questions for discussion


In this post we will ask a few questions for discussion

1. When a person acts, is it the act that is bad or the effects? Is there any bad act?

2. Is the maxim, man always does right “true”?

3. What is the origin of responsibility and guilt?

4. Nietzsche writes in human all too human that never has a religion, directly or indirectly, either as dogma or as allegory contained a truth. If you disagree, would you give examples of such truths

5. Are we right in judging Calvin for burning Servetus at the stake?

6. When we punish a man, do we hold him responsible for his nature, motives, conduct or particular acts? Are we just in doing any of the above?

 

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

39 thoughts on “questions for discussion

  1. ladysighs says:

    I just have thoughts on the punishment as I relate it to punishing my own kids. 😦 I don’t know if I held them responsible or tried to improve their conduct. I think I probably felt anger at myself for not raising them right. lol
    I think punishment is usually about ourselves and has nothing to do with the other person. But I am open to other thoughts. 🙂

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  2. aguywithoutboxers says:

    As for judging, are any of us capable of judging another? On punishment, is it the punishment that alters behavior or is it the consequence of such behavior that guides actions? The two are separate and different. Good questions!

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  3. Ruth says:

    I really do struggle with the idea of pure determinism. Even if it is so I wonder if we have any choice other than to behave as if there is freewill.

    I will attempt to answer your questions, though.

    1) Is there any bad act?

    I think so. When a person points a gun at another with the intent to pull the trigger and kill I think that is a bad act. Does it matter that it was predetermined? When an adult molests a child I think that is a bad act. When those of us who don’t have those urges look at child abuse, sexual or physical, we know that it is bad. Does it matter that the adult is wired to do that? I think trying to separate actions from consequences is nearly impossible. Cause and effect are inseparable.

    2) Is the maxim, man always does right, true?

    Based on my previous answer I think you can guess that my answer to that is no. I have heard it said that there are not good and bad, only good, better, and best. I’m not sure I agree with that. When we look upon our starving neighbor and do nothing, are we doing right?

    3) What is the origin of responsibility and guilt?

    I’d say our evolved sense of empathy is the origin of responsibility and guilt. Even without religions to tell us right from wrong I think we intuitively know, and feel guilty, when we harm another. Now, what we do with that information is a completely different thing altogether. Wallowing in guilt serves no purpose. The only purpose guilt serves in a positive way is to cause growth and change. If we don’t change the behavior that made us feel guilty to begin with we’ll just continue in a vicious, unproductive, cycle.

    4) Does religion contain any truth, directly or indirectly, whether as dogma or allegory?

    I’ll have to think about this a bit more, but I’d say on the face of it, yes. Buddhism is considered a religion and I would dare say that it does contain grains of truth. It depends on what you mean by truth. Is wisdom truth?

    5) Are we right in judging Calvin for burning Servetus at the stake?

    If we do not condemn such acts, if we do not judge them, how are we to determine that any act is worthy of condemnation? What are we suggesting here? That we ignore such violence? Can we ignore ISIS? I think not.

    6) When we punish a man, do we hold him responsible for his nature, motives, conduct or particular acts? Are we just in doing any of the above?

    I’m torn on this. I don’t think it’s ever productive to punish people to make ourselves feel better, out of anger, spite, vengeance, etc. I draw a distinction between punishment and discipline. Discipline should always be for the best interest and correction of the offender. Discipline doesn’t necessarily involve harsh sentences. More productive would be gentle guidance and correction. On the other hand, there are those for whom apparently the thought of harsh punishment keeps them from causing great harm. I don’t understand that. But I’ve had people admit to me that it is so for them.

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    • makagutu says:

      Thanks Ruth for your comments.
      1. Is it possible to know the intent before the act is accomplished? What is the bad act? Pointing the gun or the intent to kill?
      2. Does a person act in a way that he/she doesn’t consider advantageous? Either to avoid pain or to get pleasure? If these are the motives how then can it be said he acted wrongly?
      3. Do you think we feel guilty because we have evolved to feel empathy or because we think we could have acted differently?
      4. I will wait for your thoughts on this
      5. Don’t you think we feel this way because we are far removed from the time of Calvin and that such a thing feels foreign to our morals? We can’t ignore the ISIS because we live in an age when we think men are more enlightened and men should not be beheading each other for difference of opinion
      6. I will let this rest for now

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      • Ruth says:

        1) Is it possible to know the intent before the act is accomplished? What is the bad act? Pointing the gun or the intent to kill?

        I suppose only the person can know their intent. But once the trigger is pulled and the recipient is dead, they’re dead. Can’t recover from that. I’d also say that since a gun is a weapon and dangerous, pointing it at another with or without the intent to kill, and without a valid reason is a bad act. Even if it’s just to instill fear, if the victim has done no wrong it’s bad.

        2) Does a person act in a way that he/she doesn’t consider advantageous? Either to avoid pain or to get pleasure? If these are the motives how then can it be said he acted wrongly?

        Typically, no, a person doesn’t act in a way that he/she doesn’t consider advantageous. But advantageous to whom? Do the consequences of their actions not matter to anyone else? As long as it’s advantageous to him/herself then an act is right? No matter the harm it might cause another? This seems to me to lead to a life of strict hedonism and consumerism. Just think of all the fracking and pipelines and skirmishes over natural resources we have. Is this right? Is it right to do what seems advantageous today only to rob tomorrow?

        3) Do you think we feel guilty because we have evolved to feel empathy or because we think we could have acted differently?

        Hindsight is always 20/20. I think we’d like to believe we could have acted differently but mostly we just offer up reasons why we couldn’t have or didn’t. The only thing to be done at this point is to resolve to act differently in the future; rewire our minds, if you will.

        4) My thoughts on this are varied. If we are strictly talking about the Abrahamic religions, I think that any truth gained is borrowed from other cultures/religions, like Buddhism.

        5) Don’t you think we feel this way because we are far removed from the time of Calvin and that such a thing feels foreign to our morals? We can’t ignore the ISIS because we live in an age when we think men are more enlightened and men should not be beheading each other for difference of opinion.

        It might be so that we are far removed from the time of Calvin, but what makes such a thing foreign to our morals? How can we even have morals unless we judge acts to be either good or bad, right or wrong, advantageous or disadvantageous? We cannot ingore ISIS because what you are calling enlightenment is what I think of as good judgement.

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        • makagutu says:

          #1 So if there is a valid reason, then pointing the gun would be an acceptable act or is it bad on all conditions? What if there is no death, just pleasure for the person pointing the gun? How is pointing a gun to tease different from other ways of teasing people for pleasure?
          #2 You ask an interesting question. Advantageous to whom? When I turn the question on its head and ask of you, why shouldn’t his pleasure natter to him/her? Your question leads me to think it is the will of the many that is paramount.
          #3 Which most times hardly ever happen
          #4 Let’s take Buddhism as an example. What truths-whichever way you define it- would we be talking about here[ I don’t think he meant wisdom]
          #5 We label acts good or arbitrarily. There is no standard. We consider Calvin’s actions abhorrent because we have the benefit of hindsight, something he may not have had. Had we lived at the time when burning people at the stake was the order of the day, there are many who would not have objected

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          • Ruth says:

            #1 So if there is a valid reason, then pointing the gun would be an acceptable act or is it bad on all conditions? What if there is no death, just pleasure for the person pointing the gun? How is pointing a gun to tease different from other ways of teasing people for pleasure?

            Ok. Let’s let someone – not me, of course – point a gun at you for their pleasure. For the sheer pleasure of causing you terror. Is it all okay because he/she was pleased with it and you weren’t killed? Somehow I don’t think so. Somehow I don’t think you’d be too quick to laugh it off and say, “I’m glad you had a good time.” Somehow I think you might not like it.

            The only case I can think of that would be a valid reason for pointing a gun at someone is in self-defense. In which case, it might still be considered a bad act(I would feel that way if it were me), but the lesser of evils.

            #2 You ask an interesting question. Advantageous to whom? When I turn the question on its head and ask of you, why shouldn’t his pleasure natter to him/her? Your question leads me to think it is the will of the many that is paramount.

            I’m not suggesting man’s pleasure shouldn’t or doesn’t matter to him. But when whatever is his pleasure infringes on the rights or well-being of another why should his desires trump that? I’m not suggesting it is the will of the many that is paramount. I’m suggesting it’s well-being of all. If denying someone’s pleasure saves another’s pain then that would be a good thing, no? Whereas if someone’s pleasure is not at the expense of anyone else I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. Denying people pleasure is not what I’m suggesting. Let’s use rape as an example: It gives some people great pleasure to take what is not theirs to exert their power over another. Is that okay? Why or why not?

            #3 Which most times hardly ever happen

            I think that depends on the person. This is where I disagree a tiny bit with pure determinism. How can one be rehabilitated from a life of crime without being a willing party? How does anyone overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, or any other vice without making a conscious decision that it’s in their best interest – even if it brings pain?

            #4 Let’s take Buddhism as an example. What truths-whichever way you define it- would we be talking about here[ I don’t think he meant wisdom]

            The truth of suffering – ordinary life brings about dukka(a word we really don’t have a good translation for)

            the truth of the cause of suffering(dukka) – attachment to things, people, ideas, life itself

            These are truths.

            #5 We label acts good or arbitrarily. There is no standard. We consider Calvin’s actions abhorrent because we have the benefit of hindsight, something he may not have had. Had we lived at the time when burning people at the stake was the order of the day, there are many who would not have objected.

            I don’t think all acts are labeled good or bad arbitrarily. How can we consider Calvin’s actions abhorrent without some standard? There a great many who still would not object to those they label heretics being burned at the stake, stoned, or the like.

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          • makagutu says:

            #1 I think there is an error in our view of the world. We have incorporated good or bad to the motive so that we see the pointing of the gun as bad while it is the consequence- being terrorized- that we consider bad.
            #2 That is a tough question. I think it’s not ok because I wouldn’t want to be raped.
            #3 The pain of withdrawing from a bad addiction appears short-lived compared to the pleasure he hopes to get when he is clean and goes through with the rehabilitation. How does overcoming an addiction affect determinism?
            #4 Is this given by religion or this is self evident?
            #5 What is the standard of good/ bad? During the time of Calvin when men believed that hell was a place of permanent torment, what difference did it make to burn a person for a day or two, a person who would burn forever?

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  4. keithnoback says:

    Very interesting questions. There are no bad acts. It is the context of the act which makes it bad or good. Even badness and goodness are determined by the larger context. Can we call the act of killing a human unequivocally bad? Can we call the act of feeding the poor unequivocally good? A reductio is available here: If you answer ‘yes’, then where in the act do good and bad have causal power, in what event do they inhere?
    If a man kills a child we call him evil. If a lion kills a child do we call the lion evil? One can object that the first is murder and the second is predation, but then you have already smuggled in an evaluation based in context.
    Justice is difficult – perhaps impossible – for that reason. If justice is essentially “getting to even”, what is payment in kind from one context to another? I think that’s why justice has evolved from strictly punitive (providing an alternative motive, namely fear of punishment, for an offender) towards rehabilitative models (changing the psychological context of an offender).

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  5. Great post, and great questions, Mak. They relate mostly to free will, I think, which I do not feel we have. Punishment is almost always handed out erratically and unevenly thus making it meaningless except to those handing it out. It makes the parent feel in control to strike a “bad” child for taking a cookie when told he shouldn’t. Yet, depending on the mood of the parent, the punishment is not always the same, and often not handed out at all. The justice system in America is horrible. It is suppose to be color blind but isn’t. Blacks are treated much more harshly than upper class whites. As for guilt and responsibility, a sociopath feels no guilt or responsibility for his actions while others, like me, feel guilt and responsibility for many things we have no control over. If a dog is beaten every day, then goes out and bites someone, is it the dog’s fault or those who beat him? If a child grows up in poverty and is sexually and physically abused every day, then, as an adult, is angry and explosive, is it their fault or the fault of those who abused them? If it is their fault, at what point during the abuse and rape they were experiencing as a child did it become their fault, at age 18? 12? 6? And why that age? I don’t have the answers, but your questions sure got me thinking.

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    • makagutu says:

      I like your answers very much.
      I don’t have the answers to those you ask but I think they will help in moving this discussion forward

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      • They’re hard if not impossible to answer. We have so little control over things in our lives, including ourselves. Neuroscience is showing us that even decisions we seem to make on the spot have already been determined deep in our brains before we make them. The ultimate question to me is, “How much control over anything do we truly have?”

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        • makagutu says:

          Related to that question is why do we want control?

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          • Because it means our way is the right way, if we can impose our way onto others and force them to see it, too. Thing is, people resist us. They fight for their way to be right, and we’re left with a mess. Our need to be right, to have control, comes the our deep, deep fear that we know we have neither. Inside, deep down, we all know, we’re at the whim of an indifferent universe. We desperately grab for control, often delude ourselves into thinking we have it, but deep down, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, we know we don’t. Thus, there really are no theists. Those who bitch the loudest about god and Jesus, are those who deep down know those dudes are not real, and this is all there is. If theists really existed, and really knew on a fundamental level that they were immortal and would live forever with their god, they’d be as placid and as content as kittens, for their fears would be alleviated, and their worries over. But that is not how theists behave. They are arrogant, argumentative asses who are continually insisting that what they say is true because they deeply fear they are wrong. We non-believers are a threat to their fragile sense of self. $Amen$

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          • makagutu says:

            I have had a similar thought, were there believers who believed truly they will live forever after death, they would be anxious to get to that life.
            Many people would not want to admit they really have no control.

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          • It is a scary realization to come to, but I find it a tad bit liberating, too.

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  6. what questions for a Monday 🙂

    from my own experience, I found being swatted e.g. punished if I did something wrong much quicker and less confusing than some adult trying to explain why it was wrong, at least when I was too young to really grasp cause and effect. I consider it like a lion cuffing a cub when it gets out of line.

    I do think that punishment is something that some people can only understand, if they lack empathy, intellect or experience. “don’t do this or else”.

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    • makagutu says:

      a good way to start the week, don’t you think?
      my greatest problem growing up was that there are times I was punished and I didn’t see where I had been wrong. I think talking to me about on some of these issues would have been more effective.

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      • I agree with you on that Mak. Thing is, we’re often punished out of anger, an anger that is arbitrary and dictated by the mood of the punisher. Not a very good system. It’s one that does perpetuate itself, however, as the punished often grow up to punish those weaker than themselves in the same way they themselves were punished. This is an arbitrary system of “might makes right”, for the strongest are always the ones decided who it is to be punished and why. And rarely, if ever, are the reasons for the punishment equal, consistent, or fair.

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      • I agree with that. My brother and I fought like cats and dogs to the point it was dangerous; I was often spanked for that.

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  7. Good questions. Reminds me of the Book of Questions if you haven’t heard of it. Two college students got into a conversation one night, that lasted all night. They were so energized by the questions that they wrote a book that only had page after page of questions, each presenting an ethical dilemma or food for thought discussions. We got the book and what followed was an eye opener, between me and my husband.

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    • makagutu says:

      Thanks Paulette for mentioning the book. I had not heard of it before. Next is to look for the person to go through the questions with. When I ever get done, you will be the first to know.

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  8. My views on this subject might be overly simplistic.

    I do not believe people, or any creature for that matter, can be innately “good” or “evil.” I do believe, however, that people can commit benevolent and malevolent acts towards others for a variety of reasons relating to nature, nurture, and their individual states of physical and mental health.

    I also believe the “free will” question to be irrelevant.

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  9. ejwinner says:

    Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    Very lively conversation in the commentary to this post.

    However, I don’t think there are any discrete or inherent answers to these question (although a couple present thornier problems than the others). That is, most of the answers to these questions stand on the firmest ground when we take society rather than the individual as our starting point. Because our societies effectively not only determine most of the values on which such answers depend, but also inculcate us (indoctrinate or educate, if you will) to behave either a) as if those values were ‘true’ (in a metaphysical sense as ‘timeless’), or b) as if everyone around us believed they were true and we needed to function accordingly to socialize appropriately.

    This is true for all societies. However, we live in an era when traditional values have not only come into question critically, but critical questioning has itself become highly regarded value for many (though of course not all).

    The process of such change is long and hard, and not clear in all of its mechanisms. However consider that when Calvin was burning Servatus, yes there were thinkers, like Montaigne and Erasmus, who were appalled by such violence, and were unpersuaded by the insistence of their own church that it too could authorize such violence. The beginning of doubt is in disappointment – ‘the “received truth” promised a better world it failed to deliver – something must be wrong about it.’

    Nietzsche is a dangerous writer to treat lightly on such matters. While his criticism is acute, it ought to lead to skepticism and pessimism, and, being a Romantic, he couldn’t abide that. Despite his trenchant criticism of the ‘inherited wisdom,’ or ideology, of his day, he thought such criticism would not only reveal the poverty of that ideology, but also provide the path to becoming a truly free individual – mastery over ideology ought to give the individual freedom from ideology. (Indeed, he sometimes thought he had achieved this, becoming an important prophet thereby – the ‘Nietzsche trap,’ one might call it, although it was common to many innovative thinkers in the 19th century.)

    Can any individual achieve this freedom? Well – no. Because ideology is merely the systematization of ideas, and ideas just as such – to be shared in language – are always social.

    Yet change begins with individuals, and individuals must face the task of answering such questions for themselves, to communicate on such matters with others. For myself, the best path seems to hold all beliefs in a state of suspension or assumed contingency – ‘this is what I believe *today*,’ ‘this is good *for today*.’ That’s hard to do, because any line of thought can become habituated to the point where it’s contingency becomes blurred. But thinking critically about one’s own thought is the only way to avoid the ‘Nietzsche trap’ and retain access to the possibilities of innovative thought.

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    • makagutu says:

      Thanks for your comment.
      Nietzsche sure is a hard nut to crack especially given that most of his writings are aphorisms that are left for the reader to make sense of. His criticism of the age he lived in I think are spot on. Maybe more people should read him.

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      • ejwinner says:

        I agree. But he has to be read critically. He’s a brilliant writer, with a powerful rhetoric. His critical reasoning is clear, but I’m not always happy with where he goes with it.

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