What Does "Meaning" Mean?


The Tipping Point

There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do.

- Bill Watterson

One always has time enough, if one will apply it well.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Source: chass.ncsu.edu

by Malcolm Gladwell

A study done at a seminary in the 1970s had seminarians prepare a religious paper and deliver it as a speech in a conference hall in a nearby building.  The architects of the experiment made sure that as the seminarians were walking to the conference hall they would pass near a man writhing on the ground in pain.  The question was

Who would stop and help?

The experiment was set up with three variables.  First, all of the seminarians were given a questionnaire asking them why they had gone into the ministry.  Was it to help people?  Was it for spiritual and intellectual stimulation?  Second, some seminarians were told to prepare their paper on the story of the Good Samaritan, and to make it the subject of their speech.  Finally, some were told that they had to hurry, that they only had a very limited amount of time before they had to give their speech; others were told that theyhad lots of time.  Which variable would be most important in determining who would stop to help the man in pain?

The seminarians' stated reasons for being in the ministry didn't seem to have much impact on their behaviour as they passed the man.  Whether they had just studied the story of the Good Samaritan had no impact.  The only thing that really seemed to matter was whether the seminarians were in a hurry: those who were didn't stop.

Source: theatlantic.com 29 March 2000

Moral:  We'd all be nice guys if we just had the time.

Whose Life Would You Save?: Scientists Say Morality May Be Hardwired into Our Brains by Evolution

by Carl Zimmer

Dinner with a philosopher is never just dinner, even when it’s at an obscure Indian restaurant on a quiet side street in Princeton with a 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher.  Joshua Greene is a man who spends his days thinking about right and wrong and how we separate the two.  He has a particular fondness for moral paradoxes, which he collects the way some people collect snow globes.  "Let’s say you’re walking by a pond and there’s a drowning baby," Greene says, over chicken tikka masala.  "If you said, ‘I’ve just paid $200 for these shoes and the water would ruin them, so I won’t save the baby,’ you’d be an awful, horrible person.  But there are millions of children around the world in the same situation, where just a little money for medicine or food could save their lives.  And yet we don’t consider ourselves monsters for having this dinner rather than giving the money to Oxfam.  Why is that?"

Philosophers pose this sort of puzzle over dinner every day.  What’s unusual here is what Greene does next to sort out the conundrum.  He leaves the restaurant, walks down Nassau Street to the building that houses Princeton University’s psychology department, and says hello to graduate student volunteer Nishant Patel.  (Greene’s volunteers take part in his study anonymously; Patel is not his real name.)  They walk downstairs to the basement, where Patel dumps his keys and wallet and shoes in a basket.  Greene waves an airport metal-detector paddle up and down Patel’s legs, then guides him into an adjoining room dominated by a magnetic resonance imaging scanner.  The student lies down on a slab, and Greene closes a cagelike device over his head.  Pressing a button, Greene manœuvers Patel’s head into a massive doughnut-shaped magnet.  Greene goes back to the control room to calibrate the MRI, then begins to send Patel messages.  They are beamed into the scanner by a video projector and bounce off a mirror just above Patel’s nose.  Among the messages that Greene sends is the following dilemma, cribbed from the final episode of the TV series M*A*S*H: A group of villagers is hiding in a basement while enemy soldiers search the rooms above.  Suddenly, a baby among them starts to cry.  The villagers know that if the soldiers hear it they will come in and kill everyone.  "Is it appropriate," the message reads, "for you to smother your child in order to save yourself and the other villagers?"

As Patel ponders this question - and others like it - the MRI scans his brain, revealing crackling clusters of neurons.  Over the past 4 years, Greene has scanned dozens of people making these kinds of moral judgments.  What he has found can be unsettling.  Most of us would like to believe that when we say something is right or wrong, we are using our powers of reason alone.  But Greene argues that our emotions also play a powerful role in our moral judgments, triggering instinctive responses that are the product of millions of years of evolution.  "A lot of our deeply felt moral convictions may be quirks of our evolutionary history," he says.  Greene’s research has put him at the leading edge of a field so young it still lacks an official name.  Moral neuroscience?  Neuroethics?  Whatever you call it, the promise is profound.  "Some people in these experiments think we’re putting their soul under the microscope," Greene says, "and in a sense, that is what we’re doing."

The puzzle of moral judgments grabbed Greene’s attention when he was a philosophy major at Harvard University.  Most modern theories of moral reasoning, he learned, were powerfully shaped by one of two great philosophers: Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Kant believed that pure reason alone could lead us to moral truths.  Based on his own pure reasoning, for instance, he declared that it was wrong to use someone for your own ends and that it was right to act only according to principles that everyone could follow.  John Stuart Mill, by contrast, argued that the rules of right and wrong should above all else achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even though particular individuals might be worse off as a result.  (This approach became known as utilitarianism, based on the "utility" of a moral rule.)  "Kant puts what’s right before what’s good," says Greene.  "Mill puts what’s good before what’s right."

By the time Greene came to Princeton for graduate school in 1997, however, he had become dissatisfied with utilitarians and Kantians alike.  None of them could explain how moral judgments work in the real world.  Consider, for example, this thought experiment concocted by the philosophers Judith Jarvis Thompson and Philippa Foot: Imagine you’re at the wheel of a trolley and the brakes have failed.  You’re approaching a fork in the track at top speed.  On the left side, 5 rail workers are fixing the track.  On the right side, there is a single worker.  If you do nothing, the trolley will bear left and kill the 5 workers.  The only way to save 5 lives is to take the responsibility for changing the trolley’s path by hitting a switch.  Then you will kill one worker.  What would you do?  Now imagine that you are watching the runaway trolley from a footbridge.  This time there is no fork in the track. Instead, 5 workers are on it, facing certain death.  But you happen to be standing next to a big man.  If you sneak up on him and push him off the footbridge, he will fall to his death.  Because he is so big, he will stop the trolley.  Do you willfully kill one man, or do you allow 5 people to die?  Logically, the questions have similar answers.  Yet if you poll your friends, you’ll probably find that many more are willing to throw a switch than push someone off a bridge.  It is hard to explain why what seems right in one case can seem wrong in another.  Sometimes we act more like Kant and sometimes more like Mill.  "The trolley problem seemed to boil that conflict down to its essence," Greene says.  "If I could figure out how to make sense of that particular problem, I could make sense of the whole Kant-versus-Mill problem in ethics."

The crux of the matter, Greene decided, lay not in the logic of moral judgments but in the role our emotions play in forming them.  He began to explore the psychological studies of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume.  Hume argued that people call an act good not because they rationally determine it to be so but because it makes them feel good.  They call an act bad because it fills them with disgust.  Moral knowledge, Hume wrote, comes partly from an "immediate feeling and finer internal sense."

Moral instincts have deep roots, primatologists have found.  Last September, for instance, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal of Emory University reported that monkeys have a sense of fairness.  Brosnan and De Waal trained capuchin monkeys to take a pebble from them; if the monkeys gave the pebble back, they got a cucumber.  Then they ran the same experiment with two monkeys sitting in adjacent cages so that each could see the other.  One monkey still got a cucumber, but the other one got a grape - a tastier reward.  More than half the monkeys who got cucumbers balked at the exchange.  Sometimes they threw the cucumber at the researchers; sometimes they refused to give the pebble back.  Apparently, De Waal says, they realised that they weren’t being treated fairly.  In an earlier study, De Waal observed a colony of chimpanzees that got fed by their zookeeper only after they had all gathered in an enclosure.  One day, a few young chimps dallied outside for hours, leaving the rest to go hungry.  The next day, the other chimps attacked the stragglers, apparently to punish them for their selfishness.  The primates seemed capable of moral judgment without benefit of human reasoning.  "Chimps may be smart," Greene says.  "But they don’t read Kant."

The evolutionary origins of morality are easy to imagine in a social species.  A sense of fairness would have helped early primates cooperate.  A sense of disgust and anger at cheaters would have helped them avoid falling into squabbling.  As our ancestors became more self-aware and acquired language, they would transform those feelings into moral codes that they then taught their children.  This idea made a lot of sense to Greene.  For one thing, it showed how moral judgments can feel so real.  "We make moral judgments so automatically that we don’t really understand how they’re formed," he says.  It also offered a potential solution to the trolley problem: Although the two scenarios have similar outcomes, they trigger different circuits in the brain.  Killing someone with your bare hands would most likely have been recognised as immoral millions of years ago.  It summons ancient and overwhelmingly negative emotions - despite any good that may come of the killing.  It simply feels wrong.  Throwing a switch for a trolley, on the other hand, is not the sort of thing our ancestors confronted.  Cause and effect, in this case, are separated by a chain of machines and electrons, so they do not trigger a snap moral judgment.  Instead, we rely more on abstract reasoning - weighing costs and benefits, for example - to choose between right and wrong.  Or so Greene hypothesized.  When he arrived at Princeton, he had no way to look inside people’s brains.  Then in 1999, Greene learned that the university was building a brain-imaging centre.

he heart of the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior is an MRI scanner in the basement of Green Hall.  The scanner creates images of the brain by generating an intense magnetic field.  Some of the molecules in the brain line up with the field, and the scanner wiggles the field back and forth a few degrees.  As the molecules wiggle, they release radio waves.  By detecting the waves, the scanner can reconstruct the brain as well as detect where neurons are consuming oxygen - a sign of mental activity.  In two seconds, the centre’s scanner can pinpoint such activity down to a cubic millimetre - about the size of a peppercorn.  When neuroscientists first started scanning brains in the early 1990s, they studied the basic building blocks of thought, such as language, vision, and attention. But in recent years, they’ve also tried to understand how the brain works when people interact.  Humans turn out to have special neural networks that give them what many cognitive neuroscientists call social intelligence.  Some regions can respond to smiles, frowns, and other expressions in a tenth of a second.  Others help us get inside a person’s head and figure out intentions.  When neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen came to Princeton to head the centre, he hoped he could dedicate some time with the scanner to study the interaction between cognition and emotion.  Greene’s morality study was a perfect fit.  Working with Cohen and other scientists at the centre, Greene decided to compare how the brain responds to different questions.  He took the trolley problem as his starting point, then invented questions designed to place volunteers on a spectrum of moral judgment.  Some questions involved personal moral choices; some were impersonal but no less moral.  Others were utterly innocuous, such as deciding whether to take a train or a bus to work.  Greene could then peel away the brain’s general decision-making circuits and focus in on the neural patterns that differentiate personal from impersonal thought.

Some scenarios were awful, but Greene suspected people would make quick decisions about them.  Should you kill a friend’s sick father so he can collect on the insurance policy?  Of course not.  But other questions - like the one about the smothered baby - were as agonizing as they were gruesome.  Greene calls these doozies.  "If they weren’t creepy, we wouldn’t be doing our job," he says.  As Greene’s subjects mulled over his questions, the scanner measured the activity in their brains.  When all the questions had flashed before the volunteers, Greene was left with gigabytes of data, which then had to be mapped onto a picture of the brain.  "It’s not hard, like philosophy hard, but there are so many details to keep track of," he says.  When he was done, he experienced a "pitter-patter heartbeat moment."  Just as he had predicted, personal moral decisions tended to stimulate certain parts of the brain more than impersonal moral decisions.

The more people Greene scanned, the clearer the pattern became: Impersonal moral decisions (like whether to throw a switch on a trolley) triggered many of the same parts of the brain as nonmoral questions do (such as whether you should take the train or the bus to work).  Among the regions that became active was a patch on the surface of the brain near the temples.  This region, known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is vital for logical thinking.  Neuroscientists believe it helps keep track of several pieces of information at once so that they can be compared.  "We’re using our brains to make decisions about things that evolution hasn’t wired us up for," Greene says.

Personal moral questions lit up other areas.  One, located in the cleft of the brain behind the center of the forehead, plays a crucial role in understanding what other people are thinking or feeling.  A second, known as the superior temporal sulcus, is located just above the ear; it gathers information about people from the way they move their lips, eyes, and hands.  A third, made up of parts of two adjacent regions known as the posterior cingulate and the precuneus, becomes active when people feel strong emotions.  Greene suspects these regions are part of a neural network that produces the emotional instincts behind many of our moral judgments.  The superior temporal sulcus may help make us aware of others who would be harmed.  Mind reading lets us appreciate their suffering.  The precuneus may help trigger a negative feeling - an inarticulate sense, for example, that killing someone is plain wrong.

When Greene and his coworkers first began their study, not a single scan of the brain’s moral decision-making process had been published.  Now a number of other scientists are investigating the neural basis of morality, and their results are converging on some of the same ideas.  "The neuroanatomy seems to be coming together," Greene says. (See http://flatrock.org.nz/topics/society_culture/fair_game.htm for several examples.)  Another team of neuroscientists at Princeton, for instance, has pinpointed neural circuits that govern the sense of fairness.  Economists have known for a long time that humans, like capuchin monkeys, get annoyed to an irrational degree when they feel they’re getting shortchanged.  A classic example of this phenomenon crops up during the "ultimatum game," in which two players are given a chance to split some money.  One player proposes the split, and the other can accept or reject it - but if he rejects it, neither player gets anything.  If both players act in a purely rational way, as most economists assume people act, the game should have a predictable result.  The first player will offer the second the worst possible split, and the second will be obliged to accept it.  A little money, after all, is better than none.  But in experiment after experiment, players tend to offer something close to a 50-50 split.  Even more remarkably, when they offer significantly less than half, they’re often rejected.  The Princeton team (led by Alan Sanfey, now at the University of Arizona) sought to explain that rejection by having people play the ultimatum game while in the MRI scanner.  Their subjects always played the part of the responder.  In some cases the proposer was another person; in others it was a computer.  Sanfey found that unfair offers from human players - more than those from the computer - triggered pronounced reactions in a strip of the brain called the anterior insula.  Previous studies had shown that this area produces feelings of anger and disgust.  The stronger the response, Sanfey and his colleagues found, the more likely the subject would reject the offer.

Another way to study moral intuition is to look at brains that lack it.  James Blair at the National Institute of Mental Health has spent years performing psychological tests on criminal psychopaths.  He has found that they have some puzzling gaps in perception.  They can put themselves inside the heads of other people, for example, acknowledging that others feel fear or sadness.  But they have a hard time recognising fear or sadness, either on people’s faces or in their voices.  Blair says that the roots of criminal psychopathy can first be seen in childhood.  An abnormal level of neurotransmitters might make children less empathetic.  When most children see others get sad or angry, it disturbs them and makes them want to avoid acting in ways that provoke such reactions.  But budding psychopaths don’t perceive other people’s pain, so they don’t learn to rein in their violent outbreaks.

As Greene’s database grows, he can see more clearly how the brain’s intuitive and reasoning networks are activated. In most cases, one dominates the other.  Sometimes, though, they produce opposite responses of equal strength, and the brain has difficulty choosing between them.  Part of the evidence for this lies in the time it takes for Greene’s volunteers to answer his questions.  Impersonal moral ones and nonmoral ones tend to take about the same time to answer.  But when people decide that personally hurting or killing someone is appropriate, it takes them a long time to say yes - twice as long as saying no to these particular kinds of questions.  The brain’s emotional network says no, Greene’s brain scans show, and its reasoning network says yes.  When two areas of the brain come into conflict, researchers have found, an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, switches on to mediate between them.  Psychologists can trigger the ACC with a simple game called the Stroop test, in which people have to name the colour of a word.  If subjects are shown the word blue in red letters, for instance, their responses slow down and the ACC lights up.  "It’s the area of the brain that says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem here,’" Greene says.  Greene’s questions, it turns out, pose a sort of moral Stroop test.  In cases where people take a long time to answer agonising personal moral questions, the ACC becomes active.  "We predicted that we’d see this, and that’s what we got," he says.  Greene, in other words, may be exposing the biology of moral anguish.

Of course, not all people feel the same sort of moral anguish.  Nor do they all answer Greene’s questions the same way.  Some aren’t willing to push a man over a bridge, but others are.  Greene nicknames these two types the Kantians and the utilitarians.  As he takes more scans, he hopes to find patterns of brain activity that are unique to each group.  "This is what I’ve wanted to get at from the beginning," Greene says, "to understand what makes some people do some things and other people do other things."  Greene knows that his results can be disturbing: "People sometimes say to me, ‘If everyone believed what you say, the whole world would fall apart.’"  If right and wrong are nothing more than the instinctive firing of neurons, why bother being good?  But Greene insists the evidence coming from neuroimaging can’t be ignored.  "Once you understand someone’s behaviour on a sufficiently mechanical level, it’s very hard to look at them as evil," he says.  "You can look at them as dangerous; you can pity them.  But evil doesn’t exist on a neuronal level."

By the time Patel emerges from the scanner, rubbing his eyes, it’s past 11pm.  "I can try to print a copy of your brain now or e-mail it to you later," Greene says.  Patel looks at the image on the computer screen and decides to pass.  "This doesn’t feel like you?" Greene says with a sly smile.  "You’re not going to send this to your mom?"  Soon Greene and Patel, who is Indian, are talking about whether Indians and Americans might answer some moral questions differently.  All human societies share certain moral universals, such as fairness and sympathy.  But Greene argues that different cultures produce different kinds of moral intuition and different kinds of brains.  Indian morality, for instance, focuses more on matters of purity, whereas American morality focuses on individual autonomy.  Researchers such as Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, suggest that such differences shape a child’s brain at a relatively early age.  By the time we become adults, we’re wired with emotional responses that guide our judgments for the rest of our lives.

Many of the world’s great conflicts may be rooted in such neuronal differences, Greene says, which may explain why the conflicts seem so intractable.  "We have people who are talking past each other, thinking the other people are either incredibly dumb or willfully blind to what’s right in front of them," Greene says.  "It’s not just that people disagree; it’s that they have a hard time imagining how anyone could disagree on this point that seems so obvious."  Some people wonder how anyone could possibly tolerate abortion.  Others wonder how women could possibly go out in public without covering their faces.  The answer may be that their brains simply don’t work the same: Genes, culture, and personal experience have wired their moral circuitry in different patterns.

Greene hopes that research on the brain’s moral circuitry may ultimately help resolve some of these seemingly irresolvable disputes.  "When you have this understanding, you have a bit of distance between yourself and your gut reaction," he says.  "You may not abandon your core values, but it makes you a more reasonable person. Instead of saying, ‘I am right, and you are just nuts,’ you say, ‘This is what I care about, and we have a conflict of interest we have to work around.’"  Greene could go on - that’s what philosophers do - but he needs to switch back to being a neuroscientist. It’s already late, and Patel’s brain will take hours to decode.

Source: discover.com Discover Vol. 25 No. 04 | April 2004

Sample Philosophies

The philosopher Diogenes was sitting on a curbstone, eating bread and lentils for his supper.  He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king.  Said Aristippus, "If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils."  Said Diogenes, "Learn to live on lentils, and you will not have to cultivate the king."

- Louis I Newman

The Meaning of Life and Marxism

What would it mean to say that life has meaning or purpose?  Where does such meaning, if it exists at all, come from?  Obviously someone can believe that there are things in life that can give it a purpose or direction without necessarily thinking that our life in general has a purpose: that is, there can be purpose in life without there being a purpose of life that is beyond life.  Therefore, asking what the purpose of life is could be misleading.

What is the meaning of life?  Some philosophers say that life has meaning only insofar as it is fulfilled in belief in God.  Some deny that life has any meaning at all.  Others claim that the pursuit of happiness in this life is what gives life its meaning.  And still others say that the meaning of life consists in finding our true place in the universe, fulfilling ourselves by limiting our desires to what is appropriate for us.

bulletPessimism - Life has no meaning
bulletLeo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) argues that, given the inevitability of death, there is no rational justification for saying that life is meaningful.  Since philosophy cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the question of why we exist, we must renounce reason and can rely only on faith that there is something that makes our lives meaningful.  We realise that our lives are ultimately pointless, and we fear death because we know that we have no proof that there is anything after we die.  The more intelligent we are, the more we see life as a bad joke, an attempt to explain something that is finite to an incomprehensible infinite.  Even if there is a God, what difference should my puny little life make to him?  To say that God cares about us individually is wishful thinking, since it tries to relate the finite to the infinite (which cannot be done).  The best way to get through life is not to ask questions such as "why are we here?" because the answer (or lack thereof) will only makes us feel worse.
bulletArthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) argues that living is in vain.  The only time we think in terms of purposes or goals is when we are talking about that which we do not have or cannot achieve.  Even the activity of striving toward such goals is always painful.  We are often unaware of pleasant things, but we seem always to be aware of things that are painful - because painful and evil things are more real, more characteristic of the way the world really is.  We can easily point to those who are worse off than us, but have difficulty pointing to those who have it better.  Even if we achieve what we set out to do, our satisfaction is soon converted to boredom.  So either we are frustrated in pursuing what we do not have or bored with what we have.  We are constantly suffering for having committed the crime of being born, condemned to strive endlessly for more, never to be satisfied.
bulletHedonism/Epicureanism - The meaning of life consists in the pursuit and achievement of happiness.
Epicureanism (Epicurus, 342-270 BC and Lucretius, 95-55 BC) advised that the meaning of life is found in a pleasurable existence free from pain.  Getting what one desires is a dynamic pleasure, but dynamic pleasures are not as good as the static pleasures associated with being in a state of painless contemplation (without desire).  The best objects of desire should be those things that do not change.  Because pleasures are never as intense as pains, the aim of life is not to achieve pleasure as much as it is to avoid pain.  When we are confronted with pains over which we have no control, we should think about other things.  If this is impossible (as in the case of long-term, intense suffering), we should consider suicide.  One should avoid those things that cause fear (for example, death and thoughts about what will happen to us after death) because fear itself is evil.  At death, the atoms that make up who we are will simply form new combinations.  Our "selves" - linked as they are to our bodies - will not survive in some afterlife as the same personality, so there is nothing that could be called "us" that survives death which we need to fear.  Death is simply nothing, so it is nothing to fear: it is not painful or pleasurable; death is simply the end of sensation.  Recognition of this fact relieves us of the desire for immortality.

This focus on the material, this-worldly happiness of the individual is characteristic of many of the values prized in subsequent Western culture.  In much of modern society, the identification of how life is meaningful is based on whether someone is successful in terms of power, wealth, and prestige.  By focusing on an individual's accumulation of material possessions and property, modern answers to the question of the meaning of life emphasise "secular"concerns dealing with this world rather than some afterlife.  However, there are alternatives to the view that life has meaning only in terms of individualistic, materialistic, and secular values.

According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), human beings are naturally productive, sociable beings who find fulfillment and meaning in their lives through the free exercise of their natural powers.  They fulfill themselves through their creations, so that what they make is an expression of what they are.  Unless something perverts their efforts, their lives will have meaning in virtue of their productive, sociable activity.
For Marx, reality is concerned fundamentally with the material (especially economic) conditions of existence.  Without being able to survive physically, the question of whether life has any meaning does not make much sense.  In fact, the meaning of life makes sense only in such materialistic terms.  So it is important to think about life and meaning primarily in economic terms.  In fact, the economic structure of human existence determines all aspects of our lives, including our jobs, personal relations, laws, social values, politics, philosophy, art, and religion.
Even thinking about history requires that we think in terms of how economic forces clash with one another.  Such conflict is the result of what Marx's predecessor, G W F Hegel (1770-1831), calls a dialectic process.  The dialectic is a process whereby one force (a thesis) is opposed by its opposite (an antithesis) to produce a new way of thinking (the synthesis) which incorporates elements from both forces.  The synthesis itself then becomes a new thesis, with its own antithesis, generating a further synthesis, and the process goes on indefinitely.  Hegel describes this process as one in which mind thinks its object and then distinguishes itself from that object by means of reflecting on its own thought, but Marx says that such an account misses an important point - namely, that reality is fundamentally about material things, not mental or "ideal" things.
However, Marx adopts Hegel's model of the dialectic (in what is called dialectical materialism or historical materialism) to describe how history is the story of the conflict of the material conditions of existence.  According to Marx, conflict results from the clash between the daily experiences of the oppressed classes (the proletariat, property-less workers) and attempts by the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, property owners who profit from the labour of others) to justify its control of the material means of survival.
Where the material, economic conditions enhance their social, productive activities, human beings can lead meaningful lives.  Indeed, the economic system under which one lives determines not only one's economic status but also how one thinks and what one's social and political values are.  The modern concern for material wealth is not, therefore, a natural inclination.  It is a value that is created in our minds under a certain economic system, namely, capitalism.
According to Marx, people define themselves in terms of what they do or make.  When an economic system separates people from what they make or encourages people to think of themselves as individuals rather than as essentially social beings, that system is responsible for human alienation.  In capitalism, individuals are encouraged to think of themselves first as individuals and only second as members of a group.  They are encouraged to think of the products of their labour merely as something to be exchanged for other goods or services.  In a capitalist system, workers take little pride in their work because they do not own the products of their labour - the capitalist owns those products.  In capitalism, workers are thus alienated from the products of their labour - that is, they do not feel connected to what they have made and thus do not care about or take pride in the products of their work.  In addition, they are alienated from labour itself: that is, people resent having to work because they do not feel that they have any say-so in what they are doing and why, so they don't like going to work and think that their leisure time is the only time where they have a chance really to "be themselves."  In capitalism, the division of labour replaces craftsmen with unskilled, unsatisfied, and non-challenged labourers.  Furthermore, under capitalism people feel alienated from their natural "species-being" as workers and makers: the pleasure they take in producing something is lost, and instead people have to sell their labour - that is, sell (prostitute) themselves - in order to survive.  And finally, they are alienated from one another, from their sense of being socially and communally united to other workers, because they are forced to compete with other people rather than to cooperate with them.
Under a capitalist system, then, people cannot ultimately be happy because they are unable to do what fulfills them as persons.  Oh sure, they have lots of stuff, but material possessions can be lost or stolen; so they have to worry about protecting those possessions.  Plus, they have to worry about maintaining that level of material prosperity in order to deceive themselves that they are happy.  It is self-deception because they do not recognise how no amount of material possessions can replace what capitalism erases - namely, the sense of being content with producing that which fulfills us as members of a community.  Where an economic system such as capitalism alienates human beings from either the products of their labour, the work that defines them, or other human beings, they are bound to lead lives of frustration, boredom, and resentment.
In capitalism, the material, economic base of human activity includes the means of production (raw materials, factories, farms, shops, et cetera that are owned by private individuals), the forces of production (technology and knowledge), and the division of labour (the social relationships of production).  When one class of people controls the means, forces, and relationships of production, they control the structures of thought, law, religion, art, and the state.  The state is thus an element in the superstructure used by the ruling class (bourgeoisie) to maintain its domination over the rest of society (the proletariat).  By manipulating the foundations of social production, those in power create false needs or manufacture roducts that fail to satisfy real needs (for example, by making products that will not last very long, planned obsolescence) in order to guarantee profits for themselves.  Capitalism assumes that competition and the unequal distribution of wealth and power in society are not only acceptable but also natural and desirable.  In this way, material, economic conditions privilege the ideas of the ruling class, whose ways of organising ideas (or "ideology") become the means by which the culture identifies what thinking itself is.
As technology develops, shifts occur in the material base (including how individuals are defined as "specialists").  Out of such shifts emerges a new class of workers who resent being called simply workers.  Their demands and new-found power result in the State's taking control of the means of production in such a way that no one any longer privately owns the raw materials needed for survival: this is the socialist stage of the communist revolution.  After a while, there is no longer any need for the State to protect workers from exploitation by the former ruling class, since capitalists no longer control the means of production and thus cannot dictate ways of thinking.  At the point when individuals recognise how their interests coincide with the interests of the rest of society, the State simply dissolves into communities of conscientious individuals working toward communal goals.  This is true communism.
bulletWhy should we think that people are naturally social and inclined to work as Marx assumes?
Marx's reply:  They really are, it's just that we tend to view people through the eyes of an already alienated perspective.
bulletWhy should we think that working and creating are as important in defining natural human activities as thinking and even playing?
Marx's reply:  Thought and play are functions of production.  Besides, in a capitalist system, not everyone has the luxury to think and play.  Such activities should be available to all.
bulletWhy should the working class contain the goal of humanity?
Marx's reply:  It exemplifies the social impulse of humanity, not the push to isolate individuals from one another like the bourgeoisie.
bulletWhy should the interests of the individual be the same as those of the community?
Marx's reply:  Even asking the question raises a dichotomy (distinction) unimagined in a communal mentality.
bulletWhy resist democracy until after the revolution?
Marx's reply:  Before the revolution people buy into the false consciousness of alienated individuality.  Until people stop thinking of themselves, there will have to be a dictatorship of the proletariat.  When the communal mentality becomes commonplace, this dictatorship will simply dissolve.

Source: www-phil.tamu.edu

See also:

bulletBut Freedom to What? (further on in this section) - for a different view set forth by the late eminent philosopher Robert Nozick.  According to Thucydides, justice depends on equality of power to compel, and in fact the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.  But should that be so?

My objection with Marx's philosophy lies mainly with the comment "...the State simply dissolves..."  Pul-eeze.  Inject reality.

The Meaning of Life and Stoicism or Buddhism

Even though Epicurean hedonists emphasise the pursuit of pleasures in moderation, they do acknowledge that people can find meaning in life by satisfying only those desires that we can be assured will not cause pain or be associated with disappointment or frustration.  The hedonistic message, though, is clear: the meaning of life consists in fulfilling one's desires.

That same impulse toward the satisfaction of desire underlies the modern Western fascination with material things and individual, secular happiness.  Marx's criticism of capitalism indicates how the desire for wealth, power, and private property is the result of a false consciousness, a belief that what we really want is to be distinguished from other people in terms of our material possessions.  Instead of the selfish individualism that capitalists say is natural, Marxism emphasises a concern for others and shared ownership of property.

In the ancient world, the counterpart to Epicureanism is Stoicism.  Whereas the Epicureans say that, in order to live meaningful lives, people need to fulfill their moderate desires, the Stoics say that meaningful, happy lives are possible only when people restrain their inclinations to desire altogether.  According to the Stoics, disappointment and frustration occur only when we don't get what we desire; so the key to happiness is to curtail our desires.

Unbeknownst to the Stoics, that theme of restricting desires had already been developed in some detail in the doctrines of Buddhism.  Unlike Stoicism, though, Buddhism recommends that the meaning of life consists not in restricting desires so as to achieve happiness in this life; rather, the Buddhist claims that life has meaning only if it is understood as a mere stepping stone to an enlightenment in which the self escapes from worldly concerns.  And in contrast to Marxism, Buddhism does not suggest that the answer to possessive individualism lies in restructuring our secular economic systems.  Rather, it interprets the concentration on economic matters simply as yet another distraction from the real task at hand, namely, the need to stop wanting or desiring property (individual or communal) altogether.

Epicureanism, modern Western culture, and Marxism thus address issues regarding material possessions and the satisfaction of desires in ways that differ from Stoicism and Buddhism.  The former views suggest that life has meaning in terms of what we desire, the latter views suggest that life has meaning in virtue of our not desiring.  How this distinction is spelled out for Stoicism and Buddhism is what we turn to now.

bulletStoicism (Epictetus, 50-130 AD) proposes that my life is worthwhile and meaningful to the extent that I am happy, and I am happy only when I am not frustrated or disappointed.  But there are many things that I might desire (such as wealth, power, beauty, and health) over which I have little or no control; so I should refrain from such desires.  Since the only things I am totally in control of are my desires, I should desire only those things I are certain to get.  The easiest way to do that is to stop desiring altogether; that way, I will never be disappointed.  Frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness can occur only if I fail to get what I want, so the way to avoid them is not to want anything other than what I can be guaranteed to get.  Instead of pursuing happiness directly, I should pursue it indirectly by living in a way that acknowledges that some things are within my power and some are not.  I can control whether I am virtuous and whether I let the things over which I have no control (for example, death) bother me.  So if I want to be happy, I should do my best to do my duty and not to be disturbed by things I have no power over.
Doing my duty is acting in accord with nature: I should will what nature wills for me.  That way, I will always get what I want and thus be happy.  That means committing myself to my duty, not simply passively resigning myself to accept whatever happens.  I must will what happens as my own; I must become one with the will of the universe.
This last point is similar to an idea developed in the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita: we must practice self-discipline in restraining desire - this is called renunciation - and the motive of our actions should not be achieving what we desire, but doing our duty - this is called non-attachment.  To renounce desire means to stop doing what one does because one desires it.  To be non-attached means to abandon the effort to see our actions in terms of their fruits or products.  Human beings may not be able to exist without acting, but they certainly can stop thinking that they do what they do because it is what they desire.  That is what Eastern religions and philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism highlight.
bulletLike Marxism, Buddhism claims that the pursuit of wealth, power, and fame cannot ultimately give our lives meaning.  The desire of such things actually stands in the way of achieving happiness.  So we should do what we can to replace the Western conception of happiness (that is, one in which life has meaning in terms of the this-worldly, secular pursuit of material things that benefit us as individuals) with one that decreases our desires for such things.
The fundamental ideas of Buddhism were developed by Siddartha Gautama (563-483 BC), "the Enlightened One" (or "Buddha").  According to Buddhist thought, the pursuit of material success or indulgence in sensual pleasures and luxury, like the ("ascetic") life of self-denial, indicates an excessive concern for the things of this world.  Instead, we should recognise how such concerns characterise our existence as merely an episode in the "wheel of life."  Thinking in the scientific, analytical, and logical terms of Western philosophy turns the mind toward the world, and in doing so, it emphasises both how the world is fragmented and disconnected and how we are different from the world.  Such categories provide only an abstract and misleading picture of reality by portraying things as being different from one another (when, in fact, all things are really united).  Every person who defines himself or herself in this way through attention to things of this world is bound to it and is condemned to return to it in future lives (reincarnation).  So Western philosophy is certainly no aid (and, indeed, is a hindrance) in the pursuit of enlightenment.
True spiritual enlightenment occurs only when, after living many lifetimes, a person can escape from the endless toil of mundane (this-worldly) existence through living in accord with the universe.  The activity or life-force of the universe is called karma, according to which all events are related to one another as cause and effect and according to which all of our actions become means for determining our future lives.  Whenever we act, we set in motion a train of events that will ultimately rebound on us for good or evil.  Sometimes what seems to be an obstacle in one's life might actually be an opportunity to develop spiritually (that is, in ways that draw us away from concerns of this life).  In this way, good karma is that which moves us along our journey toward enlightenment by sometimes pushing us to do things which we otherwise would not have attempted.  Bad karma is caused by choices we make which distract us from such development.  When we make bad choices, we have to live with their consequences.
No repentance erases our disruption of the order of things; we simply have to get on with the rest of our lives and try to compensate for our introduction of bad karma into the universe.  Because we are free to advance spiritually in everything we do, we decide our fates: no one else is to blame.  There is no God who rewards or punishes us, who controls the universe, and who saves us despite our sins.  We decide through our actions how long we turn on the wheel of life and what those lives will be like.  In a sense, then, Buddhism is optimistic in suggesting that we can end the cycle of rebirth through making the right choices and living in accord with Buddha's teachings; but it (like existentialism) also places on us the heavy burden of responsibility.
The guide to spiritual development is contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.  According to the four noble truths, we can end suffering by recognising how
bulletlife always involves suffering;
bulletdesire for changing, material things such as pleasure, wealth, beauty, power, or fame is what causes suffering;
bulletperfection is possible only by ceasing to desire things that enhance our individual importance and status; in such a state of discontinued desire (nirvana), greed, hatred, and ignorance disappear in acknowledging our union with the universe;
bulletwe can lose our false desires, develop compassion and selfless love for others, and achieve a high level of spirituality through following the noble eightfold path.  The noble eightfold path includes
  1. follow the Buddha's teachings (examples: the noble truths, karma, rebirth);
  2. have good intentions (for example, to want to help others);
  3. speak truthfully and with respect, kindness, and courtesy;
  4. refrain from harm (including harm to animals), theft, indulgence, or emotions like anger or revenge that cloud our judgments;
  5. pursue professional careers honorably;
  6. develop character and purify feelings;
  7. develop skills in mental self-discipline through meditation;
  8. meditate only on those things that permit us to transcend ordinary consciousness.

Happiness is achieved, therefore, not when we fullfill all of our desires for material goods.  Rather, contentment is possible when we reduce our wants and needs, meditate, develop our minds, think of others, pursue wisdom, and control our desires.  This does not mean that we all have to become Buddhist monks.  It means that our lives become meaningful (in whatever we do) insofar as they are guided by Buddhist principles.
Objection: Buddhism overlooks the practical benefits brought about by the pursuit of (and belief in) scientific and this-worldly knowledge.

Source: www-phil.tamu.edu

The Meaning of Life and Gender

Recent research indicates that there are significant differences between masculine and feminine ways of resolving ethical dilemmas and experiencing reality.  Masculine patterns of thought are often understood as objective and logical, while feminine reasoning is described as subjective and intuitive.  To the extent that philosophical reflection has typically emphasised masculine ways of thinking, it overlooks the equally valuable feminine strategies of reasoning.

bulletAccording to William Perry, people progress through a series of attitudes toward knowledge:
  1. In the first stage (duality), they assume that every belief is either true or false and is learned passively from experts.
  2. In the second stage ( unacceptable multiplicity), they recognise that the "experts" don't always agree, so either one view must be correct (and all others wrong) or all views must be wrong.  (In these first two stages, a person still thinks that there is a correct (versus incorrect) answer and that the purpose of education is simply to learn the answers.)
  3. In the third stage ( acceptable multiplicity), people recognise how some questions might not have one right answer, and they think that everyone is justified in believing whatever he or she wants to believe about such questions.
  4. In the final stage ( relativism), we insist that opinions be justified by rational arguments which sometimes support conflicting explanations of the same event or phenomenon.
bulletSome feminist theorists (for example, Mary Field Belenky) argue, however, that Perry's developmental stages characterise how men think of knowledge but do not represent the progressive stages of knowing through which women pass.  They suggest that the stages for feminine cognitive development are as follows:
  1. As with the masculine model, the feminine model begins with passive acceptance of knowledge received from authorities.
  2. That stage is followed by subjective knowledge, in which a person assumes that there are right answers which are based on personal experience and intuition, not outside authorities.
  3. In the third stage, a person recognises that knowledge is objective and rational insofar as it is the result of procedures that either
    1. separate the knower from what is known by emphasising objective facts, impartial reason, critical thinking, and questioning of opposing positions, or
    2. connect the knower with other knowers through dialogue and discussion.

    Separate knowing is impersonal, adversarial, critical, and typically masculine.  Connected knowing relies on shared experiences, empathy, sensitivity, and extended personal contact based on acceptance and toleration of the feelings and ideas of others.  Both forms of procedural knowing seek accurate knowledge and understanding, but separate knowing does not consider feelings of empathy, trust, or personal relationships as significant in obtaining objective knowledge.

  4. In the fourth stage, a person combines the good qualities of the objective, scientific, and rational approach and the subjective, intuitive, emotional, and personal approach in constructed knowledge.  This synthesis assumes that all knowledge is constructed within a frame of reference or theory and that "facts" have meaning only within some context or point of view adopted by a knower.  In order to understand an answer to a question, we have to understand who asks it, why it is asked, and how it can be answered.  We must also identify with what we are trying to understand if we expect to comprehend it.
    [Note how this fourth stage requires that we approach the study of philosophers' ideas sympathetically, not searching for ways to show how they are wrong or contradictory, but looking for ways to think as they do.  This form of philosophising is not about learning facts about someone's positions; it is about learning to think in different ways.]
bulletIn contrast to the feminine model of thinking, the masculine model does not permit a place for intuition.  By emphasizing logic and the scientific method, it ignores the importance of personal experience and treats intuition as an inferior manner of knowing.  Furthermore, the masculine model seeks to make knowledge rational and objective by emphasizing the need for emotional detachment.  In feminine knowing, by contrast, the constructive knower tries to overcome such detachment in order to appreciate better the object of her study and her own presuppositions that might stand in the way of alternative ways of thinking.  In feminist epistemology, emotions are critical factors in achieving knowledge insofar as they guide our thoughts, focus our attention, and influence our observations.  Emotions do not stand in the way of achieving objective knowledge of reality as much as they help construct what we think of as the world.  People who are more in tune with how their emotions affect their thinking are thus more able to recognise how appeal to unquestionable "facts" might simply be a means by which those in power oppress others.

Source: www-phil.tamu.edu

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