I discussed the moral dilemma in the HBO television show Westworld, and I have since discovered a show that looks at ethics. The Good Place is the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who dies and finds herself in the afterlife, designated into ‘the Good Place’. Only problem is that she is not a good person and does not belong. In fact it is another Eleanor Shellstrop that should be in ‘the Good Place’, but she does not want to end up in ‘the Bad Place’ so she sets out to learn how to be a better person, in essence, to earn her place.
‘The Good Place’ is basically heaven, but the show is written to be as neutral as possible when it comes to religion. To do this, the architect of this ‘Good Place’ neighbourhood Michael (Ted Danson) states that all religions only guessed 10% of what the afterlife is like. Joking some random guy from the 1970’s managed to guess 91% of what happens after you die in a inebriated rant. While this might be considered a mockery towards religion it does allow the show to explore ethics in a stripped back way. Without getting bogged down with the religious aspect, the show explores different schools of thought when it comes to ethics.Beneath the low-brow humour the show is almost like an introduction to moral philosophy, exploring ideas from people like Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham and of course the obvious Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These ideas are explored thanks to Eleanor’s soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who was a professor of ethics when he was alive. One of the major ideas that is explored is that of utilitarianism, I expect as a critique to society’s pleasure seeking ways.
The idea of utilitarianism is the idea that an action is considered right if it promotes happiness. The show focuses on the paradoxical nature of utilitarianism, mainly the idea of punishing an innocent person for the greater good. Eleanor’s presence in ‘the Good Place’ has a negative effect on the neighbourhood, where actions that are not inherently good manifest in terrifying ways. There is also the conundrum of Eleanor staying in ‘the Good Place’ may promote her happiness but it is at the cost of the other Eleanor who is suffering in ‘the Bad Place’.
“He who would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.” – Karl Marx (Das Kapital)
While this show does more than name drop philosophical ideas of ethics, but rather try to explain them, I still find the show too simplistic. It is as if The Good Place is attempting to introduce the idea of moral philosophy to the viewers but a show like Westworld wants you to work for it. I do enjoy the philosophy and the way it explores ethics but I much prefer having to work towards understanding; then again, I am just pretentious like that. We started watching this show because my wife and I are big fans of Kristen Bell and I will continue to watch because of the philosophy, even if it is overly simplified.
When thinking about the term existentialism, a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre may come to mind; “existence precedes essence”. 1 This was a relatively new way of thinking within philosophy. The idea criticises the concept that everyone has an essence and our lives tend towards the actualisation of our essence, which dates back to Aristotle. Over the years, this idea of essence evolved into predestines, as philosophers leaned more towards religious ideas. For Sartre, this was an absurd way of thinking and this might have been connected to his atheist beliefs. However, this is not a universal idea in existentialism, many disagreed with Sartre, but it did start a new philosophical movement.
While Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky are all considered existentialists, the term was actually coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is widely believed that Kierkegaard may have been the first existentialist philosopher but he used the word ‘individualism’ to refer to his philosophical ideas. When looking as his writing, it is easy to see why it is closely associated to existentialism. In his book The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” 2
This leads us to ask, ‘What exactly is existentialism?’ which is not an easy question to answer. If you consider historical events that were happening at the start of existentialism (early twentieth century), you notice the world was a confused and complex place. When Sartre started his works, the world had already experienced one World War and was about to head into a second one. The political landscape was very unstable; Marxism, Communism and Fascism were all growing movements. Western ways of thinking were not providing the answers people craved about the meaning of life or at least a way to address the human condition.
Existentialism became a new philosophical way of thinking; a new way of facing a confused world that they could not accept. It was not a doctrine or a philosophical system rather existentialism was a movement. It was an inwards approach to thinking, when Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence”, he was stating we exist first, and it is up to us to find what defines us then live our lives accordingly. Which linked back to Søren Kierkegaard who said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” 3This was the foundation of existentialism; it did not matter if other philosophers believed existence came before essence, what mattered was living life authentically. To do so, there were three main sides to this form of thinking to consider: individualism, freedom and passion.
Individualism is the ethical idea that we are all responsible for our own actions. Rather than living by the morals set out by our society, religion and our elders, we must seek our own individual self-relevance and liberties. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” 4 Moral individualism should not be confused with selfishness or a desire for anarchy; rather it simply suggests that humanity must be defined by the individual. No two people are alike; thus, having set rules and ideas for everyone imposes restrictions on living authentically.
Freedom was a response to the current social/political situations; without freedom there was no possible way to allow people to be individuals and is considered the primary virtue to authenticity. This is more than the freedom to do whatever one desires. Existentialist often use the term facticity as a term to mean the limitation and a condition to freedom. For example, our birthplace, past choices and so on, may either limit or aid our quest to live our life authentically. If we are born blind, that may take away our freedom to read this text but does not mean we can never read.
Passion is self-evident, the need to find a purpose to life. A primary concern to “existence precedes essence” was simple to find a reason to live – your passion. For me, my passion would include literature, philosophy and writing articles like this. I am motivated in working towards a way to make my passions my career. That is not to say that there are no other reasons to live; such as loved ones or the simple pleasures in life.
Once you establish these four philosophies as the backbone of existentialism, you may have started on the journey down the rabbit hole into the existentialist way of thinking. Having definitive answers to life maybe be attractive but we realise life is not that simple. When adopting existentialism as your personal philosophy, be warned that many of the great existentialists did abandon their own philosophies. To quote Søren Kierkegaard once more; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 5 Existentialism has its appeals; it is often adopted by young adults as permission to be an individual and focus on themselves. However as the quote above stated, it is only in reflection that we understand our lives and where we went wrong and life is not that easy, you cannot simply rely on other people’s ways of thinking.
Essentially, existentialism suggests that we should all live our lives authentically and free. Our goal in life is to find our essence – our reason to live. Albert Camus has been quoted as saying “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” 6 which suggests that something as simple as a cup of coffee is enough to continue living. There are two major branches of existentialism that I have not mentioned, nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) and absurdism (life has no purpose and the universe is chaotic) but I will not be going into details about the differences at the moment.
My goal of this was to give you a better understanding into existentialism but as you might have discovered, it can be complex. I hope you now have a basic understanding, allowing you to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about philosophy and what you believe. For more information about existentialism and the people behind this philosophical movement, I would recommend the book At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. 7 This covers the history of existentialism as well as a little about people involved, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and so many others. I felt very inspired after reading At the ExistentialistCafé, that I have gone down a rabbit hole exploring philosophy and hope to write more about it in the near future.
While watching videos from the School of Life YouTube channel recently, in particular the video on Friedrich Nietzsche. I found myself feeling so envious towards people like Nietzsche and Alain de Botton (who was a founder of School of Life) because they are so smart, talented and make me feel like I have so much to learn. This is interesting, since Nietzsche believes envy is an important part of life; it is useful for understanding what we want to achieve and what we are working towards. In his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality (Zur Genealogie der Moral) Nietzsche theorises that the concepts of morality are controlled by the powerful (in his time, the clergy), therefore the concept of good and evil is subjective. While he never talks directly about envy, Nietzsche has often criticised the church for portraying envy as a sin and something we should feel guilty about. This is not the current teaching of the church regarding the seven deadly sins, these are just gateways we should be wary about because they can lead to sin. However this misconception can lead to an emphasis on envy which is leading people to feel insufficient with themselves, and that tends to leads to guilt rather than driving ambition.
Luckily in my case, my envy towards people like Friedrich Nietzsche is making me feel ambitious. I was thinking about life, and I asked Twitter how to become a philosopher and the first response I got back was “Be a dick to Plato”. This may not sound helpful but it really does cut to the core purpose of philosophy. If you look up philosopher in the dictionary you get something along the lines of “a person who offers views or theories on profound questions in ethics, metaphysics, logic, and other related fields.” Critically questioning ideas and theories, even the ones Plato wrote about, in essence would make you a philosopher.
My wife, in all her wisdom, said without thinking that everyone should be a philosopher. The ideas behind philosophy are to think about life and the world around us and to assess, accept, reject or expand on the ideas that have been presented to us. Granted, I have not worked out a way to make a career out of philosophy but the reason I started this blog was to story my thoughts and ideas in the one location. Literature has been a huge part of my life and has helped me to critically question the ideas I am faced with.
I have no formal background but I do believe academia does not have all the answers when it comes to philosophy. In the past education was the job of the clergy and the church. Universities were originally created during the decline of religion as a place for people to find meaning to life, ask questions, share ideas and be part of a community. However if you look at the state of today’s universities, you may not even find anything close to this idea. Rather, it feels like a place to tell people what they need to do in order to be qualified for the degree they are pursuing. I have been in many classes where there is no questioning, no sharing of ideas and no community; you are given a print out and you get assessed on how well you align to the ideas found on the page. Can you imagine going to university in the hopes to become a teacher and then being taught how to teach a class with methods that are never recommended for a classroom setting?
While it is true that you’ll learn something by reading a piece of paper and writing about it (that is essentially what I do here), academia does not seem to be promoting a philosophical lifestyle. My autodidactic journey feels like it aligns with what I want to achieve more than academia does. I question what I read but when it comes to writing about it, I am doing so for myself. I am not being assessed on how well I align to the teacher’s ideas. Rather, I write to practise expressing my opinions and document my learning process.
Granted, if you want to make a living in philosophy, then working in academia would be useful but I often question the way academic papers are written. Reading some philosophical ideas that are written in an academic format can be very difficult, it makes me feel stupid and question my own intellect. I know I have a lot to learn but I think academic writing is more designed to sound smart so people will think the author knows what they are talking about. If I was to say “God is a woman” you might agree or reject my statement without any thought. However if I say “God is a woman and I have a hundred page academic paper to back that up”, your reaction might be a little different. You may think I am still wrong but it might take longer to reach that conclusion. If you disagreed with me but still chose to read the hundred pages, things could be different once again; you might question your own beliefs before accepting or rejecting mine. The purpose of a paper like this would be to express opinions and challenge ideas, however I prefer a more casual approach to writing.
I believe we can start a conversation about ideas without the need to alienate people with overly complex academic papers. If people are willing to share and exchange ideas there are people willing to listen and challenge. I call myself a philosopher because I like to question ideas and explore my thoughts via my writing. Also my twitter bio says I am a philosopher so it must be true. I hope to continue to learn and explore ideas, to question and challenge my way of thinking and if needed, I will be a dick to Plato.
Nowadays, the source of emotion and passion is considered to be the heart; poetically referring to the soul and physically tied to the feeling of love (increased heart rate & increased blood flow). Reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I’ve noticed DH Lawrence using the loins and bowels as the seat of emotion and passion, which got me thinking about the philosophy behind the heart. In earlier times (Biblical and Archaic) the bowels was the source of pity or compassion and the loins the source of strength and power.
Interestingly enough, some of the early philosophers and scientists including Aristotle considered the heart as the seat of thought as well as emotion and passion, often rejecting the value of the brain. But the Roman physician Galen was one of the first to consider the seat of passions to be the liver, the seat of reason to be the brain, and the heart to be the seat of the emotions.
Thought we don’t often talk about the liver in reference to passion it is often said that the liver governs anger, the kidneys fear (the adrenals sit atop the kidneys) the lungs sorrow/ depression and the stomach or spleen as the source of anxiety and worry. Though these physiological responses to emotion are often obvious, modern society considers the seat of emotion and passion to be the heart and the seat of thought to be the brain. The heart is often represented with the shape & typically coloured red suggesting both blood and passion or strong emotion.
“The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
– Albert Camus
Existentialism is an interesting philosophical concept; if God doesn’t exist then life has no point. So if life has no point, we can basically do what ever we want, make our own life worth living.
Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence, stressing that the human essence is determined through life choices. However, even though the concrete individual existence must have priority in existentialism, certain conditions are commonly held to be “endemic” to human existence.
It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although “prescriptions” against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard’s religious “stage” to Camus’ insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism, which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy.
Existentialist thinking makes me wonder about things like;
Authenticity or even inauthenticity
Where do these fit into the world of Existentialism?
The debut single from UK Goth greats; The Cure was Killing An Arab. Robert Smith calls the song a “short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus”. The song tells the story of the scene on the beach where the protagonist Meursault shots the Arab attacker. The Stranger (also known as The Outsider) covers philosophical concepts like) absurdism, atheism, determinism, existentialism, nihilism, and stoicism.
One interesting concept in this book and the main reason I want to read it, is the fact that Meursault chooses not to lie. In the afterword Camus stats;
[Meursault] refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler.
The best example of people lying would be the typical conversations
“How have you been?”
The response “Fine” is hardly ever true and is just avoiding the real issues you are going through. But in the same conversation; how many people ask “How have you been?” and not really cared one way or another, just using it as a conversation starter.
Cogito Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am) is a popular phrase but do we really known what it means?
The phrase comes from solipsism; everything outside the mind is unjustified and unproven. The philosophical idea has been considered to be scepticism simply because they believe that others experiences can only be known by analogy.
Sophists live by the idea that ‘My mind is the only thing that I know to exist’.
The theory of solipsism merits close examination because it relates to three widely held philosophical presuppositions, which are themselves fundamental and wide-ranging in importance. These are that:
My most certain knowledge is the content of my own mind—my thoughts, experiences, affects, etc.;
There is no conceptual or logically necessary link between mental and physical—between, say, the occurrence of certain conscious experience or mental states and the ‘possession’ and behavioral dispositions of a ‘body’ of a particular kind;
The experience of a given person is necessarily private to that person.
Though the theory can sound complicated and even absurd; in modern society it does seem to be a common practise. People would not call themselves Sophists but they still choose to Wikipedia information to verify and prove to themselves the info is real and factual. To me that sounds very much like that whole bases of Solipsism.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Philosophy lately. As most people know philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It is an interesting concept and something I truly want to understand in greater detail.
So like most of my research, I started at Wikipedia, but that’s where I stopped. I’m not going to learn about Philosophy researching it. From what I can gather it is a lifelong pursuit. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word ‘philosophia’ which basically means “love of wisdom”.
So there you have it, Philosophy wrapped up in three simple words; Love of Wisdom. I know that love and that desire to understand the world is almost an unreachable target and many spend their lives in the pursuit, so for now I’m just going to look at those people first. Learn from them before even considering learning the ways of the world.