metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

May 1996, Volume 3 Nr 9, Issue 33

Philosophy

Recently, I was asked if I would consider teaching a philosophy course beginning next fall. While considering the content and the form of the course, I came across numerous interesting and thought-provoking questions. Who has the luxury of philosophizing? Do we all philosophize? If so, is there a hierarchy of philosophy. Do we pick and choose our personal philosophy based upon what we have to gain from our choices? Are there other than ego motives? How are ego and philosophy related? Are we masters or slaves of our personal philosophy? Is our philosophy that which guides our choices and actions in life, or are our choices and actions that which determines our philosophy? Is philosophy like science? Do we use our philosophy in an experimental fashion in order to determine that which works and is true? Is philosophy a faith? What of ethics? Do ethics matter any more? Are the choices we make influenced by that which we can get away with, rather than that which is ethical? Do we alter our ethics to fit our choices? Who determines what is ethical? What do we mean when we say unethical, immoral and illegal? Where do values fit in? What is a code of conduct? Needless to say, the questions go on and on. This issue discusses some of these questions.

As a student attending a Jesuit college, my exposure to the world of philosophy and thought was mandatory and enlightening. Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, NJ required that all physics majors take twelve credits each in both philosophy and theology. I am forever grateful that my Bachelor of Science Degree program had philosophy as a required course of study.

Motive and Maxim

Most people travel the journey of life without pondering their personal philosophy although it is the underpinning of their character and behavior. Philosophy is, however, a loose and broad term. A.K. Bierman and James A. Gould in Philosophy for a New Generation, refer to maxims, motives and morals. They state that what an individual ought to do is predicated by a set of maxims that he or she "believes specify which acts humans ought and ought not perform." They go on to say that the maxims are then internalized as "rules" or "standards." We develop a personal philosophy, justifying and fitting it into the perceived established norms of the greater society. The ego accepts and believes that our maxims are so important that everyone else should follow them.

Our motives are the reasons for our behavior. They differ from maxims in the sense that we may determine priority of one over the other depending upon how important the ends are. An example might be an individual wanting an item of merchandise they cannot afford. The ends are the acquisition of the item. That individual may hold the maxim that one should not steal another’s property. It is at this point that a decision may be made to steal or not steal the item. The decision that is made is a consequence of the conflict between the priority placed on maxim and motive. The merchandise may be stolen if the motive is determined to have greater priority than the maxim. Otherwise, it is not.

Not too many months ago, I came across an individual who was using a national Internet provider’s services illegally over a 1-800 telephone number that was not open to him nor the general public. I con-fronted the indi-vidual with the issue, questioning if he was aware of any "unethical" behavior. He responded, "I have a set of ethics. It’s just that I don’t want anyone else telling me what they are nor what they should be!"

How are standards set and acceptable be-havior chosen for members of a society? In modern demo-cratic societies, the standards are determined by institutions made up of members of the society.

The standards are then imposed upon the individual members of the society through various means which include, but are not limited to, on an official level: fines, imprisonment, loss of employment. Some examples include imprisonment for drunk driving convictions, disbarment from practicing law for abuse of power and attorney privilege, having a medical license taken away for improper prescription of controlled medications.

A not so subtle imposition may be peer pressure, fear of embarassment, a sense of being seen as different or not being part of the group, fear of bodily harm, etc. Some examples include saying the pledge of allegiance, wearing jackets and ties, hairstyles, etc.

These standards of behavior may or may not agree with the maxims of the individual. Nonetheless, the standards are usually implemented through the full use of a society’s official legal system or unofficial peer pressure. Should one choose to break a law, that is behave in a fashion where one’s motives take priority over the established societal maxims imposed under penalty of law, then one might be held accountable. If we refuse to take part for example, in an unjust war, we might find ourselves denied government funded loans in the future or worse, we may be imprisoned. If our personal philosophy maintains maxims that supersede the maxims of society we should be, and have a responsibility to be, aware of consequences.

There are times when individual maxims are so compelling that society’s maxims must be ignored as a matter of conscience and personal well being. The consequences may be minimal or they may be the start of major change. Rosa Parks, sitting in the front of the bus comes to mind. Society’s lousy, immoral maxims should be challenged. Membership in a democratic society requires awareness of collective maxims. It demands taking responsibility for them, even when that includes doing away with them.

The fear of consequence is not the best motivation for getting people to behave in a desired manner. When people alter their maxims making them guides for doing the right thing, we all benefit. The individual and society feels good about itself. While fear of punishment may be a deterrent, it emphasizes thinking on "what may happen to me" versus "what is the right way to behave." It is more beneficial to convince people that stealing telephone time is wrong than to make them afraid that they will get caught for doing so.

In an academic setting, students are often confronted with the conflict between maxim and motive. They want good grades and they know that cheating is not the ethical way of achieving them. Whether they cheat or not is a direct result of, but not limited to, the priorities established through the resolution of the conflict between maxim and motive. Other factors might include pressure placed upon students at home or by peers to achieve good grades and the consequences of not obtaining them. Such pressure reinforces my belief that motivation based upon fear is not the best.

In a conversation with a student, I related an incident where student-written reports on Martin Luther King read very much alike. Evidently, students had taken pieces of text directly out of their personal computer CD-ROMS and claimed them as their own writing. One student commented that this would not be a problem at college as papers could be bought. When I asked him how he felt about that, he said, "I'm the type of person where I could do that and not feel any guilt." He quickly added that of course, "I would not do that."

My response to him was that he had shortchanged his maxims and his sense of values about the situation. His first comment came from the desire to achieve the completion of the paper and the good grade, the motive. Upon some reflection, he concluded that he would not however, violate his internal maxim. I was happy to hear that. While could suggests possibly, would implies probability. Developing a set of internal brakes is the consequence of choosing maxim over motive.

Conditioning

The members of a society are typically far removed (or so they think) from the operating and influencing mechanics that produce the mind-set of the society at large. As an example, Americans, as a group, grow up pledging allegiance to the flag, watching football, passing through youthful rites of passage which may include obtaining a driver’s license, attending the prom, having a large high school graduation party, going to college, getting married, buying a car or home, etc. We often pay little attention to the process itself nor to the messages we receive. The millions, possibly billions, of conscious or subliminal images we see during the first two decades of life do affect our motives and maxims. Since we are not very conscious most of the time, we become very malleable sheep. We accept the messages and follow the images.

It is safe to assume that when we change the images, so the maxims change. The images of the stern, square jawed, masculine Marlboro Man selling death rolled in a cigarette neatly packaged are highly successful.

It is very rare for our internal brakes to become very selective as we grow up. So, we accept the images and respond with predictable, robot-like behavior. Madison Avenue is well aware of the impact of images. A multibillion dollar industry, advertising knows only too well, that if they associate drinking Pepsi with the youthful lifestyle then more people who want a youthful lifestyle will drink Pepsi. Television and television advertising effectively present us with maxims in order for us to accept methods of behavior that we believe are more apt to achieve our motives; motives which are in fact someone else’s. This is called conditioning. Perhaps, more important to ad-success than making us want, is making us dissatisfied with ourselves as we are.

In the Sunday, May 13 1996 issue of The Sunday Rutland Herald and the Sunday Times Argus, in an article by the Associated Press entitled, "Excerpts From ‘Adcult USA’ ", advertising is defined as "the educational program of capitalism." In another article on the same page, entitled, "How Much Of Your Memory Are You Using To Store Slogans" or jingles and asks the reader to associate a product with them. Even the "culturally bereft" can identify two thirds of them. And these come from commercials in the mass media. Imagine the impact of prime time television programming, movies and sporting events!

Recently, JeanneE played a tape of Andre Codrescu's readings. In his native Rumania, the underground circulated western poetry. Codrescu references the line, "You're in the Pepsi generation" which he read in an Allen Ginsberg poem. Rumania at the time was devoid of capitalist images and had no advertising. When he arrived in the West, in Italy, Codrescu saw his first ad on the side of a bus with the same Pepsi line. He recalls thinking to himself: What a wonderful place the West is! They put poetry on the sides of buses.

In and of itself, conditioning is neither a good nor a bad thing. For example: the current campaign to minimize the spread of HIV through TV and radio or the attempt to change people’s thinking and attitudes about smoking may be positive steps with good outcomes. Consider that there are several attempts to influence and change people’s thinking about smoking - not all are positive - many are focused on telling people it is a good idea: sexy, independent, hip and not so bad for your health if the tar is low.

Some of the debate over welfare and the plight of the poor involves images that the poor are to blame for their poverty and that helping them reinforces their status. It blames the poor for reaching into our pockets. This attempt at conditioning suggests that the poor are poor out of choice, that they prefer it that way. Politics as portrayed through the media places a spin on the issue in yet another attempt at conditioning.

If we are unaware that we are products of conditioning by parents, teachers, advertisers, church, school, politicians, media, etc., then we will seldom question our maxims. Indeed, it is often the genius, the non-conformist, the one who dances to the beat of a different drum that advances the state-of-the-art in thought, science, medicine, politics, etc. It is the individual who dares to suggest that enemies who fought each other for centuries can achieve their motives by changing their maxims and rejecting the conditioning of their past.

The same holds true for democratic elections in the United States. In an attempt to get elected, politicians constantly hammer away at changing, or replacing, our maxims so that by voting for them we might achieve our motives. In reality, it is their motives that our newly accepted maxims help the most to achieve.

Politics

External images attempt to condition us. That is the nature of politics. Neither good nor bad, politics is the art of the possible, and that which is possible, becomes more probable if people’s maxims can be shifted closer to those espoused by politicians.

To go against the grain of society’s maxims can lead to dire consequences, regardless of whether the maxims are good or bad. A case in point is the objection that both of us had to the Persian Gulf war. When JeanneE mentioned that she was opposed to the war at a time when the conditioning was to display yellow ribbons in support of our soldiers in the Persian Gulf, some of her coworkers screamed at her. When Jozef protested the war in public, he was threatened with bodily harm.

Conditioning, then, is society’s attempt, through images and example, laws, punishment, music, embarassment, peer pressure, shame, etc. to influence thinking and alter the lives of its members.

In a democracy such as ours, we elect officials for the express intent of writing the laws and setting the policy which in turn place value on particular maxims that affect our conditioning so that the motives of the group are realized. This is the ultimate form of democratic expression. The system, however, seems to ignore the fact that individual members of the Congress are human beings with their own set of maxims and motives. However dedicated they might be, it is difficult to place the collective maxims of society above individual maxims and motives. Even altruism has at its core the motive of feeling good about one’s actions, about one’s self.

With more and more concentration of power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, more and more members of Congress have altered their maxims to achieve the motives of personal gain and privilege. They have chosen to benefit the subgroup to which they belong. This leads them to pass legislation that reinforces their privilege by enacting laws that condition the population to come into line with their thinking.

McCarthyism is a classic example of individual paranoia philosophy gone mainstream. For decades, as a consequence of acting on personal ego driven motives of the few, American society was conditioned against and acted hostile toward anyone or anything resembling sympathy for Communism, communists, Socialists, socialism or the color red. The nation became obsessed with vigilance. It saw the Red Enemy hiding under every rock, in every office and school. It feared the "big plot" to overthrow the cherished "American way of life." As an immigrant child, I remember my father telling me, "Do you hear that plane? Watch what you say in school. They may send us back."

Because of the motives and maxims of a driven individual, Senator Joseph McCarthy, jobs were lost and lives ruined. Many government officials, both local and federal, as well as many employers, made Senator McCarthy’s maxims their own. They discriminated against individuals whom they thought or suspected to be in league with the "Red Menace." Many were unduly and falsely targeted.

Paul Robeson, the famous and talented African-American bass singer, was accused of being a Communist sympathizer, for singing in Russian, and for daring to perform in the Soviet Union. As further proof of his guilt, it was pointed out that he wore a red handkerchief in his coat pocket.

Pete Seeger, was effectively kicked off television for having Left leaning philosophy. It was not just that a few powerful individuals felt this way. Many, if not most of the nation accepted a posture of being on guard, preparing for the impending Red invasion. The few conditioned the many through spin-doctoring to adopt maxims that circumvent common sense. It is interesting to note that Pete Seeger is completing his first studio album in many years. I heard him say in a recent radio interview that he is one of the most conservative people he knows. He is referring to conservation of resources such as the rivers, drinking water, the environment, the planet.

If politics is the art of the possible, then we need to ask, "Whose possibility?" It is here where conflicting maxims clash. Agribusiness may follow that maxim that ownership of food and its means of production gives it right to destroy food in order to achieve the motive of artificially setting the price of its products in order to maximize profits. The poor and hungry whose motive is survival have a very different maxim. They might believe that food is a basic human right as is the right to work, access to decent housing and universal availability of health care.

Commonality

There are nearly six-billion people on planet Earth. We certainly do not share the same maxims nor motives. Yet, I cannot help but continue to believe that we can at least agree to adopt common, basic maxims that benefit us all. We can recognize that conflicting maxims, when not resolved on common ground, lead to a breakdown of civility and to war. We tolerate each other’s maxims as long as they do not severely interfere with our motives.

Often, conflicting maxims remain that way because of an absence of knowledge. President George Bush, during the 1992 presidential campaign while visiting a supermarket was overheard saying that he did not know the price of a quart of milk. How can Mr. Bush’s maxims regarding the minimum wage not be in conflict with those earning that wage when his knowledge has no correlation to the experience of living on that wage? As Mao Tse Tung said in Practice and Contradiction, "All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience…All knowledge originates in perception of the objective world through man’s physical sense organs…There can be no knowledge apart from practice."

In a recent discussion, JeanneE mentioned that in our desire to make a point, we seem to have forgotten to consider someone else’s point of view. We neglect to notice maxims other than our own. We fail to walk in someone else’s shoes. Failure to do so comes in part from a wholesale adoption of Madison Avenue’s success at convincing us that rugged individualism, i.e. acting on ego gratification, is freedom. The absurdity of joining a groupthink in order to separate ourselves from it is not self-evident.

Full Circle

Consider the family unit, whatever the makeup. The family is a small society composed of similar but not congruent maxims. When functioning well, the family maintains mutually set collective maxims whose motives are beneficial to individual members and acceptable to the group. Each member develops a philosophy of thinking and living in confluence with other members.

We can hardly expect the greater national family to function well without the trials, errors, failures and successes of the lesser family as a roadmap. The same holds true for any institution whether a macrocosm of the larger society or a microcosm of the family.

This leads us full circle to the questions posed on the opening page of this issue. Yes, we do all philosophize. That which guides us, forms the parameters for choosing our responses to events and choices, is our complex personal philosophy. It is continuously subject to scrutiny and change. In that way, philosophy is similar to science. Fine tuning our philosophy is modifying our thinking through trial and error.

We all have the capacity to philosophize. Most of us are unconscious when we follow our philosophy. When we are upset or in conflict, we often let the ego lead the charge. We blame someone else for their philosophy interfering with ours, another example of projection. A more conscious mind sees developing a personal philosophy neither as a luxury nor as a chore. It sees it as a responsibility to the self, the lesser and the greater family.

What of ethics? Although an argument may be made that ethics are relative, their development is an important ingredient in maintaining a non-exploitive society. Ethics, once established, like the mutually beneficial and agreed upon maxims, require respect. While developing our ethics within the framework of our philosophy, if we walk in someone's else shoes, if we consider the good of the lesser and greater family, we cannot help but contribute to the well being of the planet.

Quotes

Philosophy is nothing but discretion.

John Selden. 1584-1654.

 

Asked what he gained from philosophy, he answered, "To do without being commanded what others do from fear of the laws."

Diogenes Laertius. Circa 200 A. D.

1996 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

Return to Homepage

Feedback