Philosophical Conversation

December 23, 2008


This essay is actually a real dialog that occurred between Paul (Martin) and another guy named Paul. It occurred on a website with "neplusultra" in its name. Paul was invited to participate in this forum, and the following dialog resulted from a question posed by the other Paul. I'll refer to him as Paul [X] to avoid confusion as to who is saying what.

Question of Ethics

Posted on November 15, 2002 at 06:11:49 PM by Paul [X]

At my own Pico Society, I posted the following question and got one response.I figured I might have better luck here. To preface, I was quite a philosophy reader in my teens and early twenties, but since then I really haven't been able to touch the stuff. Whereas once I think I understood it, n ow it's mostly Greek to me and I don't know Greek. I also get lazy both in terms of looking up texts discussed here and in terms of catching up with my mathematics, logic and science, which are all way forgotten and somewhat never learned. Okay, enough preface, here's the question:

"Answer in 50 words or left whether there is such a thing as a "good life" and what that might consist of. If one answers, of course, that there is no such thing, an answer up to 50 words is , I think, preferable to a "no". I mean, naturally, in my humble opinion."

I have no set "right answer" here of course but I think I and we? might benefit from a somewhat simplified discussion of terms. Anyway, as I indicated, I get sort of lost in discussions of logic and , well, J.S.Mill in particular, though of course I liked the title "On Liberty"...

Paul [X]

Re(1): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 15, 2002 at 11:29:48 PM by Paul Martin

Hi Paul,

There is such a thing as a good life. The overriding objective is to cause as much net happiness to other people as possible. Causing unhappiness to anyone weighs disproportionately heavy negatively in this calculation. Wisdom is required to project the effects of your actions as far out as possible.

Warm regards,


Re(2): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 15, 2002 at 11:51:18 PM by Paul [X]

This is a good and interesting answer, Paul. But let me ask you a few questions devil's advocate style. Suppose, for one reason or another, "I" am a person who has or gains certain things: 150+ IQ, an interesting job, a happy relationship with a significant other, original ideas and/or admired artwork, some manner of recognition for such achievements, etc. Despite one's best intentions, would not a great many people feel that your gains are their loss? In other words, that one's doing well is something which they will, despite one's best intentions, find oppressive in some way? Just mentioning this as a hypothetical possibility.


P.S. Always enjoy meeting another Paul. Martin, by the way, was my father's first name.

Re(3): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 16, 2002 at 00:13:59 AM by Paul Martin

Hi Paul,

It is likewise a pleasure meeting you. As for your follow up question, nobody said living the good life is easy. I think the key to the difficulty you raised is the wisdom part. If you don't know enough, and reflect on that knowledge enough, and are not clever enough to discern the subtle effects on all other people in the world of your decisions and choices, you could very well be hurting more people than you help. That kind of blundering would not qualify as a good life in my opinion.

This will probably be considered such a blunder on my part to relate, but I can't resist. As I considered your original question, an example popped into my mind that, because I live in Seattle, is nearly always in my face. I won't mention any names, hopefully to keep myself out of trouble, but there is a very successful company headquartered in a suburb near here which has made a lot of young people very rich. There are two in particular who are very high on the list of the world's rich and, to me, they offer a stark contrast in what one might do with a lot of excess money. One gives huge sums of money to help mitigate some of the world's most heartbreaking and serious problems, such as AIDS in Africa and poverty in India. In contrast to this, the other guy buys sports teams, built the ugliest building in the world to blight our beloved Seattle Center, evicted a boys' camp, which had operated for decades and decades helping disadvantaged boys, from an island the guy bought for his own amusement.

Now, I am sure my judgement is unfair because I have never met, or even seen, either of these two guys. But nevertheless, they have both made strong impressions on me by their actions. I can also imagine the impressions the one guy will leave on those people in India and Africa.

I don't know why I wrote all that. You should have given me another word count limit. But I would say that it is hard to know the complete and net effects of your choices. But, on the other hand, some of them seem fairly obvious. We each do the best we can.

Warm regards,


Re(4): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 16, 2002 at 00:50:48 AM by Paul [X]

Inevitable example, which opens up another can of worms. I was thinking of more microcosmic examples, but why not deal with the top of the economic pyramid?

According to Adam Smith, the greed and selfishness of the "merchants" is to be encouraged with some regulation, despite interpretations of his work because these efforts lead to greater wealth for all. These folks are not noted for leading "good lives" which Smith describes in his essays on ethics (forget the exact name, it's been over 20 years since I read them) but their "badness" leads, in his view, to a general good, whether they are, in your two examples, the "good" capitalist who gives back or the "bad" capitalist who doesn't.

Unfortunately or not, one operates, especially as an adult, within the framework of capitalism as well as governmental and other institutions.So what happens to our ethics?

I know this is real vague and sketchy, but as they say, y'know what I mean..and I think you do..


Re(5): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 16, 2002 at 02:00:37 AM by Paul Martin

What happens to our ethics? Well, I'm no expert on the subject, but it seems to me it breaks into two different questions. 1) How should I lead my life as an individual? and 2) how should we organize and operate our institutions so they behave ethically?

I think the first question is easy. That is, I think it is easy to understand how to behave ethically, not that it is easy to behave ethically.

But I think the second question is very hard. My hat is off to our founding fathers who built our governmental institutions to achieve what I think is the closest thing to an ethical government the world has ever seen. This in spite of momentous changes in almost everything since the founding of our country. In my view, there is a general long term trend toward more ethical behavior of organizations and institutions, even though there are perturbations from time to time. I don't know if that is the result of clever, good, ethical people like our founding fathers, or whether there is some "invisible hand" at work with ethics in mind, or whether it is just dumb luck, or whether I am wrong about the trend. As I said, I think the problem is very complex and I don't know much about it.

Warm regards,


Re(6): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 17, 2002 at 01:32:21 AM by Paul [X]

The second question confuses the crap out of me. Also I'm somewhat confused in general about whether things are getting better or worse, though I tend to think better in some ways. Of course modern institutions can be somewhat maddening, sometimes even deliberately so.



Re(7): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 17, 2002 at 03:52:17 PM by Paul Martin

I think the second question is confusing because it is so complex. The way I deal with that is to try to see things from as high a level as possible. So I start by looking at the history of the earth. What we see is a steady progression of the development of life forms, with occasional punctuations from asteroids. The major thing going on is each organism using some kind of strategy to get food. Plants make it, scavengers find it, parasites steal it, and predators murder for it. Then when I look at human history and pre history, I notice that humans have this same overriding problem of getting food and they use a combination of the same strategies other organisms have used, but with a lot of clever twists and innovations.

I see human pre history as the development of two basic food getting strategies: animal husbandry (herding) and plant husbandry (farming). These two strategies foster opposite human social characteristics in order to work well. The ranchers (herdsmem) need to be tough, independent, resourceful, good horseback riders, and good fighters. They have to be mobile so they can move to new grass, so they don't make buildings and they don't own anything they can't carry around.

The farmers, on the other hand, need to be patient, cooperative, honorable, good bookkeepers, good communicators, good builders, and good inventors. They need to stay in one place because that's where their grain grows best, and they need to build granaries and walls to protect their harvest from thieves.

So we ended up with two kinds of people: the civilized farmers, and the barbaric nomads. (Since the farmers were the ones who developed written language, they got to pick the names 'civilized' and 'barbarian'.) As a side note, the farmers domesticated cats because it was symbiotically advantageous for the cats to protect the grain from mice and in return get to eat the mice. Similarly, the ranchers domesticated dogs because of the mutual advantage of the dogs protecting the herd and getting food in return. I think it is no coincidence that farmers and ranchers have fought like cats and dogs throughout most of history.

Anyway, to get to the point, after working on the problem of getting food for several tens of millennia, we as a species, finally solved the problem in about 1948. Since then, humans have consistently produced more food than we can eat. The same can be said of the problems of protection against weather, predators, disease, and other threats to survival, but I am trying to keep this analysis simple and short.

If we look at what humans have been doing throughout history, the major activity has been to work on improving these food-getting strategies. Nearly everyone was involved in deforesting the land, farming the cleared land, inventing better methods of irrigating, tilling, harvesting, transporting, and so on. After the mid 19th century, when industrialization finally provided the means to really produce a lot of food, the population began migrating off the farms and moving to cities to find something else to do.

The majority of that migration (in the U.S.) was completed by 1948 and I see that humanity crossed over the divide between watersheds at that point.

All the millennia-long problems have been solved, and now we are faced with the problems that we cause to ourselves and to each other: man's inhumanity to man. In my opinion, these are all vestigial in the sense that all of our institutions, organizations, and ethical systems, have evolved in response to the attempts to solve the problem of producing food. These are things like social dominance hierarchies, competition, xenophobia, class status, etc. These things are not only vestigial, and no longer of the same use, but people don't realize that we have crossed that threshold and that there is a major social change underway.

For example, people don't realize that the migration of people from farms to cities is because we have solved the problem of how to get food without the entire population working at it 15 hours a day. Similarly, people don't realize that slavery was abolished, not because of abolitionists or any change of conscience, but because with the invention of mechanized farming, human labor was no longer economic or required.

So, looking at the big picture, I am extremely optimistic. We have very recently solved almost all problems threatening our survival as a species. There are only two left, and as soon as people realize it, we can begin working on them. And, I don't think it will take a hundred thousand years like it took to develop efficient agriculture.

Those two problems are, man's inhumanity to man, and the threat of asteroid collision.

I am optimistic about avoiding an asteroid collision because our technology has allowed us sufficient lead time in order to develop an effective deterrent.

I am optimistic about solving man's inhumanity to man because all it takes to achieve that is for people to stop treating each other badly. By making them aware of the situation we find ourselves in, I think people would be happy to stop. And, with the marvel of modern communication, I think that will happen in only a few decades.

I am in a hurry to go for a walk with my wife and our dog, so I have probably written a lot of typos into this, not to mention a lot of nonsense. But, you triggered this run out from my brain with your comments. It's all your fault.

Warm regards,


Re(8): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 17, 2002 at 10:55:14 PM by Paul [X]

All this is very good and true analysis, and I'm sorry if my comments provoked excessive neuronal activity.

Yeah, it's usually hunters and farmers and industrial laborers, but I think virtually all us here produce and distribute something called Information. Now you might either regard poetry as being one of the oldest fields, somewhat between prostititution and bookkeeping or as a subspecies of information. Or you can regard it as a peculiar habit of bright, somewhat eccentric people which has no real economic value in the grander scheme of things. Or perhaps you can regard it as a response to cruelty if a very ineffective shield against asteroids. I am writing on very very little sleep here and less logic, but I would be curious about your views here, Paul



Re(9): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 18, 2002 at 11:57:05 AM by Paul Martin

Hi Paul,

Don't worry about provoking excessive neuronal activity; I think it is good for me. You said you were curious about my views here, but I'm not sure if you mean about information production and distribution, or about poetry specifically. I think you mean poetry so I'll give you my views there.

My view of poetry is rather cynical, so beware. As with most things human, poetry has a complex history and is a complex phenomenon in current society. Here's how I sort out that complexity.

In pre literate times, the rhyme and meter of poems helped in memorization and probably helped keep listeners' attention. There could be a small undercurrent of excitement as the listener might try to guess each second rhyming word before it is uttered.

With the advent of writing, the old epics were written down, so the burden of memorization was somewhat lifted. But, the form had been established so you had, for example, Virgil copying the form, if not the content and even some of the lines from Homer.

As with most art forms, I think there is a certain admiration for the exceptional capability of the artist to produce within the form. So, the ability to express ideas in poetry was admired and emulated. Some were better at it than others.

I suspect that in some cases, people who didn't have a full measure of this ability, rather than admit defeat or feel embarrassed, simply changed the form so they could "create" the new "art".

Thus, modern "poets" who don't have the ability of a Milton to find rhyming words or to find an appropriate word mix to produce meter, call their work poetry all the same.

And then there is the question of deep meaning. Is there any present in a particular poem? I think the "poet" would like you to think so, but I am with Socrates and suspect that if you pinned the "poet" down and pressed for a revelation of this putative meaning, you would find nothing.

So, I think the purpose or value of poetry has changed over the years so that nowadays it is strictly for entertainment, mostly for the "poets" themselves, but, if it works out, there may also be some money to be made.

On this last point, I don't think many "poets" are getting rich, but many "musicians" are. And, as you may suspect, I have a similarly cynical view of the history and significance of music.

Warm regards,


Re(10): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 18, 2002 at 10:22:36 PM by Paul [X]

Hm, actually I suspect if you pinned anyone down, including perhaps Socrates, you would find that the deeper reasons and truths behind what they were doing were rather deficient.

Socrates, for instance, a rather homely man without a job, was married to a homely woman, Xantippe, of ostensibly shrewish temperament who...probably wanted him to get a job, and certainly was not fond of his habit of bedding down adolescent boys. Why did he cross examine and logically flay such fellows as Ion, the reciter of poems?

For one, they were younger and better looking than him so he was probably jealous; secondly, they also had jobs which brought them positive attention from the populace and some money, neither of which he had ; and thirdly, as an old and grouchy failure, albeit one with an enormous IQ, he had nothing better to do with his time than to cross examine the young, lecture about morality and perhaps, originate some "rational" fantasies about a better society.

Of course Socrates was in the right place at the right time, in terms of winning immortal reknown and in the wrong place at the wrong time in terms of getting himself sentenced to a choice of death or exile. Was Socrates fundamentally wrong?

Well, not in many philosophical ways of course but I'd imagine that he annoyed a lot of his contemporaries and probably for good reason: their society, like nearly any society I can think of, was built on a great many irrational propositions and Socrates was altogether prone to show ordinary, responsible and intelligent citizens their logical folly, which was, deep down, of course, a matter of "self interest." Naturally, you can get away with doing this to poets, a kind of natural minority, but when you start on bigger game..well..all hell WILL break loose. Hence we, who have incorporated Socrates into our own web of irrational and self interested propositions, remember him of course as a martyr, though would hardly tolerate him if, well, he came back to test US.

Nowadays,of course, you'd find the proponents of Socrates in such lovely professions as the law and psychiatry.

Of course they would not appreciate him in real life..but they like his methods without his openness..and naturally being a rather homely bunch as well, don't like too many good looking, 'irresponsible' poets hanging around our neo capitalist whatever social order, especially those who've also read Plato..Just a thought.


Re(11): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 19, 2002 at 00:57:04 AM by Paul Martin

Hmm, do you think it would be productive or advisable to poke around looking for "deeper reasons and truths behind what" people do? Since our discussion keeps branching into new subject areas, this seems to be the next logical question to explore.

"[The classical Greek] society, like nearly any society I can think of, was built on a great many irrational propositions..."

I would be interested in your list of the irrational propositions you think our present day U.S. society is built on. (I am assuming you are a U.S. resident. If not, then I'd be interested in your list for your own country or your list for the U.S. or both.)

Since I think the Hemlock risk is low nowadays, I think it would be safe to go public with the list, and I think it might be useful to discuss it.

BTW, you wouldn't be a good looking, irresponsible poet by any chance, would you? If so I apologize for being so harsh on them. You happened to catch me at a time when a lot of cynical humours were coursing through my blood vessels. Sorry.

Warm regards,


Re(12): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 19, 2002 at 01:53:48 AM by Paul [X]

That's okay regarding poets. Everybody makes fun of them, including poets if they have any brains. Yes, I have frequently been accused of being a good looking irresponsible poet, though I have been accused of a lot of other things as well, sometimes by myself.But that's another story..for another time.

Is it worth digging deeply into people's motives? My only real answer is "maybe". Hell, we do it anyway and most often, according to a set of rules and propositions of which we are but half conscious of. It's like somebody telling you "don't think" or "don't analyze": only makes you want to do it more. Sometimes, of course, deeper analysis might be necessary as in for, instance, police work. But that of course is not what we're doing here...I think..

On the other hand, the question implicitly asks, do we get any valuable knowledge by this type of analysis? Again I'm not sure: we do of course learn some things or else we wouldn't do it. But do we learn the "essential"?

Somehow I doubt it..I think through analysis of individuals or groups, we learn a mishmash of things. We might be able to learn more, or at least differently, simply by photographing them or drawing them, that is, from the outside in. Different sort of learning.

Now about the US and irrational propositions.. that's a long question, which I don't want to get into too deeply right now. But I think, if you could slice open the American Mind, so to speak, you would find a whole host of well, guiding cliches about Work, Love, God, Truth ,the Group and the Individual, Responsibility, Reality, Art, Fate etc.. most of which are kind of well, hm,, cliches.. More later nuff said..


Re(13): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 19, 2002 at 11:13:06 AM by Paul Martin

Hi Paul,

Good. I'm glad you didn't want to get into the list of irrational propositions. I don't think that would be a useful next step.

As for digging into peoples' motives, I do think that would be useful, that it would sort of tie together all of the various topics in this discussion, and that it might be the logical next step. Here's how I would sketch out the inquiry:

Of course, I have a preconceived picture of the outcome, so I would naturally steer the inquiry in that direction. First, as I related, I think the primary motivation for all human (not to mention all animal) action is hunger. This splits early on into the desire to get some food, and the fear that you might not get enough or any.

The first half prompts people to go out, hunt, gather, domesticate, irrigate, till, mill, invent, bookkeep, cooperate, build cities, write epics, invent government, invent religion, etc.

The second half, the fear, prompts people to look over their shoulders, to suspect, to be xenophobic, to store in time of excess, to guard that stored excess to the death, to attempt to secure the means of getting more food in the future in novel ways, etc.

Without digging deeply into peoples' motives, I think it is all too common to fail to recognize those second motives as the basic reasons for competition, greed, belligerence, discrimination, war, crime, the desire to acquire, status seeking, etc. etc.

In short, I think that all social ills including all examples of man's inhumanity to man, stem from the long practiced successful strategies employed to get, and to secure a supply of, food. And, as I said earlier, if people could only realize that we have solved that problem, we could abandon those vestigial strategies and improve our lot immensely. So, yes, I think we could get valuable knowledge from this type of analysis.

Oh, and incidentally, I think that a list of irrational propositions would drop out of this analysis as a by product.

Warm regards,


Re(14): Question of Ethics

Posted on November 20, 2002 at 01:59:47 PM by Paul [X]

Food, hunger and fear. Yeah, those are the biggies. It would be nice if we all stopped fighting for food perhaps, in the high IQ world, if we stopped the big food fights, a slightly different thing though I don't really know how we'd do it. I guess I tend to throw in a couple of other factors here, like the struggle for land, property or simply turf but I guess that could be reduced to the struggle for food...Hmm..I will have to think about this..


Please send me an email with your comments.

Essays | Essay Home Page
Go To Home Page

©2008 Paul R. Martin, All rights reserved.