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A Few Ideas to Make You Think

Here are a few ideas to ponder. Other than the criteria that they should be able to make you think a bit they are somewhat randomly selected and cover several different topics.

Language and Morality

If a language had just twenty words could we use those words to define morality in such a way that we could safely live by the resulting moral code? It seems unlikely to say the least. Choose twenty words and try it if you doubt the difficulty. This suggests that moral codes had to wait until language was fairly well-developed. And if we had too few words to create a moral code to follow, we would have to rely on our intuitive feelings as a guide to action.

That raises an interesting question, which is: Why do people think that with their current languages have enough necessary words to create an infallible verbal guide to morality? What's the magic number of words? Isn't it possible that no matter how many words we have there will be things we cannot explain, and maybe our logic will sometimes lead us to embrace thoughts and actions that are (or feel) immoral?

It seems silly to think words alone can guide ethics and morality in all circumstances. We still have the need to also feel our way through life rather than just argue our way through it. Of course "feeling right" doesn't have to mean doing what you feel like doing. We are able to make the distinction between what feels pleasurable and what feels like the right thing to do. Doesn't this show that we have a "moral sense"? We might feel pleasure hitting someone we're angry with, but we do not feel or think that this is a good thing to do. There is a "this is good" and "this is bad" kind of recognition which does not arise from our words.

This "feel your way to the right path" approach seems very dangerous, since we might worry about what will others feel is right, but the opposite seems more true. All the large scale violations of morality (death camps, institutionalized slavery, and so on) have required that we give up that feeling of rightness in favor of finding a rationalization for the actions, meaning a moral justification that's logical according to our language-based moral codes. Maybe following words is more dangerous than we think.

Intelligence and Creativity

Some research on intelligence and creativity was done at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, using the "Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking." There was no correlation found between intelligence and creativity. Intelligence, the researchers say, is more a measure of convergent thinking (coming to a conclusion based on known facts or premises), while creative thought is more about divergent thinking (finding other possibilities and solutions).

It's a safe assumption that there is some minimum level of intelligence required to be creatively productive, but most people probably have enough. It also seems likely it's easier to teach and encourage creativity than to increase raw intelligence. Are we over-emphasizing IQ in our schools at the expense of creative thought?

Judging Others

A rock is hard on the feet, but are you angry about this? A tree is full of thorns, a berry is poisonous, water is cold, and hail can be painful, yet we do not judge these things in moral terms. Why do we feel it is necessary to judge other people, rather than just deal with them as we deal with the rest of nature? What do we gain by judging them?

As a society we may gain something in theory. Harsh judgment may dissuade others from behaving poorly. But as an individual what do you or I gain? If it only causes you stress and pain is it possible that judging others and the resulting anger is good for society but bad for you?

Math and Reality

When we apply logic to numbers we call it mathematics, and because of the abstract nature of numbers we can rely on our conclusions to a large degree. Eleven divided by two is five and one-half, according to the definition of all term involved and the application of logic. But that logic doesn't always work that way in reality. If, for example, you can carry two bricks from the truck to the construction site on each trip, you don't need 5 1/2 trips for 11 bricks, but 6 - you'll just be carrying one brick on one of the trips. That's a relatively simple example, but what about when we try to use words like numbers in an equation? How far from reality can we stray in our attempts to capture it in words and logic?

What is The Purpose of the Legal System?

If we had a way to change the thinking and behavior of a violent criminal in just days (a pill, an operation-- just use your imagination), making him safer than the average person on the street, would it be okay to let him go free after only a week in prison? If not, why not? Are we more interested in the safety and security of innocent people or in punishing people who have done wrong? What makes punishment so valuable to us if it isn't about changing behavior?

Ego is a Tool

You need a saw to cut wood, but you are not a saw. You need a pen to write poetry, but you are not a pen. You need hammer to pound in nails, but you are not a hammer. Likewise, though we need our names and ideas to be human, we are not those names and ideas. When we forget this, we are like a man who comes to a log to be cut and instead of setting down his hammer and picking up a saw, he tries to pound his way through it. It doesn't work very well, does it? Ego, and all the associated baggage that comes with it, is a tool, and should be treated as such. Set it aside after it has served its purpose, and find a better tool for the next task.


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