“Reason as our guide”

“We may take Fancy for a companion, but must follow Reason as our guide,” said

Samuel Johnson, pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Samuel Johnson. I read this at the front of an introductory logic book I bought over my last Christmas break. I Googled the quote and found the rest of it on a website of Samuel Johnson sound bites. According to the site, Johnson wrote it in a letter to his stalker-biographer James Boswell.

I base my moral code on reason. That’s how my mind operates. I want to act in a way I can justify with a little more resolve than the tepid assertion an action “felt right.” To put it bluntly, I think the “right” thing to do is the logical thing to do. A deeper moral code underlies this, firmly based in compassion: reduce the suffering of others. Moreover,  I adhere to the “spirit” of the law, rather than the law itself.

An example illustrates this. I choose not to kill. Most  people consider this reasonable: killing creates suffering, eliminates chances for agents to act according their will, and determines their entire future without clear consent. It also prevents future joys for them. But should one never kill?  Zen master John Daido Roshi has an example to test the spirit of this precept. If a deer is suffering on the side of the road and I have the power to “put it out of its misery,” I will. I want to reduce its suffering, and if I flee the scene, most likely I’m just being squeamish, not trying to preserve its life.  Although I’m killing the deer, I’m fulfilling the original point of the precept: reduce suffering. The same is true of lying. I’d never tell the complete truth if I knew it could endanger many lives. My intention remains the same: despite fear or desires, I want to maximize compassion.

Many would term this “compassion ethics,” a generic form of Buddhist ethics. Agents under this system long to reduce suffering in the world. I use logic to apply this general sentiment to my actions. Thus, since anger is rarely logical, I avoid anger. Same for excessive sadness or passion. All these lead to suffering,so I reduce them. Reason is my guide.

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Backyard Philosophy

This is a blog about “backyard philosophy,” a name I made up one day in the shower. But I confess I stole it from Aristotle. Adrift in the boundless arguments and counter-arguments in his Metaphysics, I found a passage about philosophy’s humble birth. From its words, I’ve crafted my worldview and bound up my hopes. Although it’s a bit dense, I want to copy the complete passage here:

That it is not a productive science is clear from a consideration of the first philosophers. It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, or about the stars and about the origin of the universe. Now, he who wonders and is perplexed feels that he is ignorant (thus, the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders); therefore it was to escape ignorance that men studied philosophy, it is obvious that they pursued science for the sake of knowledge and not for any practical utility. (Metaphysics, Book I, part  2).

I read these words with a hushed sense of awe because they immediately brought me back to my early adolescence. Sitting beneath a broad canopy of stars in my backyard, my friends and I talked. And between the intervals about girls and school-wide politics, we hit deeper questions. They were still limited, but we stumbled through speculation on God or purpose in our lives, why we do things we do, our identity to ourselves and the world. Personal and simple, the issues nevertheless had the same philosophical underpinning that span Plato’s dialogues and Camus’ novels.

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