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May 15, 2022 / Congau

Bullied into Suicide

What would you do if a heavily armed bully came to your home and demanded you give him your house or he would kill your family? Would you put up a fight? Would you grab what kitchen knives and baseball bats you had to resist the intruder’s machine gun? Your family would soon be dead, but I suppose you would be honored for your bravery and perhaps that would be worth it to you.
Or let’s imagine the bully was a little slow in his movements and you had a big family. He meticulously started killing off one by one but you had time to run to your neighbor and borrow a hunting gun. There would be a long fight, your family would suffer and die, you would me maimed and your house would be burned to the ground. (Even the brute would receive a scratch but he was too big to be annihilated.)
Why did you do it? What was your point? I’m not asking who is more to blame, of course the attacker started it, but if you consider yourself a rational person, why did you make everything so much worse for yourself? If you had let him have your house, you would still have had your family and your health.
Nothing good will come out of this. The longer the fighting rages on the more Ukrainians will get killed, more widows, more fatherless children, more refugees and more devastation. It is all so completely predictable. Yet, they are not willing to do the one sensible thing, save themselves and stop fighting. Let the Russians have the house; the Ukrainians can still live there with their families, healthy and alive.
Bullies are bad, but obstinate and vain pride makes it all worse. Stop fighting while you still can.

May 12, 2022 / Congau


Russian state television is propaganda – of course it is. Therefore it has now been banned from Germany. What? What is the connection? When was propaganda excluded from free speech? Propaganda is one-sided and biased information and argumentation spread to support one particular nation or institution and that is exactly what we are guilty of doing; we – our free Western press. We are daily and hourly pounded with information of evil Russians and heroic Ukrainians, and even if it were true, it could scarcely be called anything but propaganda. Lies or truth are not objective criteria distinguishing propaganda from serious journalism, since everyone thinks their side possesses the truth. Rather, a smidge of neutrality to enlighten the public of all sides of the issue is the only thing opposed to propaganda, and such news outlets barely exist anymore. Emotions take the place of information, and in war and suffering they are of course abundantly present. The same images of devastation shown over and over again create an impression of complete evil on the part of the Russians. Yes, war is evil, whether waged by Russians, Ukrainians or Americans, and it turns otherwise normal humans into animals. Some Ukrainian soldiers are bound to become savages, but our reporters only show us upright looking heroes with a saintly attitude. The Russians are the beasts. Of course this is propaganda, just as it is when Russian television portrays it the other way around.

Is this a just war? Does Russia have any reasonable claim to Ukraine? That is an issue that can be soberly debated in a free society but drumming up propaganda on one side while banning the other is not exactly consistent with Western ideals of free speech. Maybe those ideals never really existed, but even the pretense of them has been a casualty of this war.

October 9, 2021 / Congau

Species and Forms

Aristotle did not believe in Platonic Ideas. The forms do not have an independent existence outside of the individuals possessing those forms. But Aristotle was also not a nominalist; the forms do exist. We can talk about “dog” in general and utter sentences like: “The dog is an animal.” We don’t just observe a certain similarity between certain creatures and then choose to apply the word “dog” as a short-cut for these similarities. Dogs come in many different shapes and sizes and if we had just grouped animals together based on arbitrary likenesses, a German Shepard might as well be paired with a deer as with a Chiuaua. We do get a sense of what is essential about an individual in respect of its formal belonging.

Also,“form” is not mainly about reasonable categorization into an effective taxonomy, but rather refers to something inherent in every individual belonging to the species. Therefore the form of an individual is not actually dependent on anything existing in another individual or group of individuals. In fact, it is not even necessary for other items of the species to exist to be able to say that an individual belongs to that species. An animal species that is on the way to becoming extinct, will still exist when there is only a single member left. But even if all members were to disappear, the species would still exist as a historical fact and would thus still refer to something and therefore have existence. It could also exist as an inherent potential in something. Let’s imagine that all instances of a certain plant had gone extinct but one single seed still existed. The form of that plant would certainly exist whether or not that seed would ever get the chance to start growing. Or let’s imagine a seed that is a mutant; it represents a species that has never been and may never be unless that seed is allowed to grow, which is far from certain. Still that species already exists in that seed.

I have been talking about species and forms as if they were two distinct phenomena, and unfortunately that is also how they are treated by modern commentators of Aristotle. But we must remember that both “species” and “form” are translations of the same Greek word “eidos”. Since any concrete object is a combination of form and matter, there is necessarily form in everything, or knowing the correspondence of the terms we might as well say that there is a species in everything regardless of other instances of that species. The form of an object is whatever makes it what it is, which usually includes many things including what we usually identify as “species”. A part of the essence of Socrates is that he is human, belonging to the human species. Being human is in Socrates, and what is in something is not dependent on what is found outside of it. Socrates would be human even if he were the only human in the universe.

October 8, 2021 / Congau

Grammatical Essence (iii)

What is the substance, the underlying being of a thing, the basic element that constitutes something’s essence? It depends in what sense we understand the question. The pre-Socratic philosophers took it to mean the physical substance that makes up the matter of the world. A substance is then a building block that everything can be reduced to and which cannot be analyzed any further. Democritus’ atoms would then be the most concrete example of such an idea. But in another sense (and Aristotle always plays back and forth with different senses) the end point of an analysis is already reached the moment the immediate basis for something is found. 

A man may be musical (Aristotle says), but he is first and foremost a man and only by accident musical; the substance of the construction is the man and his musicality is an added condition like a product that comes into being when atoms start to combine. A musical man is not any more analyzable than the man and his quality – the man being primary and the substance. What the man might consist of is not accessible to this grammatical inquiry. Anything must be relative to the question asked and there is nothing more ultimate than what is within the framework of the subject matter. 

Irwin (1988) criticizes Aristotle for making “man” the substance of “musician” while refusing to go along with Democritus’ reduction of “man” into atoms. But actually Aristotle never talks about musicians but only “musical men” which might seem like just a trivial difference if any difference at all. However, a musician is a basis on his own and the concept does not necessitate that the individual is also a man (maybe there are monkey musicians or alien musicians). Also, all musicians are not necessarily musical. The grammatical construction “musical man” may seem trivial but it clearly marks the presence of two separate elements that don’t need to exist in the presumed combination. A musician is in itself an ultimate substance that cannot be further analyzed. We may assume that it conceals a man who is made up of atoms but that is just an assumption.

But even if there is no doubt we are talking about a musician or a man as we normally understand the concepts, the reduction into substance does not go any further than that. A man is just a man unless you specify in what sense it may be a quality of something. Things may differ in many ways, Aristotle says, (1042b14) like shape, position and order. Man is therefore not just a subgroup of animal, which is categorized under biological organisms etc. He might as well be a species of moving items, which would include winds and waves but exclude plants. When only “man” is stated, there is no way to know where he is to be placed. Therefore, without a context, he is a substance in himself. He is the quality of nothing but when he is the subject of a sentence, the predicate is a quality of him.

October 7, 2021 / Congau

Grammatical Essence (ii)

The underlying subject, the thing itself that has certain properties, is in one sense a mere grammatical category. Whenever something is given a name, it is indicated that it is considered a thing in its own right. The sentence “That man is a bachelor.” tells us that we are talking about a certain something which is essentially a man and just happens to be a bachelor. If we say “The bachelor wears a hat”, the essential thing about the thing in question is that it is a bachelor, and it just happens to wear a hat. We don’t need to consider if there is something ultimately essential about being a bachelor or even a man, the mere grammar of the sentences informs us what is essential and what is accidental.

We might of course have reason to believe that Aristotle thinks there is something slightly more important about being a man than being a bachelor, but importance is always relative to something; always in reference to a fixed point or an underlying subject. Irwin (1988) assumes that Aristotle considers biological individuals to be “paradigmatic subjects” although that view is not defended in the Metaphysics or the Categories. However, such a “paradigmatic” preference would just mean that we are more ready to grasp biological entities as underlying subjects, not necessarily that it represents a more absolute reality. An individual bachelor, Peter for example, is just as much a primary being as Peter the man.

Irwin criticizes that Aristotle fails to take account of the way a subject like a bachelor is relative. It refers to the spouse he does not have and therefore to something outside of himself. A slave (this is Aristotle’s example) is what he is, not in his own right, but because he has a master. Therefore a slave, according to Irwin, is essentially a man who stands in a certain relationship with another man. Instead of “slave” it could be called “subordinate man” adding an adjective or a qualification and thereby indicating that the essence is actually “man” and not “slave”. But Aristotle’s point is that any substance has its essence defined as relative to something. “Man” could for instance be defined as “having two feet” and whether something is a man would thereby be relative to the number of feet the item had. A substance (being) is what it is relative to a limited description and any other characteristics that being might have are only coincidental.

It is correct that Aristotle regards all secondary substances to have a grammatical reality. Slaves and dentists are just as much substances as men are. Only at the individual level, as a primary substance, does a thing acquire immediate reality. An individual man is a substance, but no less so is an individual dentist. In fact, as an individual it does not really matter what you call it. It is a “this”, whether a man or a dentist or both, and as such it has an irreplaceable essence that makes it what it is.

October 5, 2021 / Congau

The Essence of Naturalism

Ethical naturalism is essentially the idea that what something is determines what it should be. What ought to be done, a right action, is restricted by what is suitable for the actor. You better not do what is against your nature; it would be bad for you, and it would be wrong.

But what are you? What is anything? What does it mean to be something? 

That is the problem of the most elementary branch of philosophy, the one that deals with pure thought, first philosophy, also known as metaphysics. It asks the simple, yet exceedingly difficult question: What is being?

It may perhaps seem like an irrelevant quibble, far removed from practical life and our immediate concerns. We think we know being; our problem is doing. But the one follows from the other. Practical philosophy needs a basis, and morality and politics, the science of right and wrong, must be based on what exists and to understand what that might be we need to have some grasp on the fundamental question of existence, of being, of identity, if you will.

You may have red hair and play the guitar, but is that who you are? Does that have any ethical relevance? Well, it may or may not, but to have any opinion on the matter at all you must form a notion of what is essential; in other words, what is it that makes a thing what it is. Would you really become another individual altogether if you shaved your red hair? There might be a reason to consider its ethical relevance but how could that possibly be the case. What is essence?

Aristotle explains that there is a difference between a thing and its so-called predicates – that which you can say about that thing. “This man is unmarried” means there is primarily a man and he happens to be unmarried. The man is the subject or the “underlying” (hypokeimenon) and what is said about him is not the man himself. He could have had another marital status and still be a man. The accidents of his attached properties are irrelevant for his substance or his being.

But if instead of talking about a man we mention a particular kind of man, his essence might seem more blurry. Consider the sentence “This bachelor is unmarried”. Here the predicate “unmarried” does not add anything to the information already given. When it is already stated that “This is a bachelor”, that next element of the sentence is redundant. The essence of being a bachelor is to be unmarried and that property could not be removed without eliminating the existence of the thing. Something that is not unmarried is just not a bachelor. 

However, it might seem puzzling that what is essential for a bachelor is not so for a man. A bachelor is of course also a man and that means that what is essential to him at one moment ceases to be at the next. He is essentially unmarried as a bachelor but not as a man. What is then his real being?

August 1, 2021 / Congau

Maybe You Can

We are limited to what we are. We can only become what is already in us as a potential. A seed of an oak tree can only become an oak, never a pinetree, and a human offspring cannot be anything but human. That is a rather severe limitation, isn’t it? But it gets much worse when we are reminded that we don’t have the full range of possibilities even within the human species. Contrary to what most advertisers will have us believe we just can’t shape ourselves by picking freely from the supermarket of opportunities. Material resources surely place a restraint on us but that is not the main obstacle. Lotteries can be won, however unlikely, but the definite restrictions inside us cannot be overcome. Anyone cannot become an inventive rocket scientist, a great artist and maybe not even a top class waiter. Sure, hard work and diligence can get you far, very far, let’s say any profession is ninety percent hard work and only ten percent talent, or make it ninety-nine percent hard work, the remaining one percent is still an absolute obstacle. 

But why let lack of talent stop you? Many are those who have defied depreciating judgments and proven all wrong, or those who have reached more than far enough without having to climb to the top. Yes, really, what counts is your enjoyment of the activity, whatever anyone says and whatever the prejudice. That brings us back to the land of boundless opportunities, doesn’t it? Not at all. If anything it is an even greater restriction. 

You may have the capacity for a decent performance in a fairly wide range of activities, but how many of them would you find fulfilling? The flattering super-self of modern consumerism that is told he can do anything because his autonomy is without limits, is not really complimented when told such fairy tales. If the individual were to be given the respect that is properly his, he would be told that he is so special that he has a unique area of performance that belongs to no one else. Personal fulfillment is so personal that you cannot and should not expect to find it in a path that has already been throdden by so many others. Maybe you can indeed do anything but if you are to believe in your individuality, your goal is to find yourself and obviously you can’t do that just anywhere. 

The fulfillment of one’s potential is more than just achieving what can be done but to do what is truly good for oneself. For a plant and an animal it means blossoming and growing into its maximum health and strength, and for a human being it also means happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a self-evident urge that surely ought to be respected, but it does not imply the necessity of recognizing every choice as an acceptable choice. 

The range of options that is rationally available to any person is in fact quite limited, but that does not mean that the number of actual choices is low or indeed any more restricted than most people imagine. Within the field of natural pursuits and potential for happiness available to one human being the differentiation is huge. In fact, considered as an imaginable number it is as infinite as what would be found within a larger area. Inside a sphere as small as a dot there is a world of details and an endless diversity. Even if a person knew what was right for him and thought he knew what the stars were expecting of him, there would be more than enough to choose from making his life far from predetermined.

 At birth there are an infinite number of lives potentially available for one human being. That includes an infinity of both good and bad choices. (Infinity cannot be divided into parts.) It includes a range of potential lives that could make the individual a fulfilled and harmonious being. 

Just as Aristotle does not recommend only one form of government but considers what would be more suitable to different circumstances, a human being can find himself in a variety of conditions that, even if they are all favorable, require a different response. Moreover, at a crossroad one path is sometimes as good as another but will require different reactions further down the road. 

There are pluralities of rights and wrongs. Some things are possible, others impossible but all of it comes from within you, the unique individual. Don’t listen to them. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t.

July 30, 2021 / Congau

Be Yourself!

Be yourself! It is one of the mantras of our time, but as it stands it is quite meaningless, for how many of us really know who we are?

Yes, be yourself! That is a truly ethical encouragement and if correctly understood, maybe the only one you will ever need.

Be yourself! It promises great freedom – and great restraint.

Who are you? Clearly that is the first thing you need to find out, for how can you make an effort to be something if you don’t know what it is? 

Know thyself! No one truly knows himself, of course. How could you fully get to know the intricate complexity of your psychology, your innate structure as well as what life has made you? How can you achieve a complete comprehension of your potentials and your limitations? You can’t, but you can always improve your knowledge of yourself.

But let’s imagine someone who has achieved as much self-knowledge as humanly possible. This Socrates would have a much clearer vision of what he wanted to do than the rest of us. He would not attempt to pursue a path that was against his nature but would be wholeheartedly devoted to his true calling. Is he free? If freedom is to have an unlimited set of options, he is not free. His highly advanced knowledge of himself has brought him to a point where his alternatives are very limited. All the endless offers that are presented to us as viable temptations, are for him closed off. He never even considers an action he knows will be injurious and he does not waste his time on pursuits that lead to nowhere. In fact, as he approaches perfection in his self-knowledge, his actual range of choices will be all the more narrow, and a fictitious being of perfection would have no choice at all. Therefore, if there can be no freedom without choice, the better you know yourself, the less freedom you have. Be yourself and you are not free!

But on the other hand, an advanced level of self-knowledge implies a great insight into what you really want. This Socrates character does not consider all those options the rest of us think we have because he knows he would not want them anyway, and the very meaning of freedom is to be able to do what you want. He is the one who does what he wants, so he is the one who is free. Be yourself and you are free!

Well, there is no escape from the paradox of freedom, so maybe we better not talk about it at all. You want what is good for you and whether that is to be given the technical designation “freedom”, may be less important. You want to be yourself, so that you can live in harmony with yourself and be happy. 

Without self-knowledge you will choose what is good for you only by a lucky chance, and the more choices you have the greater the risk of going wrong.

With self-knowledge a great variety of choices will not distract your attention from what is right for you.

What is right for you is to be yourself.

July 29, 2021 / Congau

Duty and Freedom

Duty is necessarily the opposite of freedom in that it poses a constraint on action and limits options. If there is something you have to do, you are not free to do something else instead. However, philosophers of duty are always quick to point out that the way they see it duty is actually a fulfillment of freedom. Kant tries to achieve this trick by insisting that our duties should come from laws that we impose on ourselves so that it is actually we who decide what we are to do. But even putting it in such terms is a bit of a stretch from what we usually understand by freedom. A Kantian does not make up the law according to personal inclinations but rather depersonalizes himself and does what he considers to be a universal requirement. He detects the law rather than chooses it and his obedience is categorically necessary. This is not what we normally call freedom.

We must grant that freedom is a slippery term. Someone who always does what he immediately wants, becomes a slave to his passions and is thereby not free at all. Freedom easily contradicts itself and cancels itself out, so it may not be unreasonable to think that what initially looks like restraint can actually lead to more freedom than otherwise possible. That is of course a long and winded discussion. For now let us just acknowledge that there is a potential problem with freedom: What it is, may not be what it seems, and given that, there may be other ways to self-realization than simple licence. 

But to suggest that the concept of duty can lead the way appears rather far fetched if only from an analytical (linguistic) standpoint. “You can” is the essence of freedom while duty is to be expressed as “you must.” To be meaningful, “you must” has to be presupposed by “you can” (no one can demand the impossible), that much is clear, but it does not quite work the other way around. “You can” indicates a possibility while “you must” entails necessity. Obviously, possibility does not imply necessity. If you can do something, it does not mean you must do it. It is not strictly a logical contradiction but it removes the force of the initial statement. A: “I can do x.” B:“Yes, you must.” A’s statement likely implies “if I want to” while B indicates “whether you want to or not,” so in reality B contradicts A. If something is done out of duty, it appears to be rather inconsequential to insist that it was also a free choice. The essence of the former somehow swallows the latter.

Duty and freedom are in effect incompatible when they occur in the same object. Freedom is an ideal, but not in all instances. We have some duties, but not only duties. It may be a task of ethics to identify the domain of both freedom and duty, but it should not insist that they be pressed into the same category.

July 28, 2021 / Congau

Imperfect Duty?

A duty must be perfect. You have to do it, or you don’t; there is nothing in between. To say that something is not a duty but it would be a very good thing if you did it, is not to say that it is half a duty, a third of a duty, or ninety percent of a duty. A duty is always a hundred percent, or it is nothing.

That is not to pretend that every obligation is an equally strict requirement – of course it isn’t. There is a definite law against killing random passers-by in the street and your teacher is adamant that you do your homework, but no one thinks those two duties are in any way comparable, yet they are both absolute. As long as no room for options are given by the recognized authority, the demand is total, which is to say it is a duty, although nothing is said about the importance of that particular duty.

This is a mere conceptual analysis of the term “duty” and I don’t mean to express anything about its practical importance. Some ethicists think duty is everything while some leave it on the fringe of morality, but it is to be expected that the simple definition is the same for everyone. When the task at hand is accompanied by an absolute expectation that it is fulfilled, we call it a duty, if not it is a recommendation. The latter term may vary in strength depending on the authority of the advisor, ranging from a friendly suggestion to something close to a demand, but it is never absolute. That is reserved for the word “duty” which always designates something absolute, something perfect, that is.

Recognizing this it may seem odd that Kant the philosopher introduces the combination “imperfect duty” and thereby employs a contradiction in terms. But he is forced to do it since ethics for him is duty and duty only, while at the same time there clearly exist ethical considerations that cannot be fully covered by laws and commandments. There is an unlimited amount of good deeds that we could conceivably do although it would be unreasonable to demand it. The saintly character has attained a height of moral life that is beyond the reach for most of us, and we need a way to convey the idea that their conduct is highly admirable. Since they act morally they necessarily act dutifully in Kant’s terminology, but because we don’t absolutely have to act like them, the qualifier imperfect is added. The result is an artificial construction that doesn’t make much linguistic sense: It says we have duties that are not duties. 

What this actually means, translated into a language we are more familiar with, is that the notion of duty fails to cover the entire domain of ethics even for a deontologist. Another term is needed, and the only way the term “imperfect duty” can be thought to fill the gap, is if it represents something that is not a duty at all.