Personhood?

Family Guy is an animated comedy about a dysfunctional family, the Griffins, and it spoofs current events and social taboo subjects, much like the Simpsons.

While watching several episodes, to get a few laughs, I was intrigued by the pet dog, Brian. Now Brian fancies himself a person because he has human characteristics. He walks on his hind legs and he talks. He is articulate, witty and urbane and he strives for person status.

Watching Brian’s antics, I started thinking about Personhood. It’s defined as the state of being an individual or having human characteristics and feelings.

Can Brian, the dog, be a person?

Reasoning tells us in order to be a person, one must be human. So, Brian lacks this necessary condition of personhood: humanity.

Another condition is you must think rationally. Brian is rational and he is a thinking being able to reason. Even Kant would agree that being a person does NOT include membership in a particular species, but must only be in possession of reason. So, you could call Brian a person that demands respect!

Now, our Brian is a cartoon, but it does lead us to the question of how to distinguish persons from pets.

Persons are the entity that has the moral right to make its own life choices, and to live its life without interference from others (self-determination). We don’t give animals the same kind of autonomy that we accord persons. We sell dogs and cats. Pets are property.

To be a person you need a modicum of intellect, and self-awareness and consciousness. I do have intelligence and I am self-aware.

Hold on! What does it mean to be self-aware?

It means you are aware of your existence and actions. You are conscious of your own self and ego.

You also need consciousness to be a person.

Hey! What’s that all about?

Well, to have consciousness requires “subjective experiences.” Which means you must possess an inner, mental life. You can put yourself in other situations through your imagination.

So, we are different from animals in that we try to understand where we came from. We look into our past and try to predict our future, and what other species thinks about their death?

So, we are a unique species.

Hooray! I am a unique person.

I conclude with:

No two people are alike—and both of them are glad of it!

The Oldie Point Of View

The young and middle-aged take note:

By “oldie”, I mean people 70 years of age and beyond. Usually this is the age range when we are considered “old” by others and ourselves.

BEING AN OLDIE IS A TIME OF LOSSES. But there is some light in the present, after all we are still alive!

The first loss is the loss of youth and middle-age. What happened? It came so fast. Well, life has happened.

Along with youth, respect is lost. People don’t respect or notice oldies. So, what do we do? We create euphemisms, such as, “older”, “elderly”, or “senior citizen”.

To younger people, we oldies are invisible! Maybe we should jump up and down and talk louder.

Loss of interest in life is another problem. But what bothers me greatly is remembering my life as it was thirty or forty years ago and then coming back to the NOW.

Old age forgetfulness and grumpiness are forgiven by others, but the oldie doesn’t forgive what has happened to him. We have to die, but before that, must we also become OLD?

Loss of health is another shock for the oldie. Stairs are harder to climb, streets are more dangerous to cross, locomotion is slowed, it seems everyone is walking faster than you! Then there are the ever present aches and pains and failing joints. Your once firm strong body now rebels with weakened legs and the fear of slipping or tripping and getting hurt in a fall.

Also, you will be very lucky to avoid any illnesses. So, what do you do? You redefine health to the point of being thankful for the absence of life threatening illness. The average oldie will spend about five years of their retirement dogged by poor health. So, try to get the most out of life while you still are semi-healthy and independent.

Another shock loss is the loss of our looks. There is almost a total change in how we look. We get wrinkles, brown spots on our temples and hands, bags of flesh beneath our eyes and of course loss of hair or white hair. Watch out for mirrors, you won’t recognize the person in the reflection. I only look in a mirror when I shave!

Loss of loved ones and friends is almost unendurable. And , of course, these losses magnify our own mortality.

And finally we come to the loss of TIME. Old age is the last stage of life and time is RUNNING OUT! The years are now going by so fast that it is hardly worth counting them. We have more PAST than FUTURE! People tell you to get resigned to your losses and make the best of things, I reply, being old is like life is over, BUT we are still living! After all is said and done, resigning yourself to old age losses is far preferable to death.

So, what do we do? We cherish what remains of life. I enjoy my hobby of writing and the time my spouse and I spend together.

We must appreciate life and to do that we have to value it. In the case of the oldie, the idea is to treasure what one has, namely, the remaining life we have, so temporarily.

So, how can we appreciate life and be aware of its brevity?

Well, the things I do are visit cemeteries, look at old photos and pics, and think about our blindness and ignorance to let the events of our lives pass without much notice.

When I visit cemeteries it reminds me that the meter of life is running and the dates on the stones are confirmation of how long, or short, human existence can be.

I often look at old photos and pictures to give me ideas for stories, since I am a writer in my retirement. Photos capture time, they make time STOP, something we can’t do. These old images record moments of life before they vanish into the past.

When I look at old photos of myself, I realize I am no longer that person and that the person I am now will not be who I am in the future. These photos give me an appreciation of who I am now and what I now have. When I look at old photos of my family it gives me feelings of awe, sadness and incredulity, sometimes tears come to my eyes.

The last item is our blindness and ignorance to take the moments of life for granted. As we go through life we don’t notice much, we’re shut up in our little boxes. We don’t realize life while we are living it. The ordinary events of life are priceless and it’s a tragic waste to not recognize this at the time. But that’s human nature, not to notice life’s moments and they pass so quickly. We are too busy to notice.

Well, I wrote this articles for myself, I am 78 years old and I hope I will appreciate the time I have left. Right now, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of wine to help me accept the things I can’t change.

Nationalism vs Liberalism

What do these terms mean? Is “nationalism” putting your country first and giving the people a sense of self-identity, bonding and security? Is “liberalism” the view of equality for all?

For almost three decades a global, liberal ruling class has tried to put down the spirit of nationhood—blind to the people’s pride in their country. The liberal elite had a dream of everyone being “citizens of the world”, a grand utopian vision of the people mingling in an ever-shifting ethnic and racial global community!

You wouldn’t be British; you would be European!

You wouldn’t be American; you would be Asian-American, Hispanic-American, African-American, etc.!

But as the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election have made clear: many people don’t like the liberal elite’s dream!

To many people their national identities are important to them. Their flag is a symbol of pride, belonging, security and bonding.

Most people don’t want to live in communities that are endlessly changing. They want stability and a sense of belonging—exactly the things the people associate with their national identity.

Many liberals call this “racist” and they sneer at the people they are supposed to be leading. “How dare these common people refuse to embrace our ideas?”

The new US president’s nationalistic appeal found fertile ground because the liberal project has many flaws.

The liberals thought they were bringing in a new golden age with globalization, mass immigration and open borders. BUT, in fact, they revived the thing they wanted to erase—nationalism!

So, what’s the answer?

In my mind, neither extreme nationalism or extreme liberalism is the answer. Compromise is the way.

The world desperately needs patriotic, pragmatic leaders. Leaders who are open to co-operation and understand people and their national communities, open to progress but also respectful of tradition. They must be tolerant of differences but not obsessed with extreme diversity.

It probably will be a long time before we see leaders like the above. But in the meantime maybe we should give the leaders we have a chance to see what they can do.

Two Old Men (Tom and Dave)

I was on a walk with my old friend, Tom. We are both 78 years old and we were school buddies from age 6 through 18, when we graduated high school. Then we went our separate ways. Tom ended up retired in Florida and I ended up retired in jolly old England.

But one day we both ended up on a walk in Lincoln Park in Chicago, where we grew up. The walk was our constitutional. Old men need a daily constitutional.

“Hey Tom, lets go for a drink.”

“Sounds good to me, Dave.”

“Look, there’s a tavern with the name, “The Old Man”. Lets go in and have a beer.”

“Okay Dave, the name sounds interesting.”

We entered and sat on green padded stools and ordered two steins of beer. We sat sipping our beer and looking at our reflections in the huge mirror behind the bar.

“Ha, ha, look at us, Tom, two heavy-set old men.”

“We both look timeworn, Dave, but we’re still smiling.”

There were several oil paintings on the walls of old men with interesting faces staring down at us.

“Maybe we should put our pictures up there.”

Tom smiled and said:

“Yea, with the caption, “Everything is Transitory” or “Nearly everything hurts and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work!”

We both laughed.

“Hey Tom, how are you dealing with old age?”

“Sometimes I feel very alone.”

 

“Doesn’t everybody, Tom?”

“Yes, I guess so, but it becomes more exaggerated in old age.”

We pondered aloneness for a minute.

“But, on the whole I’m feeling good, knock on wood,” Tom banged his knuckles on the wooden bar, “But I know our age is associated with illness, loneliness and death. How do you feel about getting old?”

I took a long sip of my beer.

“Well, I’m a writer in my retirement and that keeps me busy. But I know I’m getting a little forgetful and my physical and mental performance has been reduced the last couple of years.”

I thought for a minute about the questions the elderly think about.

“Here’s a question for you, Tom. How are you dealing with mortality?”

Tom laughed, “Hey buddy, what is this, Existential Questions for the Elderly?”

“Something like that,” I said, as I ordered two more beers.

“Well, I enjoy a bit of acting and singing which keeps me busy and this enjoyment distracts me from that question. But I do realize my remaining time is becoming shorter and shorter, but I use that thought as a motivator to live each day to the fullest.”

“Good on you, Tom, we have to live within the limitations of old age and adjust to the boundaries of human existence.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Tom, taking a big gulp of beer.

“We finally get to the BIG questions. What meaning does this life have? And, is there something that transcends this life? It is essential to find a personal answer to these questions.”

“Why?” said Tom, with a quizzical look on his face.

“For psychological reasons, the old person must answer these questions so they don’t have a seed of unrest and get drawn into a depressive world.”

“How do you answer them?” Tom was putting me on the spot.

“Well Tom, as far as the meaning of life goes, I was productive and I contributed to society in my work life. Now, I find satisfaction in my writing and I hope it gets some people thinking about how to better their lives. I make my own meaning out of life. As far as something that transcends this life, I believe there is nothing beyond our death. I am an atheist and I believe that our death is final.”

“Yes Dave, I see, from what you have said, that failure or denial in dealing with these questions in old age can result in psychological disorders.”

“I believe we can be happy if we live in the present, Tom.”

We shook hands, finished our beers and walked out into the autumn mist singing:

“ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE.”

The Meaning of Life–Python Style

While watching the Monty Python film, “The Meaning of Life”, I thought how Python humor reduces our traditional positions and arguments to absurdity. It makes us understand how things can get out of hand. For example- In the film we see the glorifying of expensive equipment in the hospital labor room, with a machine that goes “ping”. The doctors love the machine that goes “ping”. This equipment is more valuable than the humans, mother and child. Or take our excessive attention to Growth and Learning in society, this can lead to deadening the spirit of youngsters. Or take the corporate greed that abounds now days, in the skit oppressed workers transform their building into a battleship fighting the big office structures and their inhabitants. It’s Python humor but in many ways it’s true.

The Meaning of Life film brings out the extreme and dangerous DISTRACTIONS that dehumanize us, such as religious ideology, class distinction, science, medicine, technology, education and corporate greed. These distractions take away our happiness and also, it separates us from our fellow humans.

At the end of the film a lady opens an envelope and reads:

“Here’s the Meaning of Life. It’s nothing complex or special. Be nice to people, eat sensibly, read a good book now and then, take a daily short walk and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Simple, isn’t it?

Once we rid ourselves of piety and dogma then matters of meaning become more pragmatic and demystified.

Humans must create their meaning through a process of self-observation and the enemy of this process is DISTRACTION. To get rid of distraction you have to focus your mind and senses in the present moment, and resist the tendency to wander off into the past or future.

We can humanize ourselves again by taking our heads out of the clouds so we will be better able to know ourselves and make our own meaning.

Remember, Existence precedes Essence, which means we exist first and then we determine our essence (goals and purpose).

We must enjoy being here (in the present) NOW.

At the beginning of the film, there were some fish swimming in a tank. They were taking note of their fellow fish, which were being eaten outside of the tank. They wanted to know what life was all about. It seemed that they had missed the point. Have we, humans, also missed the point?

It has been said, to understand life you must also understand death. That, after all is said and done, is where your life inevitably leads.

Socrates pointed out that the art of living is learning how to die. In other words, knowing that death is coming should motivate us to live a fuller and better life in the meantime.

The laughter we get from the Python’s zany and irreverent humor can liberate us. Laughter frees us from piety and dogma, so we are free to question and think for ourselves.

So, we arrive at one question: What does life mean? In my mind, the meaning is what you make of your life, it’s a journey toward our realistic hopes, reflecting what we know and ought to be doing with our life. When we realize this, we can laugh and be free of the fetters of distraction.

I will leave you with two quips about laughter:

Laughter is the shock absorber that eases the blows of life.

If the world laughs at you, laugh right back because it’s as funny as you are.

Thinking About Thinking

I was recently re-watching some Monty Python sketches, specifically, “Cheese Shop” and “Dead Parrot” plus the film, “Life of Brian”. I was struck by how much philosophy is in Python humor.

Socrates believed in examining your life by constant question and answer sessions. He did a lot of “thinking about thinking”, which is sort of a definition of philosophy. Thinking about thinking is what happens in the Python sketches, in which ordinary people try to overcome barriers by using common sense and reason.

In the “Dead Parrot”, a customer is trying to convince the pet shop owner that the parrot he purchased is dead. The shopkeeper wouldn’t agree.

In the “Cheese Shop” sketch a customer is trying to buy some cheese in a cheeseless cheese shop! It’s the “theatre of the absurd’, where these confrontations between a rational person and an indifferent world, happen.

In the “Life of Brian”, Brian says, to his disciples:

“Look, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals.”

This is what Sartre was talking about when he declared that our “existence precedes our essence”. We have to think for ourselves and provide our own meaning and purpose in life. We are NOT born with essence (meaning, purpose and goals). We exist first and then we determine our own essence.

Monty Python’s humor makes us re-think our lives by satirizing and parodying the way people fail to get independence of thought and thus don’t use their freedom to choose. Sartre called this “bad faith”, the denial of personal freedom to choose, so these people feel they are not free to change their actions.

We haven’t said anything about Nietzsche, which “Life of Brian” also brought to mind. He declared “God is Dead”, which meant that the scientific world made belief in God no longer acceptable to modern man, and so our meaning and purpose would have to come from us alone, the new “ubermensch” (the superior man, who determines his own meaning and values). Python comedy brought out to us the illogic and stupidity that sometimes underlies our social institutions.

So, there is plenty of philosophy in Python, in fact some sketches and films are understood better by philosophical analysis.

To end, I leave you with a comic line:

PHILOSOPHY IS A STUDY WHICH ENABLES MEN TO BE UNHAPPY MORE INTELLIGENTLY!

 

Personal Identity and Memory

What is philosophy about? It’s about the basic questions you have when thinking about the world and how to interact within it. Ex.- Does life have meaning? Philosophers examine these questions and make arguments in favor of different answers or positions.

My current project is approaching philosophy from a different angle, from a work of fiction, namely a film, to see if films can make the basic questions clearer with understandable positions.

I’m of the opinion that philosophical themes in films can make the basic questions and their arguments easier to understand.

In this blog post I’m going to analyze the film, “Memento”, from the POV of personal identity and memory.

This film is about the Psychological Continuity Theory of personal identity. What makes ME, me, are my psychological characteristics. These high-level properties, such as my personality, change slowly over time. Another part of continuity is achieved by Memory. I’m the person I was last year because I can remember having some of the perceptions and thoughts that that person had.

A brief synopsis of the film:

Leonard Shelby is a man whose ability to remember anything short-term for more than a couple of minutes is NIL. He was hit on the head during an attack on his wife, who was killed, along with one of the killers. He wants to find and kill the second attacker. The film is told in reverse to disorientate the viewer just like Leonard is. He uses a system of notes, pictures and tattoos to remind him of what’s happening. He has trouble knowing who he is as he proceeds in his quest.

So, does memory constitute personal identity? Leonard, in Memento, can barely function without his memories.

This reminds me of the theory of personal identity by John Locke. He describes the human mind at birth as a blank state. It then gets filled through experience.

A person is always conscious of what they think. So, if consciousness accompanies thinking, then identity is a matter of consciousness to unite your thoughts. You can repeat a thought of a past action and this is a matter of memory. Personal identity is, then, a set of memories that constantly change.

But, poor Leonard, in the film, had to make notes about his memories to keep his identity in tack. Is he the same person as he was when he had a short-term memory? Or, is he someone different?

All in all, what’s this personal identity thing all about? I guess it’s simply having a series of conscious memories.

In the case of “Memento”, a series of conscious memories can be fused with another, so it becomes a combination of two people, two Leonards, or a combination of true and false.

Man is a poor thing, constantly struggling for self-definition. We try to make an identity from the confusing and conflicting assault of experience. The protagonist in “Memento”, like Man, is constantly worried that he has forgotten something.

Are you confused?

Well, philosophy is an orderly way of discussing subjects that we don’t know much about. LOL!

Thirst For Power and The Philosophy In Macbeth

I just watched the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Michael Fassbender. He was an excellent Macbeth. There were some changes to the original play:

The play starts with the witches. This film starts with the funeral of the Macbeth’s child which isn’t in the play. The play doesn’t directly mention the death of a child but it can be inferred.

The play, also, doesn’t show Fleance, son of Banquo, with a sword disappearing into the mist at the end. To me, this implied that Fleance will meet with the witches and kill Malcolm because they said Banquo’s sons would be kings.

In the play, Macbeth is beheaded, the film doesn’t show this.

Brief synopsis of the play:

King Duncan’s generals, Macbeth and Banquo, encounter the witches after the battle of rebellion. The prophesy of the witches is that Macbeth will become King of Scotland and Banquo’s sons shall be kings. Macbeth starts out as a good man but his thirst for power makes him bad. The Macbeths’ plot to kill Duncan and Macbeth becomes King and he has Banquo killed but his son, Fleance, escapes.

Macbeth’s guilt brings on hallucinations and Banquo’s ghost. He then embarks on a reign of terror, Macduff’s family are killed. Malcolm, Duncan’s son, and Macduff decide to lead an army against Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, full of guilt, kills herself.

Macduff and Macbeth fight, but Macduff is the product of a caesarean birth, technically not born of woman. Macbeth knows he is doomed because he can only be killed by a man not born of woman. Macduff beheads Macbeth and brings it to King Malcolm.

***

Let’s glean some philosophy out of Macbeth. The movie and play are concerned with the effects of evil actions on the mind of the perpetrator.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This is one of the many “doublespeak” statements in the play. Good is bad and bad is good is a conflicting statement from the witches.

Macbeth because of his thirst for power turns him from fair (good) to foul (bad).

To Macbeth his bad actions our good for him, he becomes King.

Macbeth is weak in character because he can’t conquer his guilt and self-doubt.

He leans on Lady Macbeth’s steely sense of purpose to push him forward to his evil deeds. But after his wife’s death, he is alone and he succumbs to despair.

Time is a big theme in Macbeth. The play is concerned with the limited time allotted to us humans.

How does the future relate to the present? What Macbeth did in the present has consequences for his future, he must endure the guilt in the aftermath.

He constantly refers to “tomorrow” because he thinks it will be a refuge from the past and present. But he has mortgaged the past and present to the future and he finds the future can’t be unconnected from the past.

We all live in a line of yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows, with death the end of the line. Shakespeare reminds us of the temporal character of our life.

I love the speech Macbeth gives when he knows his queen is dead, this is the translation in modern English:

“She would have died anyway, we all die. So, that news was bound to come someday. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, the days creep slowly along until the end. And everyday that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths. Out, out, brief candle. Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.”

This speech expresses the utter meaninglessness of life!

An observation on Macbeth and his death, the two words rhyme: He has his head cut off and it is shown on stage while his body is elsewhere. He is in a bodiless state! So, his mind is detached from his criminal body. He was a man with a dual nature, a man of violent action and a man of imagination. The separation of head from body show us this dual nature.

I will leave you with this statement:

Power is dangerous unless you have humility and power will either burn a man out or light him up.

Is There Rightness In Vigilantism Or Not?

I watched Martin Scorsese’s film, “Taxi Driver”, again the other night and I was reminded of the arguments surrounding justice and vigilantism.

Lets define the terms:

Justice—just treatment and moral rightness.

Vigilantism—taking the law into one’s own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong.

The taxi driver, Travis Bickle(Robert De Niro), cruises the city by night and sees all the scum on the streets(prostitution, drug use, criminals). He would like a heavy rain to wash it away.

Travis is a lonely man and he’s looking for someone to be with. By his voice-over thoughts, we don’t know whether Travis is entirely sane. He feels somebody has to do something about the scum but it seems nobody is doing anything, so he has to take responsibility.

He meets Betsy, a pretty woman who works for a politician. He dates her but she rejects him and this unhinges Travis and he plans to assassinate the politician against all logic, but he doesn’t go through with it.

Then he meets Iris, a young prostitute, who is trapped in between her pimp and his boss. She says there is no way out.

Travis sees the police can’t be counted on to help her and she certainly can’t help herself. So, it is okay, in his mind, to help her out of the criminal’s clutches. He didn’t kill the politician, which would have been insane, but rescuing Iris is justice in Travis’ mind.

Is Travis going to do the right thing by killing the criminals? The law isn’t doing the job so, he thinks: “We the people must take charge.” He is the people.

After freeing Iris, by killing the pimp, the room keeper and the big boss, he tries to kill himself, but runs out of amo.

So, what can we conclude about vigilantism?

It has been said that in a civilized society people give up the right to private revenge, they give that right to the government for purposes of objectivity. So, citizens can’t go out of their way to enact revenge.

One of the problems is that law enforcers are NOT held in high esteem today. Why?

People see criminals getting off lightly in the courts and consequently they don’t feel justice is done. So, is there any rightness to vigilantism?

Well, I guess in the end the world has always acted on the principle that one good kick deserves another!

 

 

 

Can Egoism and Friendship Exist Together?

After watching Martin Scorsese’s film, “Casino”, the question of egoism popped into my mind. Can egoism live beside friendship?

Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), manages the Tangiers, a casino owned by the mob in Las Vegas. His “friend”, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), exploits their friendship for his own enrichment. He is the maximum egoist in the film. Egoism is the view that a person’s self-interest is of paramount value in their life.

Nicky says Ace is his friend, but is there such a thing as egoist friendship? They are conflicting terms.

Nicky has a special relationship with Ace, sort of enforcer bodyguard, but is it a friendship? A selfish person can wish another well, but really selfishness and egoism are incompatible.

The philosophy of egoism states that people are motivated by their own interests and desires. Altruism is the opposite of egoism.

Questions arise:

Can an individual ever act only with regard to their own interests, completely disregarding the interests of others?

Can an individual ever act only for others without thinking of their own interests?

The theory is: that people ALWAYS act in their own interests, even though they might disguise their motivation saying that they are helping others, but their altruism is still self-serving.

My opinion is that a person should pursue their own interests as long as it doesn’t hurt others.

There are different degrees of friendship. Even an egoist can wish another well and can be very attached in a relationship, but real caring for others is incompatible with egoism.

In Casino, Nicky always asks himself:

“What’s in it for me?”

His priority is making sure his life goes well. So, an egoist would take advantage of a “friend” when it is in his self-interest.

Nicky believes in maximizing egoism, which means to promote his good to any extent, even to the determent of Ace. In the film, Nicky’s extreme egoism leads him to a horrible end.

But, there is such a thing as satisficing egoism. Some people reject maximizing egoism and take up satisficing egoism instead, which means to pursue a course of action that satisfies their minimum requirements to achieve a goal. Now, this would leave room for friendship. In other words, to make sure your life goes good enough but falling short of the BEST possible life.

This discussion has reminded me of the quip:

Some of us veer to the left and some of us swing to the right, but MOST of us are SELF-CENTERED!