I did a thesis about a year ago, on lives as argument. I posted the first and last chapters, but the links somehow got lost, so here they are again. Download file">Chapter 1. Download file">Chapter 5.
The technology for giving people a truly good time is well understood: give them rest, regular food, something useful to do, a chance to reflect on and value their own lives, a context of mutual respect and encouragement, a beautiful setting. I just came back from a class built on these principles. It worked very, very well. Now we have the conversations with the returnees, about the less glorious parts of the lives they come back to.
It strikes me that this is where ethics starts -- in conversations about the kinds of spaces human beings can create and the kinds of spaces they habitually and normally create, the gulf between the two, and the options for those who have been brought to appreciate this difference.
We see, of course, partly through the eyes of hunter-gatherers. History is a blip compared to prehistory, in which some very basic reactions were selected out. We can’t discard that legacy, and we wouldn’t want to discard it if we could, because leaving this heritage behind would be leaving humanity behind, in any plausible sense of humanity. We are hunter-gatherers in a strange new world, and that we just have to live with.
So, to be educated is – in the first instance - to recapitulate that history. Oddly, education has come to be defined, through various accidents, as the recapitulation of other histories. In Plato’s day, educated young men recapitulated the Archaic Age, reading the Illiad. Jews in the First Century recapitulated the nomadic times. Christians recapitulate First Century Hellenistic culture. Liberally educated persons learn to recapitulate the rise and fall of Athens. All of these educations give students screens through which to read current realities. And then, as a second move, students need to correct those readings.
It is quite complicated, being human.
In Plato's Republic, someone asks whether a just person is better off than an unjust person. Socrates' reply: to create a context, an imaginary state, in which something like what the Greeks mean by justice comes naturally to people and makes sense in their lives. One might say cynically: "Plato has shown that just people are better off than unjust people in one imaginary context." But what we have to see is that Plato is setting up the frame for ethical thinking generally: in various contexts, various attitudes are natural, arise spontaneously. Sometimes, those attitudes are manifestly destructive. Sometimes those attitudes are creative and valuable. The moral question is twofold. (1) Can one invoke good attitudes in situations in which they do not arise spontaneously? (2) Can one produce enough of the right sort of context or environment to conjure up good attitudes, in situations which are overwhelmingly tending to produce destructive attitudes?
At minimum, The Republic suggests that the line between ethics and politics is very thin indeed.
People generally think that Jesus started out approaching the world as a moral thinker, working out of compassion (like the Buddha or Saint Francis) or out of a sense of justice (like Martin Luther King). I have been wondering seriously recently whether his starting point might have been logical, like that of say Zeno or Heracleitus, or Socrates on one reading of Socrates, or Ramanujan or Einstein, in contemporary times. Jesus had a very strong interest in a family of logical relationships such that it is proper to say, in one respect, "x is A" and, in another respect, "x is not-A." Consider: "the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (or capstone -- depending on the translation)." To put the thing in good form: "This stone is useless and this strone is the most useful in the whole building." If one looks at the sayings of Jesus, as culled by someone like Dominic Crossan from the mass of later embellishment, you find that pattern over and over again. Usually, the expression of the pattern is followed by a moral. What I want to know though, is whether the moral is part of the core idea, or whether the initial intuition is purely logical. An enlightening experiment: take any saying of Jesus and preface it with the words, "Isn't it intersting that...."
To speculate in this way is not to rule out the possibility that Jesus became a moral teacher. Other logicians have gone that direction: Socrates and Heracleitus surely did; Zeno didn't, so far as we know. Indeed it is likely that Jesus underwent several stages of development; those are surely hinted at in the gospels. What I want to suggest is that one reads the whole story very differently if one takes the initial intuition to be logical than if one takes the initial intuition to be moral. I am trying to work out the consequences of that idea.