The Morality of Ice Cream

October 6, 2020

John Stuart Mill

I was thinking today, in what context I don’t remember (maybe the context of a would-be dictator encouraging Americans to ignore a deadly virus he fostered?), about the most important subject for humanity. I decided it was moral philosophy. Because that’s, like, the guiding principle for everything we do, right? In the would-be dictator’s case, the philosophy is Me First, then Me Second. For most of the rest of us, it’s more complicated, involving our notions of responsibility to others.

It’s too complicated, really. Moral philosophy is both most important and most impossible.

Why impossible? Well, you have to start with assumptions about what’s valuable. Should our morality focus only on human beings, for example? Or also on dogs and dolphins and elephants and other intelligent life? If the latter, where do we draw the line? Are mosquitoes exempt from our care? (Remember that animals we used to assume were mindless have been shown to have sophisticated brains. I have no love for mosquitoes, but it may turn out that they’re really smart.)

Even if we focus on humanity alone, what should our morality promote and what should it avoid? To me, the only formulation that makes logical sense is the utilitarian one, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or in Jeremy Bentham’s formulation, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but the logicality proves bankrupt when we try to put it into practice.

To follow a utilitarian creed, we have to know what “good” or “happiness” means, which almost makes the argument tautological. But, okay, try to define this good or happy state: Do you choose freedom from hunger or freedom from tyranny? Maximum total pleasure (which would also have to be defined) or minimum suicides? Ethnic pride and dignity or less frequent war?

Even John Stuart Mill, who became the chief apostle of this philosophy, had to distinguish between “higher” and “lower” pleasures—again, it seems to me, begging the question.

And even if you could precisely define what you meant by “good” or “happiness,” how would you measure it—not just in one person but across the 7.8 billion people on Earth?

And then, if you could define it and measure it, you’d still have to be able to predict the future. That is, in order to decide whether to do something, you’d have to judge what effects that action would have—and what effects it would prevent from happening. You’d need to envision the infinite number of possible timelines emanating from your single choice. Infinitely impossible.

So, to adopt utilitarianism in daily life, we must cut that infinity down to size by making assumptions about what’s likely to have a beneficial effect on whatever portion of the population we happen to be considering. And, for me, this process often ends up more or less with the golden rule, the do-unto-others thing. Which itself is a poor guide to questions such as “Should I tell my sister that her husband is cheating on her?” and “Is it okay to give my grandkids ice cream though their mother forbade it?”


All this, plus laziness, explains why I haven’t actually studied much moral philosophy. It relies too much on unprovable assumptions. Plus it’s less entertaining than a good detective story.

Yet I would love to be more certain. I’d love to believe in a principle as easy to operate as the TV.

The Resilience of Evil

December 7, 2015

Whac-A-MoleIn the wake of the most recent mass killings on U.S. soil, and the various posturings and evasions of our politicians, it’s time for another political column. However, in contrast to my usual rant, I’ll endeavor to make this post well-reasoned and scholarly. In the style of a philosophical treatise, the separate arguments will be enumerated, and footnotes will document the sources.

I. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”1

I.a. Syed Farook, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.b. Dylann Roof, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.c. Adam Lanza, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.d. James Holmes, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.e. Eric Harris, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.f. Dylan Klebold, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.g.–I.z. Et al., et al., et al.

II. Evil cannot be eliminated from the world.

II.a. Evil has been with us since the first human beings.2

II.b. Evil will not succumb to bombs, ground troops, atomic weapons or—except in fantasy movies—magic light sabers.

II.c. Indeed, the resilient, slippery and protean nature of evil—its ability to pop up in new forms in new places—suggests a popular game whose name now connotes a repetitive and impossible task.3

II.d. As point I above indicates, evil lives in all of us, not in any particular place.

II.d.1. Hence there is no one place to attack it.

III. Nor can the enticement of evil be eliminated.

III.a. Some types of evil will always look prettier or sound more convincing than good.4

III.b. In the basic sense, each person is tempted not by outsiders, but by his or her own desire.5

So, if we can’t get rid of evil, what might we do as a society? No easy solution exists. But we could try to make the good—that is, sane, peaceful, life-respecting behavior—more attractive. For instance, we could work to reduce poverty and the huge gap between the privileged and underprivileged. By doing so, we would boost the sense that everyone has something to live for rather than commit murder-mayhem-suicide for. Instead of empty patriotism, we Americans could then speak with a justified pride in our country, as one wild-eyed Revolutionary-era radical suggested:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.6

  1. Pogo the Possum, 1971; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip).
  2. Genesis, 300 B.C.E. or earlier.
  3. Whac-A-Mole; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whac-A-Mole.
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667.
  5. James 1:14, c. 100 C.E.
  6. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791.

The SwerveIn the past week, while dealing with earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, a lame dog, and fears of a second recession, I had the chance to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Perhaps this proves that I have the same response to potential calamity as Art Dennison, the protagonist of my most recent novel: hide in a quiet room and read.

After I was intrigued by a piece based on Greenblatt’s book in the August 8 New Yorker (article summary here), a friend kindly passed along an advance reading copy. A Harvard scholar, Greenblatt is known for what I would call crossover works, ones that combine scholarship with popular appeal. His previous book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, made a splash by combining Bard biography with a colorful portrait of Elizabethan England. In The Swerve he takes two historical figures about whom even less is known, the Latin poet Lucretius and the fifteenth-century papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, and spiraling outward from those two, spins an intriguing tale of Classical philosophy, medieval copyists, Renaissance book hunters, and radical changes in the way we look at the world.

Intellectual history is great fun when written well, and Greenblatt is one of the best at it. His central point is that Poggio’s accidental discovery of a complete version of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things)—accidental in that Poggio was combing monastery libraries for copies of ancient texts but not that one in particular—played a central role in breaking down medieval religious thought and freeing the great minds of the Renaissance. It’s long been known that Lucretius influenced the humanists, but Greenblatt implies that this one masterful poem, in which Lucretius expounds on the Epicurean vision of the universe, smashed more barriers than any other Renaissance rediscovery and thus opened a broad road to modernity. Though I don’t know how many scholars of the period will grant Lucretius this extraordinary importance, I’m personally willing to allow it for the sake of the story.

One chapter offers an extended bullet list of the “elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge” to Church-molded thought. Here are some of the bullet points, without the author’s commentary:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles. [Lucretius didn’t call them atoms, but he was drawing on the atomism of Democritus and others.]
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique.
  • The soul dies.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

From a churchman’s point of view, this list moves from suspicious to upsetting to burn-at-the-stake heretical, and of course many humanists played with these notions without committing outright to them. Still, even with clever concealments and subtle emendations, such ideas had the power to swerve society from medievalism toward modernity.

Greenblatt emphasizes that the Lucretian version of Epicureanism, like Epicurus’ own, did not equate living for “pleasure” with pursuing uninhibited passions and impulses. Rather, the highest pleasure comes from philosophical contemplation that “awakens the deepest wonder.” Kind of like hiding in your room to read while the hurricane roars by.

For me, one takeaway from this book is the renewed realization that human thinking goes in cycles, with old notions constantly being resurrected and reshaped. The body and soul may both dissolve into the mud, but ideas get into the water table and seep out in strange new places.

In fact, I’ve recently unearthed in the basement of my ancient house a mildewed manuscript that disintegrated as soon as I touched it. Only a few fragments remain legible, one of which seems to be attributed to a certain Sammus Gridlius, a previously unknown scribe of the first century A.D. Roughly translated from the Latin, it goes like this:

All that’s thunk has been thunk before. All that’s writ has been writ before. Peace, brother.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that a rediscovery of this text by John Lennon in 1968 influenced the late Beatles songs and consequently all of contemporary culture. I’m still working on proof for that theory.


January 11, 2011

“Oddly, I may have less of a clear and distinct sense of myself now than at any time in my life. Even odder, I do not find this especially disconcerting, since it seems perfectly in harmony with how I have come to look upon life and the world: as things we do not come near to understanding, for all our philosophy and science. I have become enthralled over how unanswerable the fundamental questions of being are.” —from Frank Wilson’s column at When Falls the Coliseum