Do you forgive but never forget, or forget but never forgive? Remember that question from silly surveys we’d fill out in junior high when we didn’t feel like doing our homework? Well, this question just came up in an email exchange with a friend of mine, and it actually holds much relevance to an important ethical issue i’ve been grappling with.
But before i get to my personal story, let’s look at what Charles L. Griswold, author of Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration and recent contributor to The Stone, had to say about forgiveness.
First of all, Griswold introduces the idea of forgiveness as something that stems from religion, and coming from a non-religious background, i have difficulty understanding that perspective. For instance, what does forgiveness have to do with revenge? I was quite surprised to see revenge and vengeance included in the discussion, because those are completely separate issues for me when it comes to forgiveness. Maybe it’s just because i’m not a vengeful person (i honestly can’t think of a single instance when i got revenge on anyone), but when i think about forgiveness, i think only about what you might think about what someone did to you, not what you might do afterwards.
However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill. But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger. The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.
Nothing sinks more heavily in your stomach than the realization that someone who you thought liked you really hates you.
More and more, i’m inclined to think that making friends isn’t a matter of chance, or even of preference; it’s a matter of knowing what you want to learn, and recognizing who can help you learn those things. Does that make friendship utilitarian? I don’t know, but let’s take a look what Aristotle had to say on the matter:
It seems that not everything is loved, but only what is worthy of love, and this is what is good, pleasant, or useful. What is useful, however, would seem to be what is instrumental to some good or pleasure, so that what are worthy of love as ends are the good and the pleasant. —Nicomachean Ethics, VIII. ii. p.145
So even if you’re friends with someone because he or she is “instrumental to some good or pleasure,” the end you ultimately strive for is that good or pleasure. The bottom line is, there is some good or pleasure we desire, and we become friends with those who provide us with it.
Let’s start with the goods. What kinds of goods do we seek? Well, obviously they vary from individual to individual, but the one most commonly identified and discussed by philosophers is happiness. It seems that the “small” goods we seek add up to the “big,” self-sufficient good of happiness.
Then let’s assume that we make friends because they help us attain that good of happiness. How do my friends make me happy? Personally, i’m happy when my friends care for me and teach me new things. Some of my friends don’t do either of these things, and yet i call them “friends.”
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” –Kierkegaard
My second installment of Conversations with Yang has led me to another question: Science and Philosophy may differ in their approach to problems, but what about the life of the scientist and the life of the philosopher? How might the scientist and the philosopher differ in approaching life?
As evident from my last post, Yang would rather work on solvable problems for a living, whereas i would rather devote my time to unsolvable problems. If each approach seems to offer its own set of advantages, and you desire both, then the logical course of action would be to work on both solvable and unsolvable problems.
So Yang would break down a big, unsolvable problem into smaller, solvable ones so she can have some kind of ROI, so to speak. And we’ve already seen that that’s not possible in doing philosophy.
But what if “life” were modeled this way? What if philosophy could be my unsolvable problem, and i had other, solvable problems to work through on the side?
She’s a (budding) scientist, and i’m a (budding) philosopher.
Her: I would rather work on solvable problems, moving from one solved problem to the next.
Me: I would rather focus on unsolvable problems, because those are the ones that will always sustain my interest.
Her: But you wouldn’t accomplish anything!
Me: But i gain satisfaction in the striving, not the achieving. Besides, don’t you feel a little sad inside when you’ve reached a definitive answer to your problem, and it’s time to put the seal on it? It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.
Her: Yes, but i move on to other projects, and the cycle continues.
Me: What if no other project you embark on lives up to that one? Unsolvable problems can’t fail you in this way. And if the striving is the more satisfying part than the achieving, then working on unsolvable problems would guarantee continued and lasting satisfaction.
Her: What if you broke down a project that’s unsolvable in your lifetime into smaller, achievable bits, so that even if you can’t solve the big problem, you still get accomplishments every step of the way?
In the field of philosophy, i don’t know if anything is “achievable.” The word just doesn’t seem to fit right with any philosophy-related task. I guess we’ve arrived at the inevitable question: What does it mean to do philosophy? To me, it simply means to think critically. About anything at all, whether real (or supposedly real) or imagined (or supposedly imagined). You see, you have to be skeptical, because you can’t be sure of anything; that’s Rule Number 1. And why do philosophers do philosophy? If we had to go beyond “pure enjoyment” as an answer, i would say they are driven by questions that beckon them forward, lure them into further multiplying questions, all collectively helping them acquire a new way of thinking about things, of understanding things. Above all, philosophers want to understand.
It seems that The Stone‘s contributors’ responses to readers’ comments are often better than their original posts themselves:
Philosophers typically try to illuminate with a combination of argument and (re-)conceptualization. But the most careful and perspicuous argumentation, as indispensable as care and perspicuity are, will not convince someone who is disinclined to accept a philosopher’s way of framing a problem or phenomenon. And, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell has stressed repeatedly, nothing guarantees that the arrogation of philosophical authority, no matter how well intended, will not turn out to be an act of mere arrogance. In this way, in fact, philosophical expression and young women’s sexualized attempts at self-expression have something in common: neither can be fully controlled by an author’s intentions, and nothing guarantees that they will come off in the way their authors hope they will. –Nancy Bauer, “Authority and Arrogance: A Response”
Which, if you think about it, is what ails all human communication, but i think the problem is even more exaggerated when it comes to doing philosophy. Philosophy is best done dialogically (because every argument requires counter-arguments to move forward, and the best counter-arguments come from those who have had different experiences than you have), and if your opponent cannot accept your way of approaching a problem or understand your intentions in communicating your ideas, the argument falls flat. This is why philosophers, more than anyone else, need to find people who can understand the way they think and communicate in order to do their job.
Which makes me wonder, can real philosophy only be done between people who can “click” in this way? I’ve spent many philosophy recitations frustrated and impatient because everyone had their own way of thinking, and each think-system was so disparate to the point where we were all on different wavelengths, trying to intersect somewhere, but usually failing miserably. One person would require real life examples to contemplate any philosophical issue, and another would find such examples cumbersome and dangerously restrictive. One would be engrossed in analysis, while another would constantly divert to meta-analysis. One would subscribe to dualism, and another, to monism, and yet another, to pluralism. No one would think to budge. And why should they? Their individual frameworks were the ones that helped them think about these issues. But do you know what happens when such disparate individual frameworks gather in one room? A question is raised, a claim is made, and a silence follows while everybody tries to evaluate the claim-maker’s think-system, ultimately rejecting it in favor of their own. Repeat until time’s up. You’re lucky if you get a single counter-argument.
It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.
We got to talking about free will and birth. Our birth is not our choice. Or so it seems. This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself. It threatens to annul all notion of free will: If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.
Her: What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?
Me: Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.
Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions. In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.
In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.
But here’s another question to consider: Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?
Coincidentally, on the day i wrote about birthdays, Peter Singer wrote about giving birth to new generations on the NYT’s new online column on philosophy, The Stone. Ever since reading it, i’ve been thinking about the issues raised, but even after eleven days of contemplation, i’m left with far more questions than answers.
Disregarding some of the red herrings in the essay, what i take to be the underlying critical questions are,
1) Is life worth living?
2) Is it ethical to have children without having an objective answer to the first question?
For some perspective, the following are my favorite of however many of the 1258 (and still counting) comments on Singer’s post that i read that address either the first question or Singer’s main question of whether it is ethical to have children knowing that they will have to endure the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of life.
There is the positive perception of human existence:
It’s the striving, not the fulfilment, that brings satisfaction, at least for mankind. –Phil (Comment #255)
And the negative:
Those of us who have not shot ourselves in the head are either delusional or cowards. I am a coward who wonders is everyone else really so delusional? Or are we just telling each other that life is worth living when we all know we remain alive because nature has selected for those who fear death the most, and nobody wants to look scared. To me it seems like saying “I meant to do that….” after a gross error or pretending to enjoy the flogging you are recieving for appearances sake. Does the flogged man live for the spaces between the lash? Or does he live for when the lashing is done and he can finally crawl away and die knowing he made a good show of bravery? Either way the whole thing was just torture. –Todd (Comment #54)