Tuesday, June 15

Satori

 

Satori first arose as a quest to find GOD but later became synonymous with enlightenment. Wisdom in Zen Buddhism is facilitated by the use of Koans during meditation. Koans are paradoxical statements or parables or questions that need not have a logical answer. The idea is for the student to abandon any preconceived ideas and instead rely on intuitive responses from meditating about the question, paradox or parable to achieve an enlightened response. 

Although Buddhism is correctly regarded as non theistic nevertheless the quest for enlightenment might also be regarded as seeking to experience the unknowable as a quest to find GOD.    

In fact the conclusion that the absolute truth cannot be known remains true for the followers of all of the world’s great religions. The fact they are wrapped up in rational theology reveals a particular truth as seen from that perspective.

All religions express a particular truth, but from different perspectives to achieve a greater good in a universal collective consciousness. Understanding this perspective is essential for the future of religion.     

Thursday, June 10

Hume and Moore

Dr Gary Cox opens up G.E. Moore’s ethics, and his open question argument invites plenty of discussion as contained in the latest issue of Philosophy Now.

He introduces the idea in philosophy there are those who believe exclusively in the principle of the underlying facts to determine what is right or wrong and those who don’t. One of the foremost of thinkers with strong views against a sole reliance on the facts is David Hume (1711-1776).   A brief introduction is as follows:  

Hume’s position in ethics, which is based on his empiricist theory of the mind, is best known for asserting four theses:  Reason alone cannot be a motive to the will, but rather is the “slave of the passions”.  Moral distinctions are not derived from reason.  Moral distinctions are derived from the moral sentiments: feelings of approval (esteem, praise) and disapproval (blame) felt by spectators who contemplate a character trait or action. While some virtues and vices are natural, others, including justice, are artificial.

Cohon, Rachel, "Hume's Moral Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/hume-moral/>.

Hume introduces the idea of the naturalistic fallacy; based on a false assumption something that happens naturally must be ethical. An example is incest which occurs amongst animals but only brings feelings of repugnancy when observed amongst humans. In contrast acts of kindness and honesty stirs up our emotions that gain cognitive approval. Hence Hume argues morality is not simply a matter of reason but of approval communicated through the senses in accord with our desires and volition.  

Hume further notes there is no legitimate way to move from a statement of observable facts to a statement of moral values: in short, that it is impossible to get an ought from an is. This idea has come to be known as Hume’s Lawthe is-ought problem, or the is-ought gap. Page 25 April- May Philosophy Now 2021.

Interestingly enough Hume’s view on morality is similar to those of Frederick Nietzsche who considered it absurd to apply one moral code to everyone. In his essay entitled ‘Good and Evil’ Nietzsche talks about bad conscience where one is prone to inhibit instincts for aggression to turn them inward upon ourselves.

He wanted to return to antiquity and the free spirits of the Homeric Greeks. This is the old world of appeal because it relies on instinctiveness and an inherent freedom, of inner lights and life affirmation to exemplify the joyful here and now. It encompasses aristocratic ideals that are not subject to the mediocrity of democratic governance, nor the whims of others or societal pressure.        

However the question arises as to how practical is it to rely on this noble spirit and instinctiveness?

By instinctiveness Nietzsche doesn’t use the word as in nature. Rather, that which makes us human and allows us to intuitively avoid becoming slaves within one ideology. For Nietzsche personally there was also a crisis in his faith as he believed all religions were unable to provide the truth. That truth he believed was that it is the responsibility of humanity who must discern for themselves what is true and good. The point is of course such terms and his values are never clearly defined nor does he ever pinpoint any system of governance he envisages. Rather all we have is his vision of the overman and his accompanying works. 

 

But Cox introduces to a more practical application concerning the work of GE Moore (1873- 1958) who championed the work of Hume and aimed his criticism against moral system based on Hume’s naturalistic fallacy to argue against utilitarism.  The error Moore saw in the work of Utilitarian Philosophers such as Bentham and Mills was to equate pleasure with good.  Moore saw through such statements as open ended so that the answer always remains open to debate and can never be closed.    

 

Moore suggested an intuitive intellect or moral faculty that relate to human beings that inform us in relation to matters of ethics.

His views have held up over time and provides a valuable contributor to lively ongoing debates. I think they provide plenty of food for thought and discussion, He was to modify his views in later life that are summed up by Cox.

The beauty of a beautiful statue, painting, woman, man, house, bridge or mountain, requires a combination of natural properties, because without its natural properties the beautiful thing would not exist. However, the beauty of a thing is not one of its natural properties, but is instead a non-natural property that transcends the natural properties. In the same way, according to Moore, the non-natural property of goodness transcends the natural objects, emotions, actions, attitudes, and habits that we hold to be most valuable and broadly describe as ‘good’.

It is perhaps ironic that after developing to the full Hume’s insight vis-à-vis the naturalistic fallacy, Moore ends up endorsing a rather exotic metaphysics of non-natural properties existing in a supersensible dimension intuited by some higher intellectual faculty. Hume, who in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) condemns all metaphysical writings as

containing ‘nothing but sophistry and illusion’ which ought to be ‘consigned to the flames’, would not approve at all!

Towards the end of Principia Ethica, Moore advocates a variant of utilitarianism called ideal utilitarianism. Intrinsic value, he says, does not belong to pleasure or even to happiness, as classical utilitarians maintain, but to the consciousness of beauty and friendship. He argues that of all things in life, consciousness of beauty and consciousness of friendship are the most valuable, worth having purely for their own sakes and not merely for the sake of something else. These things are not synonymous with goodness, but they are the highest goods, in the sense of being the most valuable things in life and, therefore, the things that should be pursued and promoted above all else. Consciousness of beauty and consciousness of friendship are the ends to which all else should be a means.

Conclusion Page 26 Philosophy Now April / May 2021.

Conclusion

Mostly we don’t need a judge or the law to distinguish what is right or wrong accept that our views are also shaped by our culture and environment. I am not sure about a greater good but I do think his idea of the importance of consciousness of beauty and friendship rates highly (if not the top of the tree) in our existence. Even in the judicial world where hard evidence is cited as the persuader those facts are in turn swayed by our intuitive feelings at the time. Imagine trying someone for a very serious offence based purely on the facts so that one is left with no involvement with anyone other than to read the respective narratives and rebuttals.

Sunday, May 30

Free will and determinism

The perennial debate over free will and determinism of recent times has reignited interest as studies on the brain have suggested prior ideas of freedom of choices may be illusory. Rather than being truly responsible for your actions or choices it is suggested they are subject to waves of biological or metaphysical  determinism. I watched with interest the debate between Jordan Peterson, in favor of freewill and Sam Harris who entertains the possibility of unconscious brain activity predetermining those actions or choices. Both provided credible alternatives which suggested to me maybe they were both correct except in fact they were arguing from different perspectives. 
Ken Wilber provides an interesting solution under his integral style philosophy as per below.             

Saturday, May 22

Do we really desire Freedom?

The perennial philosophical debate between Determinism and freewill has never been satisfactorily resolved but Siobhan Lyons (January Edition of Philosophy Now) asks the question do we really desire freedom. 

The question concerning free will and liberty is mostly answered in the affirmative but I recall watching a program on incarceration where inmates didn’t want to face life outside. One confirmed he had deliberately staged an armed robbery in order to return to prison life. He waited around for the police to arrive to ensure arrest, subsequent conviction and a return to prison life. The dread of liberty curtailed when imprisoned doesn’t apply to everyone. For that particular individual the certainty of daily meals, a roof over your head and an ordered existence was vastly superior to the responsibility of existence outside. Similarly a poll at Berlin University found a majority preferred the prior communist rule in East Germany. We may like the idea of freedom but it carries with a responsibility that many don’t find appealing. Jean Paul Sartre, who believed in free will though it meant we undergo this dizzy realisation of a radical freedom. He expressed the idea of the self, before itself, was a nullity. What this means in his existential philosophy is he proposes an inner freedom of the self (our consciousness) which is free to decide what to think as we come into this world and to be free to pursue such subsequent actions as we encounter.         

Lyons similarly references the BBC America series Killing Eve, where Russian assassin Villanelle breaks out of jail with another inmate. Upon exiting the escape vehicle, the inmate appears anxious, and asks: “What should I do?” Villanelle replies: “I don’t know. Run. You’re free.” But the inmate simply replies: “I don’t want to be free.” Villanelle looks understandably perplexed. She has, after all, been struggling for freedom – from police, from employers, from obligations and from circumstances – all of her life. But her inmate’s response is not all that strange. Morgan Freeman’s character Red, in The Shawshank Redemption, gives us some insight into the experience of being institutionalised: “These walls are kind of funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

The important point to make is one lives a life as if we are free as otherwise one risks any motivation to make moral decisions. The law and our personal choices is also predicated on the basis we are free to choose.  Indeed on an even more basic perspective it can be perceived that the very act of believing in free will is to exercise your free will.     

The western Jewish Christian tradition was based on this premise and has its roots in St Paul. Freedom generally and more specifically from the Law was central to his philosophy that remains to this day.       

He is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all this and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things.

But in life it seems (according to Jean Paul Sartre) there is always a real risk of continually reverting to bad faith as we are covering up this frightening reality of a freedom to make choices. He suggests this bad faith arises every time we place reliance on some other convention or form of authority. In other words to allow others to make choices for us based on how you ought to live. He doesn’t accept there is a narrative to our life or that to find meaning to our life we need to go back to our roots. All of that kind of thinking for Sartre is in effect bad faith.

This is a somewhat bleak assessment in keeping with his atheistic perspective. However, I don’t think it is a very good argument for atheism. One can adopt a theistic or agnostic perspective so long as you accept that a cause did not interfere or influence our freedom or to make decisions embodied in the concept of free will. Bearing that in mind his philosophy might be described as the secularized version of Soren Kierkegaard.

In fact Lyons quotes Søren Kierkegaard who analysed the particular feelings associated with an awareness of freedom, arguing that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” (p.75). For Kierkegaard, freedom signifies a specific kind of anxiety, or dread, relating to the infinite number of possibilities presented to us by freedom. It compels dizziness. When we’re choosing what sort of milk to buy, what sort of career we might want, and to which destination we should travel, we are plagued by the burden of freedom. He wrote that “freedom now looks down into its own possibility and grabs hold of finiteness to support itself.” By this he means that we look for some way of mentally reducing the infinity of possibilities that present themselves to our choices.

Our anxiety also stems from the realisation that we have the capacity to ruin our lives by our decisions. Kierkegaard uses the Fall of Man as an example of this particular anxiety: knowing full well that he is forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam does so anyway, provoking his own downfall.

This anxiety relates to what the French call ‘ appel du vide’ – the ‘call of the void’ (nothing to do with apples). When looking down from a great height, or sitting in an exit row beside the door on a plane, some people feel the compulsion to jump or to pull the door open mid-flight, not because they are suicidal or eager to kill people, but just because they are curious about whether or not they are even capable of bringing about such an action – whether they are capable of disobeying their most primitive instincts of self-preservation and survival. This demonstrates the dizziness of freedom. They understand exactly what would happen, but they’re unsure of whether they could bring themselves to actually do it, to test the extent to which they are free. In other words, for Kierkegaard, our existential feeling of dread or anxiety is spurred by the knowledge of what we need to do to prove that we are free.

This thinking however seems at odds with Frederick Nietzsche who proposed the idea of a love a fate, presupposing determinism. The freedom he implies is how we live and react to our fate. Conclusion

The important point to make is one lives a life as if there is free will as otherwise one risks any motivation to make moral decisions.  

But for many the idea of freedom and having a dizzying number of choices is not desired.  A tonic of inevitability or to accept ones fate may be what some people end up adopting. After all do we really desire total freedom?      

Thursday, May 6

Persisting NOW

To persist is simply to exist… in the now.

Introduction

In the January 2020 edition of Philosophy Now an interesting article by Dustin Gray concludes that continuing to exist isn’t as simple as one might think. 

He asks the question as to what it means to say that we and other things persist through time.

Note he is talking about objects and living things, including human beings and not abstractions such as formulations in mathematics.    

A simple example he talks about is that of a filthy car whose dirt, grime and prolonged wear and tear renders it a far cry from its original sparkling new state. The question is as to what extent does the car (or anything for that matter) persist despite becoming barely recognizable? The argument goes as it maintains a degree of sameness, described as a concrete particular and mostly this proposition, is considered a matter of common sense.

Endurance & Perdurance

He discusses these two different ways of thinking about persisting through time.  

Endurantists maintain a sameness, claiming that at any one time an object or person remains a certain identity at any other time it exists. Hence the rusty old car always remains a car until it becomes scrap metal.   

Similarly ‘the John of today’ and ‘the John of yesterday’ are referring to one concrete particular whose spatial parts are wholly present at any given time throughout Jack’s existence. The endurantist claims an object’s spatial parts are the only genuine parts of it.

Perdurantism

In contrast, perdurantism claims that along with a thing’s spatial parts, it also has temporal parts. Perdurantists argue in addition of the 3 dimensions of space,  a 4th dimension of temporal parts exist; so that John yesterday, John today, and John tomorrow, are different parts of John.  

Its persistence through time consists of an aggregate of different temporal parts present at different times. The temporal parts are real as spatial parts: since temporal parts have properties – the property of ‘being John last week’. So, along with having spatial extension – the perdurantist will claim additional to the concrete particular is the temporal extension. By way of for example, John yesterday, John today and John tomorrow. There are also temporal parts of temporal parts- John this morning is a temporal part of John today.

He cites the example of the bearded John is an additional temporal parts of John, just as is John with a clean shave.

But all of this boils down to a rather elaborate explanation that doesn’t sound very convincing.

Another Possible Answer

Rather, Gray advocates the idea of presentism, which tells us that what is real is only what exists now. To the presentist the past and future simply don’t exist. Reality is not temporally extended. The present is the only real time. “To be real and to be present, the presentist wants to say, are one and the same thing”

In summary he finds no objections in giving a clear account of events that have transpired – with the fundamental qualification that those events no longer exist. At the same that applies to events that might take place in the future. Those events may be predicted, but they are not real, yet. Until an event is happening in the present moment, no degree of reality is ascribed to it by the presentist.

He gives an example of - ‘George Washington had false teeth’- whereas that expression could be verified as a true proposition. The presentist responds by saying that it’s a true proposition about conditions that used to exist but no longer do.

Conclusion

To describe events accurately, he asserts we must use accurate tenses, saying that events in the past existed and events in the future will exist. When we do so, his claim is that the only real time is now holds water, and he maintains it  miantains e other problems  nor abtract also effectively describe past and future events.

In that strictest sense, he points out we do not persist through time. The only real time is now, so I can do nothing but persist. Therefore, all that is necessary for me and other things to persist through time, is to be. To persist is simply to exist… in the now.

In fact I believe living in the Now’s, without past regrets is the key to living a good life. But what do you think?   


Friday, April 23

Phillip Island

Photos from our recent holiday inclusive of nearby Churchill Island. Cape Baron Geese roam freely throughout the island which is rich in wild life inclusive of wallabies, seal colonies and the Penguin Parade. It is only a 2 hour journey from Melbourne.   

  










Thursday, April 8

Space- The New Frontier.

 Introduction 

Exploration to principally satisfy our insatiable curiosity seems integral to our makeup. I think it is fair to say we cannot contain ourselves, so that it's just a matter of time before that translates into a full scale assault. Already there is no shortage of billionaires willing to underwrite the cost just as there are those willing to risk the long journey.  

 

Notwithstanding the known hostile environment to Mars, which is not going to resemble our blue planet, that spirit of adventure and insatiable curiosity is bound to prevail. Like the first pioneers of old who ventured into the unknown, they will need to take even more with them on the long journey to   Mars.

One can only imagine landing in a dust storm in the midst of a cold and desolate landscape, but the excitement of uniquely seeing something for the first time providing a temporary antidote. But with hardly any atmosphere, only a third of the earth’s grivitation one can also speculate as to how long that adrenaline rush will last. Surely the arduous task to survive and pressure to meticulously maintain support systems is going to exert pressure of a kind beyond what we can imagine from planet earth.     

 

Homo sapiens on the move again

In that respect one is reminded of our earliest pioneers, maybe in excess of 80,000 years ago, setting out from Africa, possibly prompted by severe climatic changes, but venturing on the great migratory journeys into what was then the unknown. No doubt lessons were learnt to narrowly avoid extinction according to anthropologists. One might speculate a new way of thinking ensured survival, to multiply and prosper over time. Later the aim became to conquer and then colonize the new world. Subsequently the aim was reinforced, except for some notable exceptions for those cut off geographically, to obtain more valuable resources and material possessions. This process was supercharged by subsequent discoveries resulting in technological advancements and the accumulation of wealth extracted from newly discovered territories. But as this process accelerated the prior ideas of the cosmos and stars that possibly guided the early pioneers, which came to be regarded as mythological bodies, have diminished. The ancient texts referenced such objects as metaphors for divine intervention. This has made way for the quest to conquer or explore the new world. But the question is will this be repeated once again in our intended colonization of planets? Is there a risk we will end chasing after shadows as no such other world exists? But could it also eventually lead to new discoveries in space that will engender a different type of thinking?

 

The quest for new discoveries  

On the journey of discovery both Voyager in her travels and the launch and deployment of the Hubble Telescope in 1990 has introduced to us a new kaleidoscope of colors present in the Cosmos that is quite beautiful and majestic. The exploration of Voyager from Earth since 1977 has also led to many discoveries such as the existence of active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon.

But that imagery may disguise in our minds the reality of the vastness of space and that black matter possibly represents most of the fabric of the mysterious cosmos. Those so called black holes, arising from collapsed stars, are so dense that no light cannot emerge and have been named a singularity. The idea of a singularity is a bit of a brain teaser, predicated on the concept that when something that has mass collapses, just as we know happens eventually to all stars, they shrink to something much smaller and dense, to white or brown dwarf stars. But should the original star have sufficient mass it can shrink to a very heavy neutron star or even have enough mass and it will not stop shrinking until its size is zero and its density infinite. It then becomes what we call a singularity and there are a lot of them. Not that our intrepid space travelers are ever likely to encounter one to be sucked into its vortex due to the fact  they are extremely small and because of the unimaginable vastness of space.

Singularities are known as black holes whose formation entertained the idea (because of the extreme forces and resultant warping) we may be able to travel along created so called worm holes to facilitate space travel vastly exceeding the speed of light. I don’t intend to elaborate on the theory as it is apparent you couldn’t survive. Even if that was theoretically possible we could be immediately zapped by the enormous amount of radiation present.

Physicists then turned their attention to string theory and other propositions suggesting string like wormholes were already formed in the early universe. But such holes were thought to be exceedingly unstable and prone to continual collapses under the forces of gravity. Scientists now propose this gravitational force can be overcome with the infusion of Anti-gravity. It is predicated on a hypothetical phenomenon of creating a place for this in the wormhole.

  

Fellow Space explorers 

 

Such ideas became rife in the late 1940’s with reported sightings of flying saucers or UFOs - unidentified flying objects whose sightings permeated culture to the extent they were even taken seriously by governments. They have been replaced by alien induction theories of one kind or another. What I think we can say is the idea of some other advanced form of life is equally as probable as it is improbable. Probable given the immensity of the cosmos where some of the light from stars seen by the Hubble telescope are 12 billion light years away. But equally improbable given the exactness and precision necessary over such a corresponding period for life to evolve as we know it on earth.

We are indeed a tiny blue speck that already has vanished from the camera’s present in Voyager. At this time she has only just moved out of our solar system into deep space where there are trillions of such systems to explore.  

But returning to my question will the new space frontier usher in a new way of thinking?

I trust my brief sketch aims at reminding us that we are a tiny blue yet wondrous spec in the universe which begs the question we must guard against any idea of self-importance. I like the idea of Carl Sagan included in the latest March edition of New Philosopher who proposes the idea that astronomy is inviting us to be more humble in our thinking. 

It has been said astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  To me it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

 

Conclusion 

One thing that stands out to me, namely in our solar system and the outer boundaries Voyager and Hubble seeks to discover, we appear to be all alone.

Furthermore, if we discover any remnants of past life on Mars it's likely to be a very early single cell type, given its current environment and the fact it’s taken about 12 billion years for us to evolve.

But when we get to Mars aren’t we likely to find the same problems re-emerge that existed back on earth?  

But is there a chance along the way we discover something new that fundamentally changes the way we think about things? 

Saturday, March 27

Our Unit

The picture above is taken from our new unit we purchased off the plan 2 years earlier and recently moved into. We are gradually acquiring furniture and starting to feel settled. 

The unit has exceeded our expectations and we already know all of the occupants on our top floor who are all extremely friendly.  

You might say I have an office with a view - but in reality you can see from the picture below it is just a desk, filing cabinet and printer located in a study nook. Immediately above us is the rooftop pool, spa and barbecue areas. As you can see we have views from the balcony, bedrooms and lounge room from the full length windows. 

Our unit is located in the new Yarra Bend development on what was once a very large site occupied by a paper mill. It will eventually become a new suburb with its own postcode and a range of homes, shops, restaurants, supermarkets, a retirement home, a wellness centre plus an a open air theater. The development is investing in  sustainable outcomes and solar power in excess of environmental  standards.     

There will be bicycle tracks all the way to the city and it is is a short stroll to the Yarra river and boathouse.  It is surrounded by parklands and green spaces but is only 6km to the city and our grandchildren in nearby suburbs. 

Further pictures below. 









Sunday, March 7

Plato’s ideal of monarchy and democracy

Introduction

Plato was an aristocrat who was the student of Socrates and is possibly best known for his epic dialogue entitled the Republic, considered a world literary masterpiece. The characters are Socrates and his brother in real life. 

Plato and his utopia

The first point to make is Plato never used the term utopia but rather he has been associated with the concept of presenting an ideal city that might be likened to a political utopia. Hence, many interpretations of his Republic assign his work to one presenting the idea of a political utopia- a polis (city state), claiming it must inevitably lead to totalitarianism and communism.

But Alfred Geir points out in an article published in ‘Philosophy Now’ it is not about the state of the state, as he sheds light on Plato’ s true quest. Rather he points out amongst other things, Plato wants to present a political justice system analogous to the concept of individual justice.  Grier notes in the ensuing dialogue Socrates says that the ideal polis would be possible only if philosophers become the rulers.

But rather than to continue to talk about the Republic my notes will cover his much later dialogues in ‘The Laws’.

The Laws was his last dialogue and outlines the political structure of an ideal city named Magnesia.

The concept here involves a legislative framework based on ensuring a city is one that can be enjoyed by its citizens, supported by education and governance by wise leaders based on virtuous principles. He references lessons learnt from the histories of Persia, Sparta, Crete, and Athens, to incorporate just laws and a moderate constitution. His idea involves principles taken from both a moderate democracy and monarchy.

What are these virtues and how do they work

The virtues outlined are courage, justice and moderation as a goal for the lawgivers to thereby achieve the citizens’ happiness. Plato assumes virtue is a prerequisite for happiness.  

This aim is to be accomplished from an ethical education, underpinned by rules predicated on just principles.  Plato believed education was the key prerequisite for the Athenian youth, who are to be trained in being able to feel pleasure, pain, and love and to even hate correctly, before they understand the reasons for such things. Education in the arts was also considered crucial and poets were to be compelled to teach only the good man can attain happiness.   

In this respect the Spartans and Cretans are considered praiseworthy for compelling poets to teach only the good man can be happy and for giving no attention to those that are bad. Hence, Plato asserts that the poet is to teach that living the good life is dependent upon virtue which results in the most pleasant, just and happiest existence possible. He doesn’t go on to express the need for punishment for those who would disregard this directive except for those who contravene impiety laws.

He calls for a state of orderly government, and likens corruption to the destructive power of ignorance. The lawgiver is therefore charged with the responsibility of ensuring justice is maintained and the city remains free and is governed under wise principles.  Plato realizes for such laws to be accepted they must be explained in terms of the benefits and reasons for their enactment which is talked about under the heading of preludes to the law.   

Constitution. 

The ideal is to combine the 2 forms of monarchy and democracy. By way of example he talks about the extreme monarchy in Persia contrasting to Athens’s advancement towards a moderate democracy. Hence the ideal is a moderation of both monarchy and democracy to ensure the state can prosper through wisdom but remain free.  

Formation

Plato draws the analogy of a good tyrant as far as it is necessary to create virtuous institutions. One who can imitate the rule of GOD by ordering a city to obedience and rationality, to call upon the immortal element of the soul, to appreciate the virtues resplendent in the regulations he called the law.

At that time the soul was considered a substance and Plato informs the citizens they are to honour their souls above all their other possessions, as their souls are their own most divine of all their possessions. To honour one’s soul then becomes the essence to follow a virtuous life to ensure one can enjoy good things.  

Likewise the body is also to be honoured by being engaged in a moderate state, as supportive of the good state of the soul; lastly we have money and property to also be held in moderation.

But there is some debate amongst scholars as to whether or not Plato believes human nature can support his noble quest embodied in his idea of the ideal city (Republic) so that some construed inconsistencies in the laws are thought to accept this limitation.

Institutions

Plato’s ideas on private and political institutions are demonstrated in relation to the city of Magnesia. Households have two plots of land: one close to the city and another near the border. The aim is to be equally productive and sufficient for a comfortable existence. The laws provide some flexibility in classes of assets for the top or first class can be worth up to three and four times the value of second and so on. But above these limits the assets will be confiscated by the city. Many were not citizens and there was also a sizable slave population and transient foreigners known as metics who may stay for twenty years and have limited rights. 

Political system

There is an Assembly, Council, magistrates who are guardians of the laws and the courts and the Nocturnal Council, elected by the lot owners.  

The Assembly is the principal electoral authority for the city; comprising a representation of all of its citizens via those who have served or are serving in the military.

The Assembly is responsible for the election of most of the city’s officers and magistrates and in judging offences against the public of awards of merit plus changing laws. There is provision for appeals in judiciary cases.

Preludes in the Laws

A significant part of the impetus for interpretations that see considerable differences between the Republic and the Laws comes from the presence in the latter of “preludes” to individual laws and to the lawcode as a whole that are available to all the citizens. In Plato’s own view, one of the most important innovations in the political theory of the Laws is the requirement that good lawgivers try to persuade the citizens and not simply issue commands to them by means of laws (Laws 722B5–C2). Plato compares the lawgiver in Magnesia to a free doctor treating free people. Slave doctors who treat other slaves merely give them orders and then rush off to other patients. Free doctors treating free people must explain to their patients the condition they have and the rationale for treatment before prescribing (Laws 722B–723B). In doing so, they will “educate” the patients and use “arguments that come close to philosophizing” (Laws 857C2–E5). Similarly, Plato thinks that the lawgiver in Magnesia should not merely issue legal commands: law without persuasion is condemned as mere force (722B).

Reference: Bobonich, Chris and Katherine Meadows, "Plato on utopia", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =< https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/plato-utopia/>.

Nocturnal Council”

The “Nocturnal Council” meets from dawn until sunrise and was assigned an educational function with an authority to impose sentences against those who contravened impiety laws due to ignorance. They were imprisoned for five years, during which time members meet to reform their beliefs by teaching.

Some philosophers think Plato intended the Nocturnal Council to be the principal political authority in line with the powers of the philosopher kings in the Republic.

Summing up    

Plato was the first philosopher to introduce the idea of an ideal city characterised as utopia and there have been many since to put forward alternatives. He certainly gives us plenty to think about especially in relation to living the good life and how that may lead to a more meaningful existence.   

We can ask the question what is justice and rather obviously conclude is it good for a person to be just? Plato asserts once one is able to understand it on a larger scale (from a political perspective) citizens will appreciate it on a personal basis. But is this true?  

The risk is his system; will it result in a totalitarian regime?  One might argue his analogous idea of a good tyrant ensuring virtuous principles are upheld is against democratic principles?  But is this just taking what he said out of context?  

Similarly the mere knowledge of virtue does not necessarily result in a person acting in a virtuous manner.

Ensuring poets and all works of culture, from plays to bedtime stories, are r to be approved dependent on them validating the good many would likewise argue is against basic democracy.  

Conclusion

His philosophy is enduring even after over two thousand years as it continues to impinge on our ideas today. Living the good life remains an appealing aspect.   

Tuesday, February 23

Is there a viable future for Democracy?

Introduction

By democracy we mean a system of governance where power is vested in the common people directly or through representation in elections. There are various forms arising from past associations such as a constitutional monarchy or a republic or other types or combinations but the overarching thematic is one where privileges or hereditary benefits don't generally apply.  Some systems of elections involve a first past the post methodology in voting whilst others such as Australia are representative so that preferences determine outcomes where there is no clear majority. In the US for instance there is a mixture of both.

There is also an assumed freedom that arises from the laws of a nation predicated on democratic principles or can be defined by a Bill of Rights. Conservative forces will easily recall times we can relish, when life was simpler and people looked out for one another, but outside of this veneer there also existed a subculture obscured from public view. For instance First Nations peoples and others were subject to institutional abuse which is now more widely acknowledged. Whilst some tentative steps have been taken to move forward in the healing process there emerges other pressing challenges in the current age that pose a threat to democracy.

Mass media and the rise in misinformation and conspiracies. 

What is evident is the mass misinformation from social media and the growth in popularised movements. One could equally point to past domination in the news such as the right wing Murdock Press. But the difference now is there is no longer any clear identity related to opinionated columns by an editor and staff beholden to a particular ideology.  

Rather, a social media bias can be the product of contrived popularity with Bots and the like that involve fictitious people to give credence to what otherwise would be rejected as erroneous minority views.         

For instance it is estimated that between 40- 50% of the population in the western world principally rely for their news and information based purely on social media platforms such as Facebook.  

The latter has demonstrated no desire to police their content or warn about rather obvious false information or to take any responsibility for conspiratorial and harmful posts that influence their followers. Only recently did they finally ban false claims by Trump. Trump himself had 40 million followers on Twitter and he was prone to issue up to 20 tweets on any given day. Even Right wing outlets such as Fox News towards the end of his presidency were at pains to disassociate themselves from his outlandish claims on Twitter.

The original ideals of such a platform to provide a social interaction has been superseded by such exponential growth that it has overshadowed a nation’s ability to ensure it operated in a democratic and fair minded manner.

A Facebook has allowed multi postings of conspiracy theories such as campaigns hell bent on attacking any institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases.

Many readers don’t realize or are uninterested in the rather obvious example of rigid stands that go against just about every scientist in the world and lack a healthy degree of scepticism that ensures critical thinking.

Many young people have in excess of 1000 friends and of course the anti-vaccine readers are only too keen to recirculate such postings on Facebook.   

Freedom

A democracy assumes a citizen’s freedom of expression within certain rules and their voice can be represented in a collective manner to raise issues in relation to private and public institutions. To reiterate this involves the extent to which citizens have or feel they have a say in the decision making process through their elected representatives.   

There also exists confusion between liberty and the extent to which the so-called common good takes precedence. Democracies by their nature assume they represent the aspirations, rights and majority rule of its citizens, but this inevitably boils down to a subjective moral question of what is fair and reasonable.

Recent concerns.

Daniel Blatt who is Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University writing in Democracy Now explains the threats to democracy in the world today. He cites growing authoritarianism in China, Russia, central Asia, and much of the Middle East. He also talks about democratic breakdown in Thailand, Venezuela plus backsliding in countries such as Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey which has triggered debates over whether we have entered a period of global democratic recession.

But even previous stalwarts such as the US have fallen prey to the likes of Donald Trump, just as growing anti -immigrant forces have swelled in Europe.

This raises the question as to whether or not liberal democracy around the world can survive.

It is hard to pinpoint the reasons but I believe fractured communication and lack of debate have become a product of the digital age. To reiterate, given the rise in social media platforms we have seen massive increases in conspiracy theories emerging from the period post the Coved pandemic. To further exasperate inequality the pandemic has shielded the better off sections of the community able to function effectively at home and on line.  The front line workers have mostly borne the brunt of reduced income and employment reductions. This trend was already evident as technological developments increasingly call for a better qualified workforce when there will always be large sectors not quite up to the intellectual challenges such a continued course inevitably requires. Disadvantaged and estranged sections of a nation will gravitate to a so called strong leader offering simplistic flawed slogans via Twitter that inevitably plead for additional power that overrides democratic principles.  Unless governments recognise this problem in the technological world we inhabit the threat to democracy can only gather pace.

Globalisation 

A feature of globalisation is that some large multinationals are prone to make false claims in relation to their businesses and the public acquiesce based on flawed analysis. A good example was the threat and subsequent actions by Amazon to boycott the Australian market if the GST rules were revised to impose the tax on it’s on line purchases by consumers. Prior to the recent amendments to the law, purchases of online products were not subject to the tax which was unfair in relation to the Australian suppliers who were required to pass on the tax to customers.

Large sectors of the Australian public also opposed the moves and spread misinformation principally on Facebook, to shore up their obvious reluctance to pay the GST. Particular individuals were targeted unfairly and characterised as greedy Capitalists when all they were proposing was to point out unfairness in the law as it applied to local firms.  

Eventually as the dust settled Amazon quietly re-entered the market and today we have additional tax flowing into government revenues. Similarly any corporation in Australia has a social obligation to operate in accordance with the laws governing its operations, particularly in relation to the spirit of that law. It is only of more recent times the taxation department has been successful in recovering large amounts of tax from contrived artificial arrangements designed to divert income from Australia to tax havens or low taxing regimes that foolishly operated in countries such as Ireland. 

The antidote to combat such measures involves cooperative agreements between countries in measures to uphold fairness and transparency. The action by a select few multinationals engaged in such obvious manipulations in contrivance of accounting standards undermines a lack of trust by its citizens in democratic governance. 

Social media and the digital age   

To reiterate we have seen exponential growth in on-line platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter plus their derivatives where Governments have been slow to provide a regulatory response. I have talked about their influence and the risks inherent in the spread of false information. Such platforms are only just starting to recognise the need for formal governance provisions.  

The risk extends to knowledge itself where algorithms are designed to give the same consistent answers which further risks undermining comprehensive analysis. Furthermore the massive information load and the use of bait to attract attention are leading to limited attention spans by this generation brought up on a Digital diet on instant information, which can be dominated by conspiracy theories. The more recent spat between Facebook and the Australian government over payment by Facebook for news content may become a catalyst for a long overdue review of regulation as to reasonable responsibility under the laws of a country. These companies have operated with power tightly held by their founders in ways that undermine democratic principles. 

A key factor then for capital markets in any democracy is to ensure its citizens enjoy enhanced outcomes based on ethical principles that ensure adequate disclosure. The question arises as to whether capitalism itself can achieve this outcome and the extent or otherwise it is subject to government control. A more fundamental question is to ask about its future.

What then is the Future of Capitalism which is currently inextricably tied to democracy?   

I more or less agree with the views of eminent economist and author Paul Collier, who proposes an ethical capitalism supported by values defined by practical logical reasoning. The situational facts and meanings surrounding his ideas provide a good starting point.   

However, his conclusion is hardly a new idea, but follows on from the ancient Greek philosophers who proposed that by leading a virtuous life (the good life) that in turn, ensured one lived an ethical purposeful life. They saw no end in sight, just a continual improvement throughout one’s life, which gave meaning to their existence. You might recall I talked about the golden mean arising from different discourses to end as a resolution to embody in their laws and system of governance. Humanity was seen by them as a political animal, so that issues had to be debated then resolved.       

What Collier is suggesting, in a nutshell, is an ethnically based system flexible enough to embrace the ever changing nature of existence and one which will avoid ceding control to vested or corrupting interests.

One might argue, to some extent, the framework to support such a system already exists in the United Nations charter to facilitate measurable sustainable development goals. In practice, accepting there are notable exceptions, capitalism is largely represented by a piecemeal approach, made up of weak values constrained by vested interests. The prevalence of greed and corruption is always a factor, but equally there are those willing to rally around a more just outcome to weed out corruption or greed in excessive price gouging. I don't accept the premise corruption is endemic to certain cultures, but rather it can be linked to forms of exploitation than can be eliminated more effectively in the dealings between enterprises and governments sharing an ongoing dialogue on ethical standards. Poorer countries may be constrained by a shortage of human capital to be more vulnerable to exploitation than more affluent countries.    

Consequently, the lack of a clear cultural vision for capitalism, continues to underwrite its malaise, notwithstanding some notable exceptions. This state of affairs contributes to the current unrest and the accompanying surge in popularization of simplistic solutions attempting to fill in the void.

To facilitate a new ethical face to capitalism will require a concentrated effort to not only make a more convincing case, but to examine the big ideas of the past to see what aspects might assist us identify current inherent weaknesses. 

The goal might seem an impossible task, given significant cultural differences, but I would regard such an approach as a continual work in progress, to reflect an ever changing world. 

An important dynamic ingredient is the inclusion of cultural differences within the framework of agreed ethical standards. This has the capacity to create a more meaningful existence as we increasingly become part of a global village, necessitating cultural exchanges. This requires an empathetic and imaginative approach which will remain an ongoing work in progress.          

Of course human nature points to the fact that any system will carry with it the seeds of failure, but to the extent to which capitalism is clearly deficient, one can envisage clear cut moves to focus on maintaining an egalitarian society, without having to dismantle the whole system.  

Collier asserts the moral basis for a utilitarian focus to posit a fairer system of governance pertinent to Keynes and Adam Smith’s ideas (against mercantilism) have lost their way to breed disillusionment to those who feel overlooked in modernity.

Collier wants us to more frequently ask our institutions  what are your values i.e. ‘what are the ethical foundations to this so called ethical state’, ethical firm’, ethical family etc. to represent the functional aspects to ensure fairness and equity for all of the stakeholders. In essence it has a socialist ring to it without inviting a wholesale dismantling of the current system of capitalism.

Hence I don’t want to confine the discussion just to business and institutional representation but rather more broadly to drill down into such aspects as the family and local small community groups.

In order to do justice to the topic, I believe it important to get an understanding of the works of Karl Marx who successfully predicted the inequalities and concentration of wealth that we now see are evident in capitalism. The atrocities associated with socialism and more importantly to Marxism have virtually nothing to do with his philosophy as they involve the inherent vested interest he rallied against in his critique of capitalism plus hideous crimes against humanity.    

Marx was profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel and concluded the opposing forces must eventually erupt if there is a prolonged imbalance, i.e., at a particular level of say a worker strike, this could lead to an untimely revolution once you build sufficient pressure within the capitalist system. The more desirable position then was embodied in his idea of socialism, which he saw as the naturally forming system that ceded authority to all those who worked under it.

In his social construct Marx thought that human liberation could only be achieved once the means of production were communally owned, and material equality for members of society were achieved. 

His ideas represented a fundamental shift in the prevailing worldview that supports our westernized system of capitalism. Personally, I don’t see any pressing need for any radical departure, but rather, to the extent progress can be made, we move towards a more ethnically based capitalist system. Certainly the ethically based funds management industry is taking steps to achieve this, as is a plethora of firms, in what remains a somewhat piecemeal approach. In any large organization today there is what is known as a governance executive, whose task is to ensure the organization conducts itself in a sustainable and ethical manner. The more recent failures in this regard have often exposed the fact that individuals' advice was ignored, in what was a cultural collapse in values. 

Returning to the Marxist philosophy, the idea of dialects also encourages one to recognize that everything is always in a state of flux so that the matter of ethics is dependent on an ongoing dynamic narrative that invites cultural exchanges and imagination.

Hence Marxism tends to invite two principal views; those who seek to demonstrate the triumph of global capitalism versus a growing number of people who are becoming increasingly concerned over inequality and lack of an environmental focus that such a system is prone to deliver. The former group will argue his ideas were false, whilst in the latter, there are those who are interested in his ideas. The reality is, of course, that the system of capitalism that existed in the extreme of Victorian capitalism was far different to that which has emerged in modernity, a construct of differing laws and practices within trading nations. But notwithstanding, his philosophy and economics provides a sharp focus on the alternatives to the present system and to the efficient operation of the invisible hand of the market proposed by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations.

The weakness in Marxism is that human nature is likely to react in the same way under either a system of capitalism or communism to ensure the accumulation of inequalities. 

However, historically Marx remains a significant philosopher whose ideas remain relevant as a talking point, to initiate philosophical enquiry into failures of the current capitalist system. That is to prompt enquiry on how it might be modified to ensure better outcomes. What we can say, at the outset, that some of his ideas have some rather obvious shortcomings.  However, it could be argued politically and in  economic terms they were never implemented in the manner envisaged by Marx, particularly in relation to Stalin’s purge, Mau and Pol Pot, who all laid claim to Marxism.

Furthermore many of his criticisms of Victorian capitalism have disappeared in a strict legal sense, whilst continuing to flourish outside of the law and in some countries.

In summary then we might ask the question: are we not seeing the end result today of what Marx prophesied?

Economics 

The problem with modern day economics is it has become beholden to more and more complicated elegant theories that in practice don’t allow for human nature that does not necessarily equate to rational outcomes, so that forecasts prove to be erroneous conclusions. There is also the abrogation of the responsibility to govern under the guise of libertarian ideals that attempt to assign responsibility to markets without safeguards to ensure regulations reflect community standards for fair and reasonable outcomes. In this respect economic policies to be effective need to be based upon objectives that entail measures aimed at maintaining full employment and ensuring a more egalitarian society in the most efficient allocation of resources. The world is increasingly becoming more and more of a global village and the extent to which ethical standards need to reflect a cooperative dialogue between nations has never been more important. In its most basic form economics aims at end the most efficient allocation of resources amongst competing wants determined on the basis of moral outcomes. This is how it originated and more than ever needs to maintain that human face so that its governance objectives are readily digestible to the broad population. The answer might be found in corporate social responsibility.

What is corporate social responsibility?

Corporate Social responsibility is an expectation that business is to be conducted in an ethical and sustainable manner on behalf of its stakeholders and the wider community. Ethics and sustainability are linked since sustainability in the environment and its preservation is a moral responsibility for this generation to pass on to future generations. It depends of course on a system of democratic governance that is included in legislative requirements.  

How could this be enacted in legislative provisions of the Companies Act and in regulatory regimes?

The most appropriate approach to responsible corporate behavior is to determine guiding descriptive principles, rather than to try and prescribe in detail a list of detailed obligations.

Prescriptive obligations create a compliance approach restricted to those obligations documented. Descriptive type principles on the other hand require imagination and are likely to lead to a more comprehensive review within the “Spirit of the Law”.

Corporate Social Responsibility – A suggested example of a guiding principle:

It is the responsibility of the Corporation, through its Directors and officers to ensure at all times it conducts its business in an ethical and sustainable manner. The Corporation shall include in its Corporate Governance provisions those core values considered necessary to uphold this principle in the conduct of its business. The Annual Report is to include a narrative with key indicators demonstrating its adherence to this principle.

What are the incentives or disincentives for a company to conduct its business in a socially responsible manner?

The incentives for a company to conduct its business in a socially responsible manner are evidenced in enhanced brand recognition and improved shareholder returns. This is achieved as the stakeholders and customers recognize a company’s values. Its reputation is thereby enhanced and ultimately the returns to shareholders. The disincentives arise from competitors who obtain short term advantage by unethical work practices. The latter type of activity is evidenced in secretive conduct where communication is restricted to its direct shareholders.


There is ample opportunity to improve communication with stakeholders by the Directors at Annual general Meetings where they report on the broader issues of their responsibilities under CSR.
At present reporting in Annual reports is characterized by a hap-hazard approach to Ethical business practice and sustainability. The two are seen as different. I would contend they are one in the same. The question of ethics is generally covered by comment on corporate governance which defines the rules for the Board, its composition and responsibilities.

Directors currently have sufficient power to make decisions in the best long term interests of the company, but it’s advisable that a general provision be included in the corporation law outlining their responsibility to maintain CSR aspects. Such a broad provision should be descriptive and not prescriptive to specify responses to different classes of stakeholders.

Conclusion

But as always, there are signs that nations manage to eventually heal themselves as the spirit of a particular age comes to grips with the threats to democracy. A rational way out is found by means of argument or by force, as tragic as that can be. There will be new initiatives and solutions. 

This is true in the fields of new communication channels, technology and artificial intelligence which can be a positive tool if adequate safeguards for human intervention and ethical outcomes are built into those systems. 

Currently I believe we are in a slave relationship in relation to technology but over time the human spirit I believe will gain ascendancy. 

This has always been true for civilisations with new discoveries and periods of confusion and strife intermingled with enlightenment.

As a half glass full optimist I remain convinced democracies will continue to evolve in a more positive manner in the future. But for the time being we are in the midst of a democratic recession.