On the Impossibility of Genuine Self-interest

The philosophy of Objectivism (created by the philosopher and author Ayn Rand) includes the idea that all actions and choices are ultimately motivated by self-interest; people do things for their own benefit, whether they realize it or not. One problem I have with this idea is that it rules out the possibility of any actions that are altruistic (selfless, or purely for another’s benefit).

I recently attended a conference where the presenter, C. Bradley Thompson, defended the philosophy of Objectivism. During a question and answer session, someone asked him, “What single philosophical idea do you believe has caused the most damage to human society?” He responded immediately and confidently, “Altruism.” He argues that human beings consistently forgo actions that are in their best individual and collective interests for the sake of an unobtainable ideal that usually does more harm than good. Mutual exchange, based upon mutual self-interest, does for more good in the world than encouraging free-loaders and laziness by giving valuable time and resources to those unwilling or unable to reciprocate. Continue reading

Levinas and Two Ways of Approaching the World

Emmanuel Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who lived from 1906 to 1995, and studied under some of the most influential thinkers in Europe. He later moved to France and authored one of the most exciting and original philosophies of the 20th Century. He lived for a time as a prisoner of war during World War 2. After the war he responded with force against what he saw as the movement of western philosophy.

In Contrast with Western Philosophy

What is Western philosophy? Western philosophy traces its ancestry to ancient Europe, to countries such as Greece and Rome. It is the philosophy that you and I are already familiar with. It permeates our thoughts, ideas, and even how we make sense of the world. In Western philosophy, truth is generally considered to be the unchanging, foundational principles of the Universe. Philosophy itself is thought to be the method of reducing the flux of everyday experience to a set of static principles. For Western philosophy, there is no loss in this “reduction,” because we are making the world intelligible, or reducing the chaos we find in experience to unchanging unity.

In simple terms, in order to be truth, it has to be true everywhere, all of the time. Mathematical abstractions are the perfect example of Western truth. The equation c2 = a2 + b2 seems to be true everywhere and everytime, regardless of the particular circumstances, and thus Pythagoras and subsequent Greek philosophers regarded it as truth. Thus, for Western thinking, all things that are dynamic, that are in motion, and that change can be accounted for by the few things that fundamentally do not change. The few things that are always the same govern or explain the many things that are in flux.

A perfect example of this Western way of thinking is Continue reading

Marriage, part 4: The sin of Sodom

This post is the fourth in a five-part series of posts about – you guessed it – marriage.

To sum up my argument so far, I began this series of posts discussing differences and why we ought to value them. I then discussed that teaching children to value difference in others begins in the home, where two parents of different descent love each other for their differences (not to say, also, their similarities). Previous to this post, I argued that married couples engage in what I called a ritual of difference, wherein they realize a full expression of the infinity of their relationship – made up in part of their differences – and are better situated to have charity for one another, as well as for others. I would like to turn now to the sin of Sodom and draw all three posts together. Continue reading

Marriage, part 3: Ritual of difference

This post is a continuation of a five-part series on Marriage. Access part one here; access part two here.

In the last post, I argued that teaching our children charity was facilitated by the love parents share in the face of differences. In being one body (one flesh), as Paul taught, we must embrace our differences – otherwise, where were the hearing?

In this post, I want to address a particular difference (or set of differences) which many married couples experience on a regular basis. I’m talking in particular about “knowing” one another in the biblical sense (e.g., “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…“). I am not trying to be coy about using the word “sex.” For my purposes, I feel that knowing is the most appropriate word.

Continue reading

Conviction by Invitation

[This is a “reprint” of part 3 of a series I posted on my home blog, www.ldsphilosopher.com]

In a previous post, I presented Oakeshott’s view of rationality as the capacity to form interpretations of and responses to experience. In another post, I described ways in which the movie Contact provides an excellent example of this. In this post, I will explore a little deeper how Ellie’s experience in the movie illustrates Oakeshott’s point. I would recommend that those who haven’t read either of these two posts do so here: Rationality Redefined; Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact.

Interpreting Experience

There were several ways to interpret Ellie’s reported experience. The committee chairman interpreted the entire experience as a delusion: Ellie, a young woman starved for contact with her long deceased father, created the experience in her mind to ease her loneliness and sorrow; the entire project was a hoax developed by an eccentric personality who had for a long time been influencing Ellie’s life and research.

Ellie, although she admitted that the chairman’s interpretation seemed more likely than her own, chose to interpret the experience as an interaction with an alien intelligence that wished to learn about the human race. She chose to interpret the experience this way because this Continue reading

Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact

[This is a “reprint’ of part 2 of a series I posted on my home blog, www.ldsphilosopher.com]

One of my favorite movies is Contact, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan. One reason I like it is that it makes such important statements about how we come to know things. (Spoiler alert: Those who haven’t seen the movie and would not like the plot spoiled for them should not read this post.)

Ellie Arroway and her friend Palmer Joss discuss the meaning of religious experience.

One of my favorite movies is Contact, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan. One reason I like it is that it makes such important statements about how we come to know things. (Spoiler alert: Those who haven’t seen the movie and would not like the plot spoiled for them should not read this post.)

The movie is about a woman named Eleanor Arroway (Ellie, played by Jodi Foster), who is an astronomer working for the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She scans the stars using radio telescopes, looking for radio signals from other planets that may be communications from intelligent life outside the solar system.

Traditional Empiricism

Ellie is an atheist (or at best, an agnostic); she does not find any compelling evidence to believe in God. She refuses to believe in anything unless it can be demonstrated to her scientifically. She does not feel that there is enough evidence to warrant belief in a Supreme Being.

Ellie befriends a man named Palmer Joss, who is a theologian and a humanitarian specialist who writes books about the lack of meaning in our lives. He finds it remarkable that despite an increased standard of living and incredible technology, we Continue reading

Rationality Redefined

[This is a “reprint” of part 1 of a series I posted on my home blog, ldsphilosopher.com]

Early Greek philosophers saw reason as the conduit through which human beings could access the unchanging certainties of the cosmos. This perspective actually makes some sense. We may age, wither, and die, but the Pythagorean theorem remains unchanged through time. The conclusions of rational thought were seen as the bedrock truths at the bottom of our swiftly changing world.

This understanding of human reason implies that rational people will converge on the same ideas. An interesting, subtle, but extremely important side effect of this point of view is expressed aptly by John Locke: “All that is voluntary in our knowledge, is the employing or withholding any of our [rational] faculties. … But they being employed, our will hath no power to determine the knowledge of the mind one way or another.” Thus, the conclusions of rational thought are inevitable.

Modern philosophers have, to some extent, rejected this ancient perspective on rationality. Instead, reason has been seen as Continue reading