, Research Paper
Life: and How to Live It
If one is to believe such libertarian philosophers as Sartre who says that we, in short control our own destiny and have free will then how should people choose to carry out their lives? What are the guidelines one should follow in order to lead a complete and fulfilling life, and what should we look to achieve? Such questions are what the next group of philosophers look to answer as they discuss their different views on what we should do with our time here on earth. Philosophers, such as Kant, believe that good will is the only thing unconditional in our lives, and duty guides us and is an important part in our fulfillment of good will. While others like the Taoist philosophers Chuang Tzu and Smullyan believe that in order to reach Te, the power of the Tao, one must live in peace with nature. In a sense, to them, the less that one does the closer they are to reaching perfection with Tao. The broad and unique range of the ideas of this last group of philosophers is very interesting to look at, especially for people without a religious affiliation, who might be better able to evaluate these works without the prejudice that their religion instills upon them.
The first piece comes from the Hindu religion and is called “Bhagavad-Gita” which means “Song of God.” Written in the form of a poem, this story entails the conversation of a warrior named Arjuna with his cousin, Lord Krishna. The young man stumbles upon a moral dilemma while preparing to go into battle. He believes that he should value his enemies’ lives because they are friends and family, and he finds this a problem in preparing to kill them. “Teachers, fathers, sons…These I would not consent to kill, though killed myself, O Madhusudana (Krsna), even for the kingdom of the three worlds…” His cousin, who is revealed as Vishnu the god in charge of sustaining the universe after the creation by Brahman, gives the man advice on what guidelines he should follow. According to Krishna, one must follow his duty (dharma) to perform his task. The task that Arjuna must complete is to fight in the battle because he is a warrior and that is his duty as such. Further more, if he does not go into battle, his enemies who think him a coward for not doing his duty will destroy his honor. Krishna tells him that it is better for anyone to die in battle doing their duty then to refuse to fight. If he fails to do such then he will fail his duty, and so forth sin shall be cast onto him. Also, the violation of dharma will upset the entire universe because everything is interconnected. He is told not to decide things from their consequences; “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruit; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.” He must fight because, as previously stated, it is his duty and also it is not noble if he does not. The key to life is yoga (discipline) and Arjuna must learn that although he may have inclinations that it is wrong to kill his fellow man he must have the discipline to look through the outcome of his actions and focus solely on the duty of them. The more he can do this the closer he will get to breaking through the delusions of the word and law of man and reaching true insight into yoga. According to Krishna, “…a man of disciplined mind, who moves among the objects of sense, with the senses under control and free from attachment and aversion—he attains purity of spirit.” The whole point that is trying to be taught to Krishna is that above all one must follow his duty and that we should try and create an equilibrium within our minds because abandoning all desires and longings is the path to peace. Once this peace is reached then one will discover the true bliss of God at the time of mortal death. Therefore Arjuna should not fret his implications about the battle because those killed will still live on after mortal death and they are also obeying their duty. So they will not come within the realm of sin and shall live a blissful afterlife for following their duty in war.
Following closely with the duties set forth by the “Bhagavad-Gita” poem is the philosophy of Kant. His view, called deontological, comes from the Greek word duty. In this view moral duty is the central key to living ones life, much like the Hindu poem. Likewise, what makes a motive good is not determined by the outcome of the motive, but instead whether the motive was of good will. The first thing that needs to be defined in order to begin to understand this complicated philosophy is good will. Kant describes it as, “…good not because of what it causes or accomplishes, not because of its usefulness in the attainment of some set purpose, but alone because of the willing, that is to say, of itself.” It is the power within us, and the central element of man. It is made up of our actions and motives, which Kant goes into more detail about. He describes humans as being made of three kinds of motives: self-interest, immediate inclinations (desires, feelings), and duty. Of these, only duty will fulfill the obligations of good will. He believes that the intentions of ones actions should not be from reason and calls it a mistake to do so. This is because reason comes from human feelings and these are not under our control. Instead humans should rely on instinct to guide their intentions because nature would trust both to instinct. Above all the safeguarding of happiness is ones most important duty because it is a unity of all other inclinations. Happiness, however, will not be able to be defined if reason is used. The more and more man might try to use reason, the further he will be from reaching happiness. Such men of high intellect who try and discover the way to happiness will end up envying the common man because they use instinct rather then reason in their lives. The explanation of human life is complicated in Kants’ reading. Compared to all other forms of life, it is rationality that sets us apart from them and it is this ability to reason that makes the path so trying. The purpose of reason, therefore, he states, is to influence the will and this, makes the attainment of ideal happiness almost impossible in this life because as just discussed it takes you further from happiness.
Getting back to Kants’ ideas of duty, self-interest, and immediate inclinations, one finds that the completion of duty can be quite deceiving in form. It is possible for one to do an act that might look like it came from duty but actually be of self-interest. Kant gives the example of a merchant who sells his product at a fair price to customers. He does not offer a good price out of the kindness of his heart, however. It is the fact that all his competitors sell the same products at good prices that drives him to do the same for fear of going out of business. Humans also have a duty to preserve their own life but only to a certain extent. Most men, he explains, take the protection too far and therefore they have no moral content although they are being dutiful it is not out of duty but self interest. Many people also believe that helping others and giving is a moral duty, which is correct. It can be misinterpreted just like other morals, however, and also be done of self-interest towards ones immediate inclinations. For example one might get honor or esteem from giving and this gives the act no moral content because it was not done out of duty but rather an inclination to the feeling it gave. The only time that helping others is considered duty is when one has nothing to gain or value from it besides duty itself. Happiness, as stated earlier, is also ones duty because if one is discontent then it is easy to give into temptation and get away from doing ones duty. This is not only very hard to obtain, however, but it comes from inclination, instead of duty. According to him, “…the prescription to happiness is often such that it greatly detracts from certain inclinations and thus makes it impossible for man to make a definite and certain concept of satisfaction of all inclinations under the name of happiness.” That is why man will choose to strive for simpler single inclinations because it seems much easier to grasp and obtain.
As one starts to contemplate these ideas the question, “If action from duty eliminates any self interest or inclinations and good will comes from these, then what is left of the will?” arises. To explain this Kant says that the only thing left is universal lawfulness and the principle (maxim) to obey these laws over everything else. These laws tell one how to act in accordance with a simple “rule of thumb” so to speak. The basic thing to remember is that one should only act in a way that could make their principle for the action a universal law in itself. Anything less is not of duty and good will. He does not try to explain these laws and states that it is the job of other philosophers to solve that question. Lastly Kant sums it up by saying, “…the necessity of my action out of pure respect for the practical law is what constitutes duty and that, to duty, every other motive must yield because it is the condition of a will good in itself, than which there is no greater value”.
The ideals of the next two philosophers believe that moral character and conduct are what is important in life. Known as Chuang Tzu and Smullyan, these two Taoists have principles that recommend humans to think, act, and live in harmony with nature. Let first a brief explanation of Taoism be given before a deeper explanation of their individual essays are looked at. The Taoist believes that wu-wei, meaning inaction, is the key to reaching what is called Te (pronounced Da). Since nature just happens the best way to become part of it is through ones inaction. The Te is the power of the Tao, which is the unexplainable essence of the religion. Tao is prior to everything and thus is unexplainable to humans. It gathers everything in the universe to form a unity between objects and beings. Thus the actions of humans can greatly impact the balance of the universe. Humility, non-striving and un-selfing (no self is true self) are also vital parts of the ideal.
The first of these two that will be discussed is Chuang Tzu. His work is a collection of short stories with moral lessons on how one should live their life instilled within them. For example, in his story of the cook cutting up the ox, he explains how by the cook letting his cleaver find its’ own path, it has never needed replacing. By becoming free of the distinction of the cleaver and where it should strike, he in turn became a better butcher. This is key to the point that Chuang Tzu is trying to make, mainly that non-action and no concern are key to living life with the Tao. If the cook keeps his senses idle and allows the spirit to become free he turns into the expert and wisest of all. He also talks of the faults of ethical principles and duties and obligations. These are all falsehoods in order to keep people in line he says. They blind people to the truth that one should live life without concern of duty because duty is exactly what we should try and avoid because it is action. It also makes people believe what is right not because they believe something to be, but because they are taught by mankind what to think as right or wrong. The happiness that these people try and obtain through duty can never be reached because they are looking for it. In his opinion, “…you never find happiness until you stop looking for it.” So practice of wu-wei will give you happiness and those who practice this are the greatest men of all. His last vital message comes in his essay entitled “Perfect Joy” when he sums up by saying: “Heaven does nothing: its doing is its serenity. Earth does nothing: it not doing is its rest…All things come from nowhere!…All beings in their perfection are born of non-doing. Hence it is said: Heaven and earth do nothing yet there is nothing they do not do.” Simply stated, nothingness is everything.
Smullyan is not much different then Tzu in his thoughts, but then again they are both Taoists. He does have an interesting story though; it is an argument between a Taoist and a moralist over a poem. The poem reads:
Whichever the way the wind blows,
Whichever the way the world goes,
Is perfectly all right with me!
This is what the Taoist calls his favorite poem and way in which he lives his life
. The idea is not that he agrees with everything that goes on in the world. He, of course, does not think that human pain and suffering is all right, but he is speaking more generally of the world as a whole. The moralist can not accept this poem to begin with because it does not have a definite answer to it and makes no sense to them. Only after the Taoist explains that he is speaking generally of the world can the moralist try to put it into any sense by saying that what the Taoist means is that he accepts the will of God. The Taoist then goes on to explain an instance when he went to a church to try praying and thought it ridiculous to give God his own approval of carrying out his will. If he is the all mighty and powerful he needs no praise from a mere mortal. The main disagreement the two sides have is that the moralist must have reason and order in his life and thought. The Taoist on the other hand is, as described earlier, seeking to find happiness without action or thinking into things.
Getting back to the first piece on the Hindu poem called “Right Action” it is a very difficult question that Arjuna faces. While he is told by Krishna to obey ones duty because if he does not it will be both sinful and upset the balance of things. Arjuna does have a good argument not to fight. It is difficult to see how doing ones duty is more important then his friends and family in this case. Would Arjuna not have a duty to these people as well? As Kant states we do have a duty to others as long as there is no self-interest in mind and in this case I see no way that Arjuna would be not fighting for his own for self-interest. He runs the risk of being called a coward for not fighting Krishna tells him and so there would definitely not be any self-interest to that. Besides perhaps he is fighting not out of duty but because he has been told to fight. This is definitely not his own will then and can not be classified as duty. Assuming that he fights simply because it is his duty then Krishna does make a good point in saying that Arjuna is not killing anybody because their souls live on in the afterlife. Also the ability not to control the senses and dwell on them in the mind is what causes the downfall of a man. If Arjuna can learn to control them he will see clearly that what he is doing by fighting is pure of duty and his questions will be laid to rest.
Many of Kants’ ideas are also the same. He talks of reason carrying out action as being bad. Instead instinct should control action. As he goes on he gets to the point that in the end universal law is what one should follow because even will is eliminated with duty. This is because to do duty is to eliminate inclinations so nothing is left to determine the will. The problem I see with this reasoning is that the universal laws he speaks of are never stated. He says that he himself does not know what they are and this makes following them kind of hard in my view. We are supposed to think to ourselves if our reason for an action could be a universal law, and if not it is not a good maxim. Understanding his idea of instinct controlling our actions, it is still hard to imagine that there is no influence of reason. He says reason is given to us to influence the will and thus could corrupt our maxims for action, making the universal laws into ideals of mankind not of the universe. At any rate it is hard to believe that one should hold their actions up to laws that are non-existent because, as Chuang Tzu states, they are a way of keeping mankind in order. They in fact prohibit the full enlightenment humans can obtain because it is action according to him.
Taoists such as Chuang Tzu and Smullyan believe, as mentioned earlier, that the way to happiness is through allowing ones self to not worry about action and instead be nothing at all. They do believe, like Kant, that happiness comes when you do not look for it but unlike him and the Hindu poem we do not have duties and obligations. This is because heaven does nothing and it is this that gives it its’ serenity. Smullyan brings up the problem with their view in the article when the moralist starts to question how he can accept everything that goes on in the world. The Taoist responds by saying that he accepts the world as a whole and not all the individual pieces of it. I think that, although non-action is the key to happiness for them, not helping those in need is rather shameful. Although this does require the existence of duty, which they are against, it is just hard to believe that one could allow human atrocities to take place and not want to help. Of course you would have to be careful that it was not done out of an inclination like Kant says, but if done for true duty it would be a good thing. The Taoists tell you to live within yourself but I do not believe that one can achieve true happiness knowing others are suffering that they might be able to help. Accepting whatever happens and not acting when one could becomes a very daunting task because we as humans are born with the intelligence and reason to change things. What is the point of our intelligence and biological makeup if we are to simply act like a tree and do nothing but take what we need to survive and grow?
A past philosopher that I believe would agree with the ideas of Taoism is Plato. His belief was that the soul and body were separate, a theory called platonic dualism. According to him the soul is hindered by the bodies needs and wants. Such needs and wants could include any action and therefore the same thing that the Taoists believe in. The Taoists are simply trying to achieve the afterlife that Plato speaks of before death because by not doing they are acting as, what Plato calls the soul. They are free from fulfilling the bodily desires that the soul in death does not have to worry about. Plato’s ideas mean that when you die the soul does not have to worry about helping others, duty or anything of the sort. In the afterlife one can use mental ability to the fullest because there are not mortal issues.
Kants’ ideas of duty and fulfilling good will all revolve around using instinct instead of reason to decided ones actions. The instinct, which he talks of, might be similar to what Hospers says about the human brain. According to him, we are controlled by our unconscious decisions. We always think that we are making the choice but in fact our conscious has no say in the matter. This might be similar to what Kant means by instinct, an underlying presence within us that tells us what to do if we listen. Hospers says, however, that our unconscious is determined for us by early childhood experience and perhaps, if this is true, Kants’ idea of being able to use instinct is determined by man. Thus the good will and universal law that he speaks of are in fact only those of ones unconscious and mankind in general. The big difference between the two comes when Hospers makes his point that because our unconscious is determined by outside forces we do not have a free will. Due to this, we are not responsible for our actions and have no moral obligations. This is a huge difference and is a similar idea to the Taoists. They also believe that we have no moral obligations and should use non-action.
Hobbes would believe that since all men are created equal it leads to competition between them. In this view it would be hard for everyone to achieve true happiness which all four of the first philosophers talk about. This is because, according to Hobbes, not everyone can have the same thing and it leads to having enemies. We only treat others with respect and would help them if it will have some advantage to our own lives. We are a self-conscious being who does what is in their best interest. We do not feel any obligations or duty to anything in the view given by Hobbes and if we did it would only be with self-interest in mind.
The view that I like the most is the one by Kant. Although it is difficult to understand at first and takes time in interpreting it is very logical. The only problem was what the universal laws were. He says he does not know but that the best way to decide if ones action is dutiful is to ask ones self if their maxim could be a universal law. If it could not then it is not a good maxim. I think that his ideas of duty to achieve happiness and his explanation on the difficulty to obtain it were very good. The question of doing what seem to be good deeds out of inclinations and self-interest is also answered very well. One might have questioned that part of his philosophy if he had not used so many examples to justify his position. Although this view is hard to grasp at first and might also be hard to put into practice it is the one which I myself might live by. This is because I feel the Taoists lack of the need to help others to fulfill happiness was grave mistake. I do not believe one can find true happiness without helping others because a vast majority of people have morals to help those in need when they can. The reason it might be hard to put into practice is because it would be hard, at least at first, to do things without an inclination of some sort undermining the maxim. Using only instinct would be hard because humans are taught to use their reason for intentions and this is the gravest mistake of all according to Kant. I believe that with enough time though one could easily learn to use his teachings and learn to live a more fulfilling life in search of that elusive happiness.
Presbey M., Gail, and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Bhagavad-Gita. Right Action. Pg. 419-427)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Immanuel Kant. Moral Duty. Pg. 427-432)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Chuang Tzo. Lost in Tao. Pg. 530-536)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Raymond M. Smullyan. Whichever the Way. Pg. 536-539)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Thomas Hobbes. Human Nature as Competitive. Pg. 217-222)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (John Hospers. Free Will and Psychoanalysis. Pg. 394-402)
Presbey Gail M., and Karsten J. Struhl, and Richard E. Olsen, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, United States of America: McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Plato. Phaedo. Pg.345-352)