give any special advantages to the wealthy if we are truly dedicated to the principle of equal rights for all.

HARWOOD: ….[Governor Bush,] Ben Bernanke, who was appointed Fed chairman by your brother, recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given in to know- nothingism. Is that why you’re having a difficult time in this race?

BUSH: (inaudible), the great majority of Republicans and Americans believe in a hopeful future. They don’t believe in building walls and a pessimistic view of the future.

The Know-Nothings, later called the American Party, was a political party in the mid-1800’s centered around anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, pro-Protestant, nativist sentiments. While most mainstream Republicans might object to the comparison, it seems a fair one when leveled at many leaders of the Republican party prominently featured in the media today. For example, in response to the attacks in Paris, many leading Republicans predictably reacted with calls for an immediate halt in accepting Syrian refugees. They portray this as a common-sense, defensive policy to protect the American people from terrorists trying to sneak in among the refugees, but it appears to me that they’re jumping on this as they would any other excuse to keep Muslims and other non-white, non-wealthy, non-advanced-degree-holding people out. While it’s true that most terrorists around the world today are Muslim, it’s also true that the actual percentage of Muslims who actually are terrorists or who support terrorism is very small, that the Paris attacks were not carried out by Syrian nationals but by citizens of the E.U., and that the refugees they want to turn away are fleeing from the terrorists and other violent Islamist extremist groups. I compare keeping these refugees out, as I have compared deporting Mexican people who entered this country illegally to escape the drug war, to our old policy of keeping Jews out who were fleeing the Holocaust, forcing them to return at peril of their lives. If we really want to show the world a shining example of the nobility of our values and the strength of our commitment to them, I think we need to accept the risks that come with doing the right thing, and to do it anyway.

…. To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!