September 30, 2005

Remorse and Regret

There are two types of apology, and it is important to keep them separate yet recognise the importance of both. The first kind is the pure apology, in which someone expresses remorse at an action done. In this case, someone says that he or she would not have performed the action if given the chance again. The second kind of apology is sometimes called a "sham" apology, though they are very important. In this case, someone regrets the harm he or she has done to another, but still would not have acted differently. These different apologies express remorse and regret, respectively. Remorse is concerned with right versus wrong action, while regret is concerned with good versus bad consequences.

To be unbelievably simplistic for a moment, there is a different language used about actions and the consequences of actions. When making a decision, one weighs the consequences, both good and bad. The option that causes the most good and does the least bad is the right option (I told you I was being unbelievably simplistic; one may add moral goods in here so as to avoid utilitarianism). However, even though a decision may be the right decision, that is, it is the decision that is the best overall, that does not necessarily mean that it does not have bad consequences. As such, a decision may both be right and at the same time, have bad results.

There are different terms for what is felt in each of these cases. In the case where someone made the wrong decision, one expresses remorse. In this case, one often feels guilt, as one should have behaved differently. So, when one makes an apology, one is saying that he or she would not behave the same way if given the same opportunity. However, there is a lesser and still important apology. When one makes the right decision, but harms someone, one ought to feel regret for the outcome. One may still have acted the same way, but one feels compassion for others' suffering and regret for one's causal role in that pain. In this case, an apology expresses that regret.

Both kinds of apologies are important, but one must keep them separate. If one apologises in such a way that it sounds like one is expressing remorse when one is only expressing regret, one might get the response of, "So, would you do it again?". When the answer is "yes", one is likely to be greeted with anger and a charge of hypocricy. However, if one fails to apologise when one has caused harm, one comes across as cruel and perhaps even malicious. Expressing regret when performing a right action with bad results has the consequence of showing a lack of indifference and allowing the harmed party to feel less used.

How, then, should one apologise in an instance where someone has caused harm but would still have acted the same way? In these cases, the distinction between remorse and regret is very useful. We can show our concern for the feelings of others while not dishonestly saying we would have acted differently. In situations like breakups, firing employees and failing students, one may give an apology of regret that is not simply a sham apology.

September 27, 2005

On Jaywalking

I was rereading the Crito today, and I realised that the argument Socrates makes in this dialogue is one that is rarely taken seriously. Since everything that Socrates says is true (we must remember first principles), this is a problem. The argument from the Crito is that it is always unjust to harm the laws of one's country by breaking them, since one has made an agreement to follow those laws by living there. Therefore, even though Socrates did not in fact corrupt the youth, he was convicted by due proceess and it would be unjust for him to escape from prison. Socrates believed so strongly that one ought not to break the laws of one's country, that he allowed himself to be executed.

I compared this with our current approach to law. We usually don't agree in extreme cases like Socrates' that we ought to follow the law. Take the end of the film The Shawshank Redemption, for example. The situation in this film was similar to Socrates' situation: a man unjustly convicted has the opportunity to escape. Yet, in this film, we are cheering for the escapee. We do not even hold to Socrates' principle in trivial situations. Looking outside the window of the library here, I can see at least two people jaywalking. I jaywalk myself constantly. Rather than travel an extra half block to a streetlight, we will illegally run across the street. We are therefore unwilling to put in even a few seconds of effort to avoid doing what Socrates was willing to die rather than do.

I would suggest that our willingness to do willy-nilly what was a matter of life or death for Socrates is a result of our fears of unjust laws and that an absolute requirement to follow the prescriptions of law would require us to behave unjustly. Since we don't believe in an absolute duty to follow the law, we do not feel any obligation even (or perhaps especially) in trivial matters. However, I will examine two positions, by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King that seek to reconcile the absolute prohibition against breaking the law with an absolute prohibition to do injustice even when the law commands it. Both of them took being law-abiding very seriously.

Aquinas's argument stems from his belief that there are different strata of law. These strata are the eternal law (the will of God), the natural law (what leads to the natural good) and the positive law (laws promulgated by states). These laws are not "higher laws" that trump "lower laws", as though they are somehow in conflict. Rather, an analogy can be seen in a regimen prescribed by a doctor. The art of medicine is applied in a particular case to create a regimen for a given patient. So too the natural law is applied in a particular case to create a positive law for a given state. The positive law cannot be in conflict with the natural law, any more than a particular regimen can be in conflict with the art of medicine. Therefore, an apparent positive law that violates the natural law is not really a law, for the same reason that a regimen that does not aim at health is not really a regimen. As a result, any law that commands us to do something contrary to the natural law, such as murder people, is not really a positive law and can be disobeyed in good conscience.

King's argument is quite different, but he takes obedience to the law very seriously as well. In the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", he explains how civil disobedience is not, in fact, breaking the law. Law is not simply a command not to do something; it has a penalty attached. If it were simply a command, it would just be advice. Therefore, laws are not commands but conditional statements: "If you do x, then you will suffer penalty y". As a result, he argued, one is not breaking the law, if one is willing to accept the penalty accorded to the action by law. Nor is it enough to be willing to suffer the penalty if caught. One must openly commit the action so that the state may decide what to do. In time, if enough good people are willing to go to jail as a result of unjust laws, it will shame the state into change.

How, then should one apply this to a case like jaywalking? In Aquinas's model, a positive law is a real positive law so long as it does not violate the natural law. Therefore, unless a law is commanding us to do something unjust, like turn over our children to be sacrificed, it is a real positive law. Laws that are silly, like a prohibition on drinking or green hats, are real laws and must be obeyed. Further, jaywalking laws are not silly, and most of us would admit. A complete free-for-all of pedestrians would be hazardous both to themselves and to cars. In King's model, we are breaking the law against jaywalking, as we are committing the action with the intention of not getting caught or paying a fine. This is not civil disobedience, but just lawlessness.

Socrates, Aquinas and King all has the utmost respect for the law. Socrates was willing to die rather than escape from prison after a legitimate sentence of death, and King repeatedly went to prison in order to shame lawmakers into changing the laws. Next time, when there is a crosswalk only a few feet away, perhaps all of us, myself included, ought to be more conscious of their example.

September 20, 2005

The Great Euthyphro

Plato's character of Euthyphro does not receive much praise from scholars. I have seen him variously referred to as an "idiot", as "stupid" and as a "fool". Even Socrates' prosecutors, Anytus, Meletus and Lycon, do not usually receive such contempt. The assumption is that this prophet is being presented as a bumbling idiot by Plato and that any praise that Socrates gives him is purely ironic. This is seen as evidence of Platonic and Socratic contempt for religious inspiration. However, I would suggest that this interpretation is evidence for modern contempt for religious inspiration, not Platonic or Socratic contempt. Rather, the reference to Euthyphro in Cratylus 396d as the "great Euthyphro" and Socrates' request that Euthyphro become his teacher Euthyphro 5c are at least semi-serious. Nothing that Euthyphro does in the epynomous diologue portrays Euthyphro as a fool. Instead, Euthyphro is one of Socrates' most clever interlocutors, understanding Socrates' objections and correcting his own definitions intelligently. In the essay, I will go through the four definitions of hosiotes or "holiness" (usually translated as "piety") that Euthyphro provides and how each of his definitions is a natural clarification of his position.

The first definition of "holiness" that Euthyphro provides is "what I am doing", referring to his prosecution of his own father for murder. He believes this prosecution for murder is necessary, as murder incurs significant religious pollution (take, for instance, the plague in Oedipus Tyrannus). This is usually cited as evidence of Euthyphro's dimness, as an example is a spectacularly bad definition. However, three things must be said in Euthyphro's defence. First, Socrates' question is ambiguous in Greek. He asks what to hosion is, which is a neuter substantive use of the adjective hosios or "holy". This could mean "holiness", but could also mean "the holy thing". Second, given that the topic of discussion has been largely why Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father, interpreting the question to mean what is the holy thing to do in this instance is not only a possible but even the likely way of interpreting Socrates' question. Third, pointing to an instance when asked for a definition is not necessarily a sign of foolishness. If, for example, someone were to ask me what a cat is, and I happened to have a cat handy, I'd likely simply pick up the cat and say "this is a cat". If the person were then to clarify and ask for the Linnean classification, I would clarify, but that would not make a fool for first having grabbed an available feline.

Euthyphro's second and third definitions of "holiness" are "what is loved by the gods" and then "what is loved by all the gods". The clarification is required because polytheism includes gods who disagree with each other, at times violently (for example, the entire Iliad). Euthyphro quickly makes this clarification when challenged, but his use of the phrase is not a sign a stupidity. If a leader were to say his or her job was to "benefit the citizens", one would rightly point out that citizen's interests are often in conflict, so a clarification to "benefit most of the citizens" would not be a sign of a weak mind, but rather one who is willing to clarify the fuzziness of ordinary speech.

Euthyphro's third definition, that holiness is "what is loved by all the gods" is challenged with an argument from Euthyphro 10a-d that something holy "is not being loved by those who love it because it is something loved, but it is something loved because it is being loved by them". It includes a long argument about how things are being carried because someone is carrying them and they someone is not carrying them because they are being carried. I challenge anyone to follow this argument on a first pass. This argument is the toughest argument in the Euthyphro and Euthyphro follows it through without blinking. Aside from the keen intelligence Euthyphro shows in following Socrates' argument, his claim about piety is not the claim of a fool, even if it is incorrect. Socrates' argument here points to a weakness in "divine command"-type theories, but it is hardly a knockdown argument. If he is correct, there are several other definitions that would be incorrect. For example, one could not define "food" as "something that is eaten by people" or "fun" as "something that is enjoyed by people". Socrates' argument is an argument against all passive definitions whatsoever and cannot just be used arbitrarily when one wishes to argue against divine command theory.

Euthyphro's final definition runs into problems because he backs into his third definition again. He argues that holiness is justice toward the gods. Socrates points out that this definition ends up as the same definition. Doing justice towards someone is benefiting them and people love what benefits them. Therefore, one cannot know how to be holy without knowing what the gods love, which brings us back to definition three. That Euthyphro fell into this trap, though, is not a sign of foolishness. That a definition of justice would collapse into a definition of benefit is not immediately obvious, and Euthyphro again accepts defeat here. However, it is not an ignoble defeat, and hardly one that deserves the contempt usually foisted on him. It also leaves Plato with an "out", if you will, that will serve him elsewhere, as the holy is what benefits the gods. This is an active rather than a passive definition, and while it is empty, it is at least a start.

Euthyphro then leaves. Interestingly, the verb Euthyphro uses apienai which is to go (ienai) away (ap-). Since they are already at the courthouse and since Euthyphro has yet to press his indictment, it appears he is not going to press his indictment against his father after all. Diogenes Laertius confirms this in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Socrates persuades Euthyphro to abandon his indictment of his father. This gives us a final look at Euthyphro's character. Having been refuted, he undergoes a philosophical conversion. This is more than can be said for characters such as Alcibiades, Charmides and Critias, to name only a few. Throughout the dialogue, he appears as a keen dialectician, clever enough to quickly follow complex arguments, humble enough to abandon or correct positions when refuted, and inventive enough to provide new definitions in their place. Socrates' reference to Euthyphro as "the great Euthyphro" in the Cratylus may not be so ironic, after all.

September 13, 2005

Please and Thank You

In this essay, I intend to examine why it is that people in virtually all cultures have some variation on saying "please" and "thank you". Further, in most cultures it is considered rude not to say "please" and especially not to say "thank you". When social conventions have this sort of ubiquity, it is usually because they serve some important social function. "Please" or "thank you", like much of etiquette, are ways of preserving social status in cases that might otherwise threaten social status. In the case of "please" and "thank you", the terms mark that a gift or service is done freely and not as a result of compulsion.

In the case of "please" and "thank you", the convention arises from the dangerous position involved in any trade or gift. Often, those who have power over others are able to compel or threaten others into giving things or providing services to them. Therefore, when someone gives something to someone else, there is always the possible appearance that somehow that trade or gift was demanded of the person giving it. This is a direct threat to our status; if we do things because we are compelled, we are subordinate to those who compel us. God, for example, does not say "please". Further, it threatens to lower our status, as if we give to others who are not grateful, we appear willing to be treated as subordinates.

The terms "please" and "thank you" mark of the service or gift as a free service or gift. By this I mean free in the sense that it is not done by compulsion, not that it is done for no price. Therefore, when we say "please", we are saying that someone else is acting "at their pleasure" or freely. Literally, "please" is short for "may it please you...." When we say "thank you", we are saying that we are giving good thoughts for the other person, or holding the other person's desires in mind. "Thank" has the same etymological root as the word "think". Other languages do not have this exact etymological derivation, but the intention is usually the same, to point out that the gift or service is being given at the pleasure of the giver and not of the receiver. It is a mark that the gift or service is not a compelled gift and a sign of lower status, but is a free gift and a sign of comparable status.

"Please" and "thank you" are terms that help show others that we do not consider them as slaves or subordinates. By saying "please" and "thank you", we show others that we are concerned with their "pleasure" and that we are "thinking" of them. Using these terms, then, are very important. When other people help us they put themselves in a vulnerable position. By using these terms, we show that we do not consider them our inferiors.

September 9, 2005

Prayer and Magic

In his work On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates (or perhaps another doctor at Cos) argues against the use of magic in medicine. A large portion of magic in Hippocrates' time was magical, using potions, chants and charms. They were the largest competitors with Hippocrates for patients, and it was important the he discredit them, both for his own sake and for the patients'. He uses two main arguments, and this essay will deal mostly with the second. First, he argues that, if magic worked, it would be under human control and therefore part of nature. Therefore, the divine knowledge to which the magicians pretended would not be divine and therefore they are frauds. The second argument is the topic of this essay. He argues that magic is, in fact, not a sign of piety but is impious. Through magic, one attempts to control the gods, using various magical rites to invoke their power. However, to try to control the gods is impious; one may ask or pray for their help, but one should not try to force their hands.

The magical rites that Hippocrates was dealing with were what we would normally consider magic. There was the use of magical words that would drive out disease; these were not in the form of requests, but were invocations of a particular god's power. Further, there were magical objects that contained a portion of a god's power. Again, this power could be used by anyone with the object, and it was not a request. Finally, there were potions in which a portion of a god's power was mixed into a substance and could then be imbibed by a patient to be healed. In all of these cases, the magician used usually mysterious (occult or hidden) knowledge to harness the power of the gods. Hippocrates argued that all of these actions are impious actions, since they are attempts to control the gods.

Hippocrates hits here upon a tension in Greek religion. Do the sacrifices to the gods force the gods to help or to forgive the petitioner, or are they a gift, providing hope that the gods will help or forgive? The difficulty is raised again by Adeimantus in Republic Book II, where he claims that an unjust person can simply use his unjust gains to pay off the gods through sacrifice and be forgiven, so injustice is better. Hippocrates' response would be that a sacrifice made as a gift to the gods in hope of forgiveness would be pious, but a sacrifice made presuming that the god would forgive would be magic, and therefore impious. There may have even been some magicians who prayed rather than claimed to control the gods, but this was very rare.

Part of the difficulty lay in how personal the gods really were. If the gods were personal, then the gods should be asked for their help, and it would be impious to try to push them around. However, if the gods were impersonal and were really some sort of divine power, then they cannot be asked for anything, but there may be some way to access this power that would take the form of magic. Often, magic springs up where the personality of the gods or God is treated metaphorically or not recognised at all. Since there is no point in asking a force for anything, any access involved control rather than petition. In Greece, exactly how metaphorical the personalities of the deities were was always a matter of debate, and people turned toward either prayer or magic depending on their answers.

I will add one short qualification here. Revealed religion changes the distinction somewhat between prayer and magic. If God promises to do something when we ask or perform a certain ritual, it is not magic even though we can count on God responding. It is much like a buzzer used to summon a nurse. The buzzer does not force the nurse to come. Rather, he or she has promised to come when we push the buzzer. Therefore, when God makes specific promises, ("Whenever two or three...", "Anything you bind on Earth...", "Do this in memory of me...", etc.), one may count on those promises without slipping into magic. This allows for the possibility of sacramental grace, for example, while still remaining in the spirit of petition rather than control. One develops no more control over God than one would over the nurse.

Hippocrates' distinction can help us discover, then, whether something is a form of magic or of prayer. It is not the form of the rite, per se, by which one can make this determination. The main distinction is between something that is done to control God or something that is done to beseech God. For those who believe in a personal deity, one should note that anything done in order to force God to do one's bidding would be magic and impious.

September 2, 2005

Journalism and Rhetoric

In Plato's Gorgias, the character of Socrates poses a serious challenge to the possibility of a craft of rhetoric as a craft of speaking about anything. His claim is that the craft one uses when speaking about a subject is the same craft by which one understands the subject. Rhetoric is therefore redundant and dangerous. It is redundant because one does not need anything above and beyond the understanding of a craft to speak about the craft . It is dangerous because it enables one to pretend understanding of a craft, falsely persuade others that they now understand that craft, and encourage speakers to seek pleasure in the audience rather than understanding. Modern journalism contains many of the same properties of Ancient rhetoric. It too claims to be a craft of speaking about anything.

The debate begins with Socrates asking Gorgias what the craft of rhetoric is. Gorgias responds by saying that it is the greatest of all crafts. Of course, Socrates is unsatisfied with this answer, so he asks of what rhetoric is a craft. Gorgias claims that it is the craft that uses only speech, not manual labour. Here is where Socrates catches Gorgias. He points out mathematics and astronomy use only words, and they are the crafts used when speaking about numbers and stars. The deeper claim here is that the craft used when speaking about a subject is the same as the craft used when understanding the subject.

Gorgias concedes Socrates' claim that astronomy is the craft used when speaking knowledgeably about a subject. Gorgias attempts two separate parries here. The first is that he says that rhetoric enables the speaker to speak about a craft persuasively even without understanding it. He gives the example of helping his brother, a doctor, persuade a recalcitrant patient to undergo treatment. He boasts that, even though neither he nor the patient know medicine, he was able to speak more persuasively than the doctor. Perhaps realising he has conceded something rather shameful sounding, he then attempts a second argument. He argues that rhetoric's specific area of expertise is the just and the unjust. This is its proper subject, as there is no other craft associated with the just and the unjust as there is with stars, and it is the topic on which rhetors spend much of their time speaking.

The conversation breaks down here, as Gorgias believes everyone knows what justice is and Socrates believes it is a specialised craft. When Gorgias's young pupil, Polus, takes over, Socrates really lets him have it (Socrates here is the most caustic and agressive he appears in any Platonic dialogue; the nastiness here is striking). Socrates bluntly claims that rhetoric is not a craft and that rhetoric is to politics what pastry baking is to medicine. When doctors speak about medicine using their medical knowledge, they know about their subject and seek to impart at least some of that knowledge to their hearers. Rhetoric allows the ignorant to persuade the ignorant, or, at best, allows the knowledgeable to persuade the ignorant without actually making them any less ignorant. How do they do so? They do so by appealing to their emotions and, moreover, by pandering to their emotions. They try to associate their desired conclusion with positive emotions while trying to associate what they are trying to argue against with negative emotions. As such, they merely have a knack for creating pleasure in their hearers at the right things, like pastry bakers pretending to be doctors, hawking their wares as medicine while only selling what is pleasant.

Let us return, then, to journalism. Journalism has many features similar to rhetoric. Newspapers and television speak about any subject they believe will be of interest to the audience, and uses the same people to do so. Many of the people involved are trained in journalism, and not in the specific topics they discuss. Is it then even plausible to believe that journalists have expertise in every subject they discuss? Even in those cases where they may do so or they are quoting experts, are they imparting understanding to the audiences or just (true) opinions? A quick look at today's front section of the National Post speaks about military strategy, trade agreements, engineering, medicine, meteorology and flying helicopters. However, the authors of these articles are neither generals, economists, engineers, doctors, meteorologists nor pilots. If they do not understand the craft they are speaking of, no one can learn anything about the craft from them either.

Journalists do, however, focus on a specific type of subject, much as Gorgias did when his hand was forced over expertise. They will focus on politics, the area of the just and the unjust. A reader should ask, then, what specific qualifications journalism gives journalists to speak about the just and the unjust. Are they, for instance, special experts on what contitutes human happiness and how to provide it? Do they know how to distribute goods appropriately? Have they worked through hours of humiliating and painful dialectic in order to carefully draw moral distinctions? Have they given any serious study to politics or to ethics at all, or do they assume that justice and injustice are things that everyone knows? Instead, journalists have no special expertise to speak about justice and injustice, except that they know how to speak persuasively. This persuasion, like all persuasion, functions by giving emotional pleasure and associating it with the desired object. It is, as Socrates said, a form of pastry baking.

If this essay sounds a little caustic, I apologise. It is hard to reflect Socrates' argument without reflecting his tone. However, his claim is an utterly devastating one concerning how we form opinions. Without actually understanding a subject, we are easy prey to those who would help us form our opinions using our emotions. As a result, there will always be emotional pastry bakers out there pretending to be doctors. In Socrates' time, it was the rhetors, and in our time, it is the journalists.