Monthly Archives: May 2016

Compassion and Detachment

One of the Open Question sessions looked at last week was the relationship between compassion and detachment. The meaning of both of these terms are highly contested, playing quite different roles in the Western and Eastern traditions of philosophy and spirituality.


Buddha looking over the sea of suffering

In the Eastern tradition, detachment plays an important role in Buddhism (including Zen), Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Jainism, and the Bahai faith. It is often interpreted as non-attachment to things, desires, and even thoughts.

Similarly, the idea of compassion plays an important role in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism. Typical of these views is that given expression by the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

However in the Western tradition of philosophy, detachment and compassion are understood quite differently. For example, detachment can have three possible meanings: 1. Objectivity 2. Aloofness 3. Indifference. In the first sense, detachment simply means examining an issue or question in an impartial and dispassionate manner. This is also sometimes called . In the second sense, detachment refers to presenting an emotional attitude of being withdrawn, distant, or austere. This is sometimes expressed as being without feeling or affection. The final sense of detachment is that lacking concern, interest, or sympathy. While it is clear that each of the senses can be related to each other, it is clear that they don’t appear to have any direct relationship to the Eastern meaning of non-attachment. However, there does appear to be some similarities of meaning. While in the Western tradition, aloofness and indifference are generally regarded as undesirable qualities, in the Buddhist tradition these qualities are often regarded in a positive manner.

In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is often viewed as the counter-balance to aloofness and indifference, although it is not clear whether compassion in this sense entails actually doing something to relieve the suffering of another person or whether it is simply entering into the subjectivity of another in a deep and total manner. In this sense, the European expressions of sympathy and empathy are relevant.


The Good Samaritan

Sympathy is often thought of doing something to relieve the suffering of another person (as in the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan) and hence similar to compassionate action. In contrast, empathy is usually viewed as understanding another person’s emotional state without any motivation to act to relieve the suffering of another person. The sole purpose of empathy is simply to understand what another person is experiencing.

In general terms then, it would seem that objectivity is closely related to empathy, that we seek to understand why a person acts or feels as they do but without any inclination to act with respond to those feelings. This knowledge-based understanding of detachment can lead to perceptions of being aloof or indifferent, although the assumption implicit in this view is that one should act to relieve another person’s suffering. It could be argued that the desire to relieve the suffering of another person is itself a motivation that might be unwanted by the person who is suffering. It might be felt that it is better to endure pain and suffering than to receive an emotional salve for it. The question that is left unanswered then is when is it appropriate to act and when is it appropriate to simply understand?

The Problem of Beauty

Philosophy is often said to be concerned with three ‘big’ issues – Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Of these, Beauty, while not the most difficult, certainly presents its own unique problems.

The most common approach to the question of beauty is the subjectivist view. This is popularly expressed as ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. When I say something is beautiful I am only expressing a personal judgement and that is all anyone can do. This view is obviously false to anyone who believes that beauty is more than simply a matter of personal preference, but is difficult to effectively

Lets assume that two people agree that something is beautiful and that we then ask what is it about that thing that makes it beautiful? But as soon as we ask this question (and there is no reason not to ask it) we move from subjective preference to inter-subjective agreement and, importantly, a move to discuss the qualities of the object itself. What is it about that object (a face, a work of art, a sunset, a body, a soul) that makes it beautiful? At whatever point where we specify the features of a thing to be beautiful, we are attending to the features of the thing itself. Beauty is no longer simply personal preference but resides in the object we describe as beautiful.

At this point it will be argued that what we are saying is beautiful in the object simply reflects agreed norms or values about what is beautiful – for example, in a society or a historical period. On this view, ascriptions of beauty are said to be relative to the places or times in which people live. This is the theory of aesthetic relativism. This is a popular theory within the Marxist ideology that all ascriptions of truth, goodness, or beauty are ideologies of a ruling elite. On this theory, to describe something as beautiful is simply to apply a ‘label’ that has been determined by a particular social or cultural elite.

While this view is quite illogical when applied to theories of truth (the statement ‘truth is relative to social conditions’ is either itself true according to social conditions – and thus has no reason to be believed independently of those conditions – or it is true independently of social conditions – it is objectively true – and thus refutes itself), when applied to theories of goodness and beauty it appears to have more plausibility. With regard to beauty, the question is further complicated by the fact that it seems necessary to have a certain degree of knowledge and training (cultural education) to recognise the beauty of a thing.

What can be said in favour of the objectivist position? Initially this is a very strange position, for it can be expressed as the view that beauty is a quality of a thing. But if this is true, then if we were to take this quality out of a work of art (like we might take colour out of a painting), it is impossible to see exactly what has been taken out. A different way of expressing this position is to say that the ‘beauty’ of a thing is its ‘ideal form’, its most typical and exemplary manifestation. This is a position that reaches back to Plato and in more modern terms can be found in the aesthetic theory of John Anderson. Anderson argued that the perception of the ideal form of a thing is an aesthetic perception, a perception of the thing’s beauty. This position can be further developed by arguing, as Brian Birchall argued, that the aesthetic experience is an experience (or phenomenology) that is beyond our normal experiences of the world. In the experience of everyday life we see things in terms of cause and effect, practical application, personal desire, etc. This modality of everyday experience interferes with our perception of the ideal form or essences of things themselves. We need to shift our phenomenological modality to appreciate the thematic essence or beauty of the thing itself.

What is a legacy?

Recently, after a friend’s teenage son ate a very hot chilli, he remarked “That is something off my bucket list”. His mother, somewhat perplexed, has written to me with some questions. Firstly, should everyone have a bucket list? No, because some people get along fine in life without them. Secondly, is thirteen too young to have a bucket list. No and it is ‘ageist’ to suggest otherwise. Thirdly, what is a ‘bucket list’? The expression ‘bucket list’, popularised by the 2007 film, ‘The Bucket List’, means a list of things to be done or experienced before one dies. Shorter term goals, no matter how important, or long term goals with no personal significance, do not constitute a bucket list.

This raises the question of what do we leave behind once we die and leads on to a related question asked by another friend, namely Do women have less of a ‘legacy’ when they don’t have children?

On the face of it, the answer to this is a straight-forward no. Women who don’t have children can leave a whole range of ‘legacies’ – in business, the sciences, the arts, etc. What you ‘leave behind’ can be any number of things you have produced or created – works of art, scientific research, protecting the environment, etc.

But the real question to be asked here is whether such activities are ‘less’ of a legacy than having a child. The point here seems to be that having a child, in the best of situations, ensures a surviving tradition of the memory of a person. It’s also interesting to note that this question seems more relevant when asked of women rather than men. Do men have less of a legacy when they don’t have children?

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But the really pressing question here is what is a ‘legacy’? The word ‘legacy’ is derived from the Latin legatus meaning to depute, delegate, or bequeath. In modern times, the dominant meaning is the legal one of leaving something in a will, although more commonly it can simply mean ‘something left or handed down by a predecessor’ such as in the sentence ‘global warming is the legacy of past environmental neglect’.

In discussing the further meaning of this definition at one of my philosophy meetups, it was argued that a legacy is something consciously left from a parent to a child, particularly in terms of the parent’s image of what the child should be. A successful lawyer who raises a child who is also a successful lawyer can be said to have succeeded in his legacy to that child.

This argument was countered with the claim that whatever legacy a parent leaves for a child is not a ‘body of work’, but is something gained unconsciously from the parent, a way, as it was said, of ‘reading between the lines’, of the parent’s life. It is up to the children to learn from the parents, not to passively receive what the parent has given.

To this it was replied that parents do in fact consciously leave a legacy of what they want their children to be. Consider for example, a child who becomes a drug-taking prostitute. In this case, is this the parent’s legacy to the child? We would typically say no, that is not a legacy that a parent would leave, unless that’s exactly what the parent wanted to child to be. In this case, the legacy of the parent is really a failed legacy.

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In response, it can be argued (leaving aside the question of exactly what is wrong with being a drug-taking prostitute), that when a child freely chooses whatever path they pursue, even being a drug-taking prostitute, then the parents legacy has been a success for the child has freely chosen a path in life and that is all a parent can ever hope to bring a child to.

A legacy, from a parent to a child, can only ever be what the child chooses to use of the upbringing they receive. Further, the legacy a childless woman (or man) leaves behind can be just as great as the legacy of children. A legacy is the preservation of what is valuable in a person’s life, but that can happen in various unplanned and unpredictable ways.

Philosophy Open Questions

Philosophy Open-Question Sessions

What is a philosophy open-question session?

1. Think of a philosophy question you would like answered?

2. Come along to one of the times and places above.

3. Join in the discussion as we tackle the question

The question you ask can be as general or as specific as you like. It might be ‘What is the meaning of life?’ It might be ‘What is the relation of philosophy to poetry?’ It might be ‘Does the universe have definite dimensions in Time and Space?’

Some of the questions asked last week were:

What is Existentialism?

This is a toughie for a community group to tackle but not impossible. In general we can this. Existentialism was a 20th century philosophical movement centred primarily in Europe, and especially Germany and France. It had its origins in the 19th century writings of the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard and the German philologist Frederick Nietzsche, and was also strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl’s philosophy of phenomenology. Key figures in the 20th century include Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Many of these philosophers tended to resist the label of ‘Existentialism’ but if we were to give a general characterisation to this view it would be that ‘existence precedes essence’. What does this mean? It means that the actual life of individual people is what constitutes their true essence, rather than having that essence imposed arbitrarily by other people by the use of labels, social roles, or rules by how they should act.

One of the members of our Tuesday morning group, Chay, gave a great definition of what he thought it might be. He said it is ‘our feeling unhappy because we are separated from Being’. This definition captures two important aspects of existentialism. The first is the feeling of unhappiness (disenchantment, dissatisfaction, or anxiety) as the dominant resthponse to our ‘existential’ situation. (Some existentialists also call this response fear, dread, or nausea.) The second is that our existential situation is that of being cut off or alienated from ‘Being’. For many Existentialists, there was a feeling of repulsion and rebellion that their individual freedom could be thought to be subsumed under the philosophical category of Being, as Hegel had suggested. They insisted that their ‘essence’ was something beyond the explanations of the natural world.

Chay also added another important contribution to the discussion of this topic. He said that the Ego creates a barrier between ourselves and the world by imposing labels and words on the things we experience. This is also an important part of Existentialist thinking.

Art and alienation

Another memth-4ber of our Tuesday morning group, Chris, asked the great question of ‘How do we overcome our alienation?’ For many of the Existentialists, this was answered by asserting their freely chosen authentic experience, although how this was done varied greatly. It might be done, for example, by political activity, or it might be done by the practice of artistic creation. The question of Art as a means for existential transformation is a particularly interesting one because it not only involves the question of the struggle within the individual artist in dealing with their material, but also the wider social question of the transgression of social and political conventions by the work of art itself.

Do natural rights exist?

At our Tuesday night group, one question we tackled was what ‘rights’ are and whether rights also imply responsibilities as well. The question of ‘rights’ is an interesting one. We are accustomed to speaking of certain rights of absolute or inalienable, but are they actually so? A different view is that a ‘right’ is simply one expression of political power but has no absolute status.

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Does religion have a place in a secular education system?

Also on Tuesday night we discussed the nature of education in Australia. During the second half of the 19th century, all of the states legislated for free, compulsory and secular education. It was argued that these three features define the Australian educational experience. However during the 20th century provision was made for fee-paying, religious schools, although assessment was always made in terms of a secular curriculum. So the question is, ‘Is there a place for religion within a secular education system?’

Philosophy, poetry, and love

Another topic was the relation between philosophy and poetry. A few weeks ago I went to the Byron Bay philo café where they discussed the poetry of W. H. Auden. Many of Auden’s poems deal with love and one question that was asked was what is the difference between philosophy and poetry in their discussion of love. Obviously one difference is that philosophy discusses it in terms of propositions while poetry discusses it in terms of verse. But is the experience of love different for the philosopher and the poet?th-3


What are our options as we age?

Finally on Wednesday morning I had quite an involved and interesting discussion with Lynne on the subject of ‘Options for Aging’. As many of us age, we ponder what are the options that are open to us. Is it ‘business as usual’? Or do we view our aging process as an opportunity to do new things? What are we prepared to give away and what do we want to retain in our lives as we grow older?

Open Question Sessions this week

Tuesday 17th Currumbin RSL 10am-Noon

Tuesday 17th Robina Tavern 5.30pm on (till about 8)

Wednesday 18th Isle of Capri (Back Deck) (10.30-Noon)

All sessions $5 (unwaged) $10 (f-t waged or independently wealthy)

Philosophy Open Question Sessions

Asking a good question is as important as providing a good answer.


For several years now, I have been conducting community philosophy classes by providing lots of answers – various theories, perspectives, points of view, etc.

Now I would like to run these sessions by having the community ask the questions. What are the philosophical questions that you want answered?

The way that I will run these classes will be much like an ‘open-mike’ session at you local music club: register a question with me that you would to discuss; come to a meeting that’s convenient to you; join in the discussion.

However there will be some basic ground rules. While we all know that some discussions – especially those dealing with ethical and political questions – can get fairly heated sometimes, for a conversation to progress there is a need for participants to respect other people’s point of view.

At the very least this involves the capacity to listen to another point of view without interrupting. At a more advanced level, conversation progresses when we can state an opposing point of view, fairly and accurately, without ridicule or sarcasm.

However, with that said, there will be no limit to what might be discussed. As an example, here are some of the things we talked about during the last week.

Career and Vocation

A career is one’s occupational course in the world; the word derives from the Latin carrus meaning a ‘wheeled vehicle’ – think of ‘carriage’. A vocation is one’s calling to pursue a certain path: the word itself actually derives from the Latin vocare meaning ‘to call’. Although originally restricted to religious contexts eg being called by God to be a priest, it is now used more width-1ely to signify one’s suitability for a particular job, or, one’s
dedication to a certain activity, eg painting, that goes beyond the confines of mere employment. Hence one’s calling to be a painter could continue even if that person worked as a dish-washer.


What is the relationship between career and vocation? In general, one will have a career but not a vocation if they cease practising their art or skill when they cease to be employed to do it. Conversely one can have a vocation but not a career, if the person practices their skill or art even though they have never earned money by practising that skill. Socrates famously once said that he was never paid for the teaching that he gave.

The Gendered Basis of Conversation

Postmodern feminism is well known for its analysis of the gender bias of language. Language, it is argued, is irreconcilably constructed around gender lines. Think, for example, of how extensively, in common discourse, the word ‘he’ is used when referring to both men and women. A related issue is whether we can say certain conversational modes are gender based. Would we say that ‘assertiveness’ is a particularly masculine quality of conversation or that ‘empathy’ is a particularly feminine quality? Could we say that an assertive male who is also empathetic has both high masculine and feminine psychological traits? Would we say the same of empathetic women who are also assertive? Or are such distinctions between masculine and feminine false and artificial?

What is beauty?


Does beauty really exist or is it simply the expression of value towards something (usually a work of art) which we find pleasing? The subjectivist position in aesthetics is that beauty is simply what individual people find pleasing or good. This is also the sceptical position that beauty does not exist objectively or independently of people’s feelings and perceptions. What response can be made by those people who believe that beauty is objectively real?

Typically these people point to things that are commonly regarded as ‘beautiful’… for example, sunsets and the Mona Lisa. But the subjectivist will still reply that these examples is simply what you believe to be beautiful. Is there an objectivist answer that is compelling to the subjectivist?

What is polyamory?

The dominant Western model of loving, sexual relations is a marriage between a man and a woman. This is a one-on-one relationship model and is also common in relationships where the partners are not married or in homosexual relationships. On this model, sexual fidelity or faithfulness is declared to be the standard expectation or agreement between the participants. Breaking this, often unspoken, agreement is described as infidelity, or simply as ‘cheating’.

However there are other models of marriage and relationship. Polygamy is the marriage between several partners, most typically between one man and several women. This model is common in many non-Western cultures such as Islam and Polynesian cultures. It is also found in Mormomism.


Polyamory is a modern term, dating to only 1992. In 1999 the Oxford English Dictionary defined polyamory as “The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.”

The key ideas, then, involved in polyamory are firstly, that loving sexual relations occur between a number of people, and secondly these relations are undertaken with the knowledge and consent of all partners involved.

However, polyamorous relationships are different to ‘open’ relationships where sexual relations may occur with the knowledge and consent with all the people concerned, but that there is a lack of loving commitment in these sexual relations. The practice of polyamory raises interesting ethical and psychological issues. Is it possible to have loving relationships with multiple sexual partners? Won’t the emotion of jealousy always destroy any such attempts at polyamory? Is polyamory morally right?

An interesting discussion of the place of trust in polyamorous and monogamous relationships can be found here.