Précis of epistemology/The foundations of ethics
Ethics is the knowledge about the good of the spirit. Epistemology is the knowledge about knowledge. It is an ethical knowledge because knowledge is a good of the spirit.
The good is what must be. Something is good when it is as it must be.
Inert matter has no duty, or rather it is already what it must be.
The good of life is to persevere in its being. Health is to have fully the means to keep on living. Reproduction is the perpetuation of life. The good of life is to continue to be what it already is. The spirit does not have to prescribe what it must be.
The good of the spirit is to live well as a spirit, therefore to want well, to think well, to feel well, to act well, to perceive well, to pay attention well, to imagine well, to meditate well... Ethics is the knowledge about the good of the spirit, therefore about the good life of the spirit.
A spirit is fulfilled when he lives well, when he lives as he must live.
The original sin[edit | edit source]
" Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened " (Genesis, 3, 1-7)
Everyone or almost everyone claims to be rational. Almost no one makes the effort to really respect reason.
The misuse of thought and will causes great suffering. The proper use of thought and will alleviates much suffering.
We believe we know good and evil well, but we do not know them well. Believing that we know good and evil well when we do not know them is the cause of much evil doing. This is the fundamental error, the original sin.
Legend has it that the forbidden fruit is sexual pleasure. Nothing could be further from the truth. The forbidden fruit is the knowledge of good and evil, the ethical knowledge.
The myth of the original sin can be interpreted rationally: if we believe we know good and evil well when we do not know them, we condemn ourselves to misfortune. This warning is not hopeless, because at the same time it states the problem - a poor knowledge of the good - it also indicates the solution: a good knowledge of the good.
A good will is to will the good[edit | edit source]
A good will is necessarily to will the good, to want to do it as much as one can. If a spirit does not want his own good or that of others, he is misusing his will. It only remains for him to destroy himself, or to destroy others.
A spirit must not destroy himself, he must persevere in his being, he must live for the spirit.
That the spirit must be for the spirit has a very down-to-earth meaning: we must work to have good living conditions. If we do not make efforts, we necessarily live rather badly. If a spirit wants to enjoy life, he must give himself the means, he must work for himself and for others.
The will to persevere in one's being is a necessary condition of good will, but it is not sufficient. The spirit must live for the good of the spirit, not only for the spirit to live. Organized crime lives to continue living and it is not a good of the spirit.
To live well, we have to want to live well. One cannot live well without having a good will. The spirit must want the good of the spirit.
Since a good will is good, we must want the good will to continue when we want the good. It is the circle of the perpetuation of the life of the spirit.
A good will is central and fundamental, because to think well, to act well, to feel well, to perceive well, to pay attention well, to imagine well, to meditate well... is to think, act, feel, perceive, pay attention, imagine, meditate... in accordance with a good will (Kant 1785).
To want the good, to perceive, imagine, think, feel and act for the good is to live for the good.
The good of the spirit is to live for the good. For a spirit, to live well is to live for the good.
The love of the good is desire, knowledge and action. To love the good is to want it, and to perceive, imagine, think, feel and act to achieve it, as far as possible. To love the good is to live for the good.
The good of the spirit is to love the good. A spirit is fulfilled by loving the good, by desire, knowledge and action.
We can make decisions about how we make decisions. A spirit can exercise his will on his way of exercising his will. We can decide to adopt principles that determine the good we must seek. We thus decide to always decide in accordance with the principles that we have adopted. We can decide to always make our decisions by wanting the good.
An action motivated by good will is good, even if it misses its goal, because a good will is good. Conversely, an action which is not motivated by good will is not a good, even if it has beneficial consequences, because the absence of good will is an evil. Intentions are essential for evaluating actions, because a good will is the basic condition for a good life, but it does not mean that we can ignore the consequences: we have a duty to foresee the consequences of our actions, as much as is possible and adapted to the situation.
A remark on circular definitions : principles such as "matter is what interacts with matter", "a natural number is either zero or the successor of a natural number" and "the good is that the spirit lives for the good" are not at fault. They determine the meaning of fundamental concepts. Formally we translate them by axioms. Informally, we can say that they are true by definition, or that they define the fundamental concepts. Circular definitions are forbidden only for derived concepts, defined from basic concepts. But they are not forbidden for fundamental concepts, because axioms can be considered as implicit definitions of fundamental concepts.
Living for the good of all spirits[edit | edit source]
We cannot do the good of others against their will because we cannot make their decisions for them. Their good is that they have a good will and that they exercise it freely. Since we do not have the duty to do what we cannot do, we could conclude that we never have the duty to do the good of others, that we should only take care of our own good. Can a selfish spirit, who lives only for his own good, without worrying about the good of other spirits, live well?
We cannot do the good of others for them, but we can give them the means to do it, or on the contrary, prevent them from living a good life.
A selfish spirit renounces his social nature. He can be good for other spirits but he gives up this good. He is a withering spirit.
A spirit lives well by being good for himself and his surroundings. But he can also be good for everyone, because the fruits of reason are universal. When a spirit knows reason, he knows at the same time what is good for him and what is good for everyone else. By revealing reason, a spirit proves to himself, and to everyone else, that he can be good for all spirits, because we can all benefit from the fruits of reason.
By refusing to be good for others, a selfish spirit renounces at the same time to be really good for himself, because he deprives himself of the power of reason. We learn at the same time to be good for ourselves and to be good for others. If we do not know how to be good for others, we do not know how to be good for ourselves.
A spirit lives a good life when he lives for the good of all spirits, his own and that of all others. The good of a spirit cannot be separated from the good of all spirits.
"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (Kant, 1785). To consider a spirit only as a means is to deliberately ignore his good. To really consider him as an end, we have to want his good.
To love a spirit is to live for his good. Reason prescribes to live for the good of all spirits, therefore to love them.
« You shall love your neighbor as yourself » (Leviticus 19, 18) is not only a religious principle, it is also a rationalist principle. If human beings do not want to help each other, reason can not be among them.
Hatred drives us mad because it is contrary to reason, which prescribes us to always want the good of all spirits. If we want to keep reason, we must "love our enemies" (Matthew 5, 44). We must forgive because hatred prevents us from wanting the good, and therefore from living a good life.
Reason asks us to love all minds, but love cannot be commanded. Emotions are not directly under the control of the will. We do not decide to be moved. We do not choose to love. Loving our enemies may seem impossible or absurd. Yet reason does not demand the impossible.
Good and bad schemas[edit | edit source]
The Buddha (the awakened one):
"He insulted me, he beat me, he defeated me, he stole me". Do they attach themselves to these reproaches: there is no appeasement for their hatred.
"He insulted me, he beat me, he defeated me, he stole me". Do they not attach themselves to these reproaches: appeasement for their hatred.
Certainly, in this world never hatred appeases hatred, but absence of hatred does : eternal law.
Interpretation is part of perception. The perception of reality therefore depends on our decisions. As reality exists for us only from its perception, we make our own reality when we choose our interpretations.
The Buddha awakened when he understood that he was the creator of his perception of reality, like a dreamer who wakes up realizing that he has dreamed.
The perception of reality does not depend only on our decisions. We are not free to invent perceived reality in the same way that we are free to invent any fantasy. We must take into account the testimony of the senses and introspection.
The perception of reality can be more or less adapted to what is not dependent on us, to the external or internal reality that we have not decided.
The interpretation of reality depends on our preconceptions. We give ourselves schemas, systems of preconceptions or principles, which determine our ways of perceiving, how we anticipate the consequences of our actions and how we make our decisions. We need good schemas to adapt to reality. As long as we do not have a schema, we do not know how to interpret what we perceive. But the schemas that we have internalized are not always good. Bad schemas prevent one from adapting to reality, they blind, they weaken, they cause suffering, they make the same mistakes repeat over and over again, they lock up in seemingly hopeless situations, they afflict and condemn. Good schemas reveal the possibilities that reality offers us, they enlighten, they make strong, they alleviate suffering, they show how to learn the lessons of experience, they give the power to avoid or overcome obstacles, they rejoice and give reasons to hope.
The schemas method: identify maladaptive schemas and modify or replace them with better ones.
The principle of the schemas method is easy to state but not always easy to apply. Identifying inappropriate schemas always requires conscientious work. Finding the good schemas is not always easy either. A little common sense is enough to solve a lot of problems, but not all of them.
The principle of the schemas method is a principle of common sense. We need good schemas and good principles to perceive well, think well and decide well.
The schemas method of is based on the capacity of the spirit to form himself, to program himself, by making decisions. We are not doomed to suffer the effects of bad schemas. Choosing good schemas, based on good principles, comes down to giving oneself good programs, in order to perceive well, think well, feel well, act well and live well.
The schemas method is applied in many fields, psychotherapy (Jeffrey Young 2003, Jean Cottraux 2001 ...), sexual freedom (Maïa Mazaurette), self-rehabilitation of ex-convicts (Shadd Maruna 2008) ... It can be applied in all areas where human intelligence is exercised, because it invites us to make full use of the powers of intelligence.
The schemas method of cannot be exercised in a tyrannical way. It can only be effective by the will of those who use it. Its power is that of conscience, intelligence and good will. Without real voluntary work of conscience, it cannot bear fruit.
The potential of the schemas method is a priori unlimited. As soon as good principles and good schemas are recognized, they are adopted by all those who understand that they make more competent, stronger, more lucid. If they are really good, really useful, they naturally impose themselves on all those to whom they serve. By inventing or developing good schemas and good theories with good principles, one can make oneself useful for all spirits.
The good knowledge[edit | edit source]
To have a good will, one needs good knowledge. We have to know the good we want and the reality where we are. And we must know them well: perceive well, imagine well the consequences of our decisions, feel well and think well.
To think well, we must not just believe what we like, we must know good reasons to believe what we believe. We must be able to justify what we think we know with good principles, good observations and good reasoning.
We do not always have to be experts to think well, but we always need a minimum of common sense to recognize good principles and apply them correctly.
We know and respect reason when we reason correctly with good principles and good observations.
We recognize good principles by their fruits. They bear fruit when they help us to live a good life.
Reason is good for all spirits. Its fruits are universal. Good observations, good principles and good reasoning are good for everyone. The great principles reveal the power of reason. They give all spirits the means to acquire all knowledge, to understand all spirits and to reveal all the benefits of reason.
By learning what the great principles teach us, we also learn that we can think for the good of all spirits. To be good for all spirits is not an unattainable ideal. This is the reality of rational thought.
For knowledge to be shared, it must draw only on common resources, accessible to all. One might think that it is a very restrictive limit, that by depriving oneself of private resources, one also deprives oneself of the best of knowledge, but the exact opposite is true. Our intelligence is the most powerful just when it is limited to common resources. It is by helping each other that we discover best the power of our intelligence, that we develop the best knowledge and that we make reason live.
When we understand that reason is universal, we understand at the same time the great principle on which we can found all rational knowledge. Everything happens just like if reason was a generous divinity, who gives wisdom to those who really want to know it. The first truth about reason is precisely that it is generous. It is not jealous, it does not deprive us of the best. It would not be the best if it deprived any of us of the best. « It is not possible that the divinity be envious. » (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book A, 983a) Knowing that knowledge can be shared by all, we have the fundamental knowledge which enables us to understand all rational knowledge.
Emotions for a good life[edit | edit source]
To live well we need to think well. But we do not have in advance all the good principles and all the good schemas that help us make good decisions. We must continually learn new ways of thinking and perceiving.
We need emotions to learn how to live a good life. They signal what is important. They teach us what to look for, when they are pleasant, and what to avoid, when they are not. They warn us about what can help us live well, or on the contrary what prevent us from living well. They give knowledge of reality by giving us the means to assess it.
The same decision can have many consequences, some pleasant, others not. The exercise of a good will requires an overview and a balanced appreciation of the foreseeable consequences. An emotion that is too weak prevents us from realizing what is important. Too strong an emotion stifles other emotions and blinds us too. For emotions to help us live, we need the golden middle way, not too much, not too little (Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics).
Emotions enlighten us by showing us how to assess ends and means. But they can also blind us. A particular emotion only shows one aspect of the situation. If it is strong, it can prevent having a balanced overview and lead us to a biased, intolerant and unfair decision. Emotions are not opposed to reason like enemies, because they enlighten us on the means of a good life, but like particular interests which sometimes oppose the common interest.
Pleasures are indicators of a good life. But a good life is not reduced to the search for pleasures. A good will cannot be reduced to obedience to emotions because it requires a balanced appreciation of all the foreseeable consequences of our decisions. Following the pleasure of the moment is not good will, above all we need good principles and good schemas.
Reason is not above passions, because we need emotions to evaluate our reasoning. Emotions are not against reason, but the emotional imbalance is. Too strong an emotion prevents us from having a balanced judgment. Reason requires us to have a balanced overview. Emotional balance is a necessary condition of reason.
To think well, we have to feel well. But since emotions depend on our thoughts, to feel well we have to think well. There is therefore a virtuous circle of emotions and thoughts: emotional balance promotes the development of balanced thinking that strengthens emotional balance. Conversely, there is a vicious circle of emotional imbalance. Emotional imbalance leads to imbalanced thinking which amplifies emotional imbalance.
Feeling well, having emotions that help us adapt to reality in accordance with a good will, is part of virtue ((Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Hursthouse 2001)). Virtue requires emotional balance, but emotions do not obey the orders of the will. How then can we want to feel as we must feel?
The triggering of emotions is not directly under the control of the will, but the emotions are not all powerful against the will. One can voluntarily control the expression of emotions, retain or release them. We can also voluntarily control the conditions, external and internal, which trigger them. In particular, emotions depend on the ways of interpreting reality. We can use our thought to modify our emotional reactions by changing our interpretations. By voluntarily controlling our interpretations, we can gain mastery over our emotions. Through thought, self-consciousness is powerful enough to appease or extinguish the fire of emotions. So we can exercise our good will to learn to feel well, to love and to be balanced.
The extinction of dissatisfaction[edit | edit source]
Dissatisfaction (dukkha) is always suffering, because we suffer from frustration. Suffering is always dissatisfaction, because we would like not to suffer.
The Buddha, in the Speech to set in motion the wheel of knowledge (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56,11):
“Here is the Noble Truth known as dukkha. Birth is dukkha, aging is also dukkha, illness is also dukkha, death is also dukkha, to be united with what one does not love is dukkha, to be separated from what one loves is dukkha, not getting what one wants is also dukkha.
Here is the Noble Truth known as the cause of dukkha. It is this "thirst" producing re-existence and re-becoming and which is linked to a passionate greed, which finds a new enjoyment sometimes here, sometimes there, that is to say the thirst for the pleasures of the senses, thirst for existence and becoming and thirst for non-existence.
Here is the Noble Truth known as the cessation of dukkha. It is the complete cessation of this "thirst", it is to abandon it, to give it up, to liberate oneself from it, to get rid of it.
Here is the Noble Truth known as the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, namely: right perception, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right attention, and right meditation. "
We are dissatisfied from birth, because we would like to be what we are not yet. Old age is unsatisfactory, because we would like to still be what we are no longer. Generally speaking, we are dissatisfied when we want what is not, to be, or when we want what is, not to be.
The cause of dissatisfaction is always a "thirst", a craving, a desire or a will. When a desire cannot or must not be satisfied, we can still extinguish our dissatisfaction by suppressing our thirst, renouncing our desire and modifying our will. Nirvana means extinction.
A path of wisdom is not a renunciation of all desires - no wisdom without a desire for wisdom, no good life without a desire to live - but it is not a path of dissatisfaction, because a desire for wisdom is not doomed to frustration. A true desire for true wisdom is the exact opposite of the torment of Tantalus (Homer, Odysseus, XI): it suffices to bend down for clear water to appear, because a true desire for true wisdom is already a true wisdom.
" It is with the understanding: "This Noble Truth known as the path leading to the cessation of dukkha has been walked" that, in the things which had not been heard before, the vision has risen in me, knowledge has risen in me, wisdom has risen in me, science has risen in me, light has risen in me." (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)
Virtue is to be always ready to perceive well, pay attention well, imagine well, feel well, think well, want well, act well, meditate well... or almost always. Virtues are special ways of being virtuous.
Virtue is necessary for a good life, but it is not enough. On its own, it does not cure diseases, it does not stop the hand of the torturers, it does not save from misery. To live a good life a spirit needs favorable conditions in addition to virtue: health, peace and prosperity.
Virtue is not given in advance. A spirit must learn to be what it must be. When he learns to be virtuous, a spirit is not yet what he must be, because he must learn it, but in another way he is already what he must be, because he must learn, because the learning phase must be. Learning to be virtuous is already starting to be virtuous, because wanting the good is good. The desire for wisdom is the beginning of wisdom. When we love the good, we love what is already there, not just a good that we desire without having it, because the love of the good is the good. “Whoever drinks this water will never be thirsty again because it is a source from which life springs endlessly." (John 4, 14)