Ethics Study Guide: Philosophy

Invitation to Philosophy

Welcome to the study of moral philosophy. For a brief description of what philosophy is, click here.

The Greek philosopher Plato offered a characterization of philosophy in his famous story of the Cave. Imagine a group of people who have been imprisoned in a Cave for their entire lives. They have never seen sunlight, nor have they ever seen any actual objects. They have only seen the shadows of objects, cast on the wall by a dim and flickering fire within the Cave. But since the Cave is the only world they have ever known, they mistake the shadows for the real things.

Now suppose that one of the inhabitants of the Cave manages to escape and make his way into the outside world. At first he will be blinded by the light of the sun and won’t be able to see anything. But gradually his eyes will adjust and he will see for the first time what the world really looks like. He will be seeing reality, not shadows. He will be free.

His first thought, perhaps, will be to rush back down into the Cave and try to help his fellow prisoners escape so that they, too, can share his newfound knowledge and his newfound freedom. But the prisoners resist his attempts to liberate them. They do not think of themselves as prisoners; to them the Cave is the universe and they know of no world outside of it. His talk of the sun and of real objects means nothing to them; they remain obsessed with the play of light and shadow on the Cave’s wall -- a delusion which they mistake for the true reality. When he tries to pull them up toward the entrance of the Cave, their approach toward the sunlight hurts their eyes and they refuse to follow him further. If he keeps insisting, they may decide that he is a dangerous loony and put him to death.

Plato’s Cave is a metaphor for the “world of appearances” -- that is, the way things seem to us before we have subjected our beliefs and ideas to critical examination. Plato thinks most of us spend most of our lives in the Cave -- never questioning our basic assumptions or investigating the implications and possible inconsistencies of our ordinary beliefs. The escape from the Cave represents the study of philosophy; and like the escape from the Cave, this study may involve confusion and difficulty -- a decrease in one’s clarity of vision -- in the short run, in order to deliver greater understanding in the long run. Hence the study of philosophy requires persistence and self-discipline. (The returned prisoner who is rejected and put to death by his fellows represents Socrates, Plato’s own teacher, who was sentenced to death by the people of Athens for his subversive practice of philosophy.)

Philosophy deals with the fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge, reality, and value. This subject matter is not unique to philosophy. Every culture has what is known as a wisdom tradition, expressing certain basic teachings about the universe and our place in it. What distinguishes philosophy from a wisdom tradition is its method: rational argument. Philosophy tends to emerge in cultures where there are competing wisdom traditions (so that people have to figure out for themselves which one to accept) and where no one tradition has sufficient political power to stamp out its rivals by force (so its adherents have to engage in persuasion). Philosophy does not take its own authority for granted. The only authority it can appeal to is the judgment of its audience. A philosopher cannot say “Believe me because I am wise.” A philosopher can only say “Believe me because I have shown that the beliefs you already have commit you to my conclusion.”

Philosophy is difficult. It requires the exercise of intellectual muscles that ordinary life -- including most of what is called “education” -- allows to remain flabby. But it offers a reward: escape from the Cave. Philosophy will not teach you what to think; but it will teach you how to think -- if you’re not afraid of the sunlight.

The reading for this course is difficult too -- especially for the victims of today’s educational system. Most people think they know how to read. But in most cases they are wrong about this. For a description of what reading involves, see the Richard Mitchell quote here. We wouldn’t say that someone knew how to drive a car if they could only drive around a deserted parking lot at 10 mph but couldn’t be relied on in actual traffic. Likewise, we shouldn’t say that someone can read if they can follow a newspaper op-ed but can’t read and understand, say, Plato’s Republic.

Philosophical writing cannot be understood by “skimming” to get the “main idea.” A piece of philosophical writing has an argumentative structure. Some claims are being used to support other claims. If you don’t discern the structure, you haven’t succeeded in reading the piece in question.

In this course we will be reading philosophical works composed over a period of two and a half thousand years. These are the works and ideas that have shaped the world as we know it today, so there is a great deal of historical value in reading them. You can’t understand today’s world unless you understand how it came about. (Analogy: you can’t understand what the second half of this sentence is saying unless you’ve also read the first half.)

But the value of these writers is not purely historical. It is, above all, philosophical. Philosophy is a conversation across the centuries. Current philosophical positions take shape as responses (favorable or unfavorable) to previous thinkers. Philosophers today still need to engage with the ideas of philosophers like Aristotle, Hobbes, and Kant. And the issues they wrestle with are the same as those that face us today: What kind of life should I live? What is the line between prudence and cowardice? What do I owe to others? to myself?

The readings are difficult, but as Norman Kretzmann, one of my professors when I was in graduate school, used to say: Because you are human beings, you have the same tool for understanding these works that the authors used in writing them: reason.

A tip on the reading: if you come across a word you don’t know, look it up. (If you don’t have a dictionary, get one. A student without a dictionary is like a mariner without a sextant.) Likewise, if you come across a word you think you know, but you can’t understand how the author is using it, then, once again, look it up. Most words have a number of meanings, of which you may know only one. (When King James II first saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, he called it “awful and artificial.” This was a compliment. Look up the words in your dictionary to see why. If your dictionary doesn’t show how this could be a compliment, you need a better dictionary.) For example, in the reading from Herodotus this week, it says that the queen showed no sign of intelligence. This does not mean that she appeared stupid. Intellectual ability is the most common meaning of “intelligence,” but not the only one. What does the word mean in this case? (Also, make sure you know how to pronounce words like “utilitarianism,” “existentialism,” and so forth.)

The Art of Argument

The method of philosophy is argument. In philosophy, an argument is not a dispute between two people. An argument is a set of reasons offered to support some claim. For an amusing Monty Python sketch dealing with these different senses of argument, click here. It is the customer, rather than Mr. Barnard, who has the correct philosophical conception of argument: Argument is an intellectual process. It's not just contradiction. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

The proposition you are trying to establish is the conclusion. The statements you offer as reasons for accepting the conclusion are the premises. A valid argument is one where if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. A sound argument is a valid argument all of whose premises are true. (We’ll go over this in class.)

Philosophical argument follows the method of dialectic. A dialectical argument is one that draws its premises from beliefs that its opponent is (or might be) willing (at least initially) to grant. Simply asserting one’s own position forcefully is not giving a philosophical argument. People sometimes say that anyone’s opinions are as good as anyone else’s, but of course that isn’t true. An unsupported opinion is of little philosophical value. One must give reasons to support one’s opinions -- and the reasons must be ones the other side could accept.

The Language of the Cave

Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?

This question is often posed as though a) the answer is obviously “nobody,” and b) the fact that the answer is “nobody” is a devastating objection to the entire enterprise of moral philosophy. But it is not clear what the question means. If it means “Who is the authority to whom we should all defer on moral questions?” then the answer may well be “nobody,” but that is no objection to moral philosophy; on the contrary, it is precisely in the absence of such an authority that philosophy is most needed. If instead the question means “Who is going to make the decision as to what to consider right and what to consider wrong?” then the answer is presumably not “nobody” but rather “us.” But then we need guidance in making that decision, and moral philosophy is what provides that guidance.

Philosophical disputes can never be settled.

If this means that neither side of a philosophical dispute can ever have a better argument than the other, it seems like a bizarre claim. Why should we suppose that the cases for the two sides will always be perfectly balanced?

If instead it means that neither side will ever win out over the other, then it’s even less plausible. Lots of philosophical disputes that raged in the past have now been resolved; why shouldn’t this process continue? Philosophers debated back and forth for centuries about whether slavery was morally legitimate. Now one side has won.

In any case, even if there will always be some people who disagree, that doesn’t mean that the dispute will never be settled. There are still some people who believe that the earth is flat, not round. But that doesn’t mean that the issue of the shape of the earth hasn’t been settled.

This is utopian and would never work in today’s society.

400 years ago people were saying this about the abolition of execution by slow public torture.
300 years ago people were saying this about democracy.
200 years ago people were saying this about the abolition of slavery.
100 years ago people were saying this about women’s right to vote and own property.
50 years ago people were saying this about civil rights.

Typical example from a student’s Fall 1999 final exam: Rawls and Nozick support their views on the inequality of wealth in different ways. They each support their view with evidence. There is not a right or a wrong view to the controversy of the inequality of wealth; it is all a matter of opinion.

An opinion or belief is a statement. A statement has to be either true or false; otherwise it’s not a statement. So an opinion has to be either right or wrong.

Maybe this student meant that moral sentences aren’t really statements, they’re just expressions of personal preference and taste and so cannot be true or false. If so, then this viewpoint, known as non-cognitivism, is a philosophical position that is itself controversial and in need of defense. (After all, they look like statements, so the burden of proof lies with those who claim they’re not.) Or maybe the student meant that there’s no way to tell whether a moral position is right or wrong. But moral skepticism is a controversial view too, which also requires defense. Don’t we tell by seeing which side has the best arguments?

Another typical example from a student’s Fall 1999 final exam: Who is to say Aristotle or Seneca is right or wrong? With philosophers you either agree with them or you don't. We all know that they won't change their minds. Aristotle and Seneca seem to have different viewpoints on this matter. They can talk until they’re blue in the face and neither would change his mind.

This is the kind of thing that makes philosophy professors tear their hair out. It means that this student had entirely missed the whole point of the previous ten weeks. Philosophers change their minds all the time in response to arguments from other philosophers. To say that people are never moved by philosophical argument is to say that the dicovery that one’s beliefs are inconsistent has no tendency to undermine those beliefs. This is not very plausible, to put it mildly.

Richard Mitchell: The Gift of Fire

Richard Mitchell would not consider his book a work of philosophy. Arguably, it is one anyway. However, it does not contain the sort of tight argumentation we will soon be examining in the dialogues of Plato. Still, it is a call to philosophy. The entire book can be seen as an attempt to waken people out of the cave, and as a defense of the Socratic approach to life. Thus it makes a useful introduction to Socrates, whom we’ll be studying next.

Study Questions

1. What contrast does Mitchell draw between Socrates and Jesus? And what is his criticism of this contrast? (Ch. 1)

2. What is Mitchell’s criticism of the passage he quotes about giving up slavery and cannibalism? (Ch. 3)

3. What does Mitchell mean in speaking of the head vs. the belly? (Ch. 3)

4. What does Mitchell mean in describing Jesus (like Socrates) as an educator leading people to self-knowledge? What, for Mitchell, is the point of the woman-taken-in-adultery example? (Ch. 4)

5. What does Mitchell mean about giving up war? How is it different from what the scientist he quoted earlier meant? (Ch. 4)

6. Why is Mitchell opposed to what he calls the split between Knowledge and Goodness? (Ch. 7)

7. What, for Mitchell, is the difference between a “train problem” and a “thoughtful inquiry into meaning”? (Ch. 7)

8. Who is Petronilla? And who is the Petronilla whose education is not a matter of chance? (Ch. 7)

9. In what sense, according to Mitchell, is politics the highest human calling? (Ch. 8)

10. What is it that causes Mitchell to feel despair about his students? And what is it that causes him to feel hope? [And what do you, as a student, think about what Mitchell is saying about students? Do you think most of your professors feel the same way?] (Ch. 8)

11. What is the point of Mitchell’s contrast between the story of the woman taken in adultery and the story of the princess and the frog? (Ch. 8)

12. What does Mitchell mean in saying that all we need is a good king? (Ch. 8)

13. What is the difference between education and training? (Ch. 10)

14. What is the point of Mitchell’s story of the priest? (Ch. 10)

15. What, according to Mitchell, do all warring factions have in common? (Ch. 12)

16. Why, according to Mitchell, is your mind in disorder if you don’t know what you mean by knowledge? (Ch. 12)

Herodotus: Histories excerpt

Herodotus, the first Greek historian, lived in the 5th century BCE and wrote a lengthy account of the wars between the Persian Empire and the independent Greek city-states. The word “history” derives from the title of his book, which originally meant “researches.” In the first volume of that work, he recounts some incidents in the history of Lydia, an ancient kingdom located in what is now Turkey. The stories of Gyges and Croesus are famous; the expression “rich as Croesus” derives from this story, and there is even a Cabernet (called “Creso”) named after him. As for Gyges, we will encounter him again when we read Plato’s Republic. Herodotus’ stories raise important questions about the nature of morality, happiness, and the relation between them.

Study Questions

1. How does the opening sentence of 1.5 connect with the stories of Gyges and Croesus?

2. Did Gyges do wrong in obeying the queen? Or was he justified in what he did, since it was the only way to avoid death? Are we justified in committing injustice if doing so is the only way to avoid suffering injustice? Does the Gyges story illustrate a conflict between morality and self-interest?

3. Why does Solon refuse to regard Croesus as the happiest of men? Is he right?

4. Does Solon mean that no life is a happy one until it is over, or only that we cannot tell whether a life is a happy one until it is over? Which (if either) should he mean?

5. Is it possible for you to be mistaken about whether you are happy? What does Solon mean by “happiness”? Is happiness (or well-being) the same thing as a certain kind of feeling?

6. Suppose Croesus had conquered Cyrus instead of being conquered by him. Would Croesus’ life then have counted as happy?

Robert Nozick: The Experience Machine

Robert Nozick is a contemporary philosopher who, in this passage, agrees with Solon about one thing at least: what makes one’s life count as a good one is not just a matter of how one feels right now. Nozick is trying to convince us, inter alia, that we care about more than how our experiences feel to us from the inside. (To put his point another way: what you don’t know can hurt you, even if you never know you’ve been hurt.) He does this by offering us a thought-experiment of a series of imaginary machines; he assumes that most people, upon reflecting about these machines, will feel that the machines would leave something valuable missing in life. In dialectical style, Nozick takes this (presumed) reaction on his audience’s part as a basis for arguing for certain conclusions about the nature of a good life. (We will return to Nozick later in the course, in the section on John Rawls.)

Study Questions

1. What is the Experience Machine?

2. What is the point of Nozick’s discussion of the “few moments of distress”?

3. Nozick offers three explanations for why we find the Experience Machine unsatuisfactory. What are they?

4. What is the Transformation Machine? Why does Nozick think we will find it unsatisfactory?

5. What is the Result Machine? Why does Nozick think we will find it unsatisfactory?

6. What implications does Nozick think his examples have for the question of animal rights?

7. Is Nozick right about any of this?

Ayn Rand: The Anti-Conceptual Mentality

Ayn Rand is a 20th-century philosopher whom we will be studying later on in the course. In this brief excerpt from her essay “The Missing Link,” she describes what she sees as a major source of hostility toward moral philosophy. Her description of the people she describes as having an “anti-conceptual mentality” is similar to Plato’s description of the people who refuse to leave the cave.

Study Questions

1. What is the anti-conceptual mentality?

2. How, according to Rand, does the anti-conceptual mentality arise?

3. Why does Rand claim that only the present is fully real to an anti-conceptual mentality?

4. What difference does Rand seem to have in mind between what she calls integration and association?

5. Why, according to Rand, does an anti-conceptual mentality find philosophy unpleasant or threatening?

6. Do you think her description is an accurate one? Do you know any anti-conceptual mentalities? (Are you one? Is your consciousness dissolving in fog right now?)

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