Saint Martin's University The Best Things in Life Essay

PHIL 1600

Saint Martin's University


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I’m working on a Philosophy question and need guidance to help me study.

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It covers the short essay by Simon Leys and the longer essay by Abraham Flexner, both in the course-pack. I can provide them later.

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY PHIL 1600.2 • • • • • • • • • • • • • Simon Leys, “The Hall of Uselessness” The power with which Chinese culture invests the “Written Word” (p. 11) Leys translates Wen Guang as the “Light of Civilization” or “Light of the Written Word,” adding that these come to “the same thing,” from which it follows that the emergence of civilization coincides with the emergence of the written word (p. 12). The significance of the allusion (i.e., the reference) of Wu Yong Tang (“The Hall of Uselessness”) to The Book of Changes (p. 12) Abraham Flexner, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” Examples of useful inventions and scientific breakthroughs that are rooted in research motivated not by thoughts of practical benefit, but by intellectual curiosity: (i.) Marconi’s debt to Maxwell and Hertz (p. 545 L-R); Faraday’s research (p. 546 L); the case of Paul Erlich and the significance of his remark, “Ich probiere” (p. 547 R-548 L); Banting’s discovery of insulin, and Minot and Whipple’s use of liver extract to treat pernicious anemia (p. 549 L-R). Flexner on “probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking,” the “ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times” (p. 545 R) “disinterested” inquiry (p. 546 R): to be disinterested is not the same as being uninterested. Spiritual, or intellectual, freedom tends to encourage both originality and tolerance (p. 550 L) “Learning as such is cultivated” (p. 551 L). In such a case, is learning regarded as an intrinsic or an instrumental value? Thomas Hurka, The Best Things in Life Chapter 3 As a pluralist, Hurka argues that pleasure is not the only intrinsic value. There are many. (Examples of Hurka’s commitment to pluralism come up again and again. Be aware of these.) In this chapter, though, he wants to establish that, even within the realm of feeling, achieving pleasure is not the most important goal. The belief among Bentham and his fellow utilitarians that pleasure and pain can be weighed equally against one another, that pleasure, in other words, is as great a good as pain is evil (p. 55). Hurka disagrees: “Pleasure…is a lesser good than pain is an evil” (p. 55). G.E. Moore and Karl Popper on the “asymmetry” between pleasure and pain (p. 56). Examples (all of the following assume that the intensity of pleasure and pain is quantifiable): (i.) If we can choose between increasing one person’s pleasure a single unit from +9 to +10 and decreasing another’s pain a single unit from -10 to -9, we should choose the latter. This is because “pain’s negative value is greater than…pleasure’s positive value” (p. 56). (ii.) If we can choose between decreasing one person’s pain two units from -3 to -1 and decreasing another person’s pain a single unit from -10 to -9, we should choose the latter. This is because “more intense pains are disproportionately more evil than less intense ones” (p. 56). (iii.) If we can choose between increasing a person’s pleasure two units from +8 to +10 and improving another person’s pleasure from +1 to +2, we should again choose the latter. This is because even though, in the latter case, there is “a smaller absolute increase in pleasure, it matters more” because the person in question “starts with less” (56). • • • • • • • • • • • • • • The political implications of the asymmetry between pleasure and pain (p. 58). We already know, says Hurka, that our attitude toward pleasure and pain is time-biased, in the sense that “we care more about pleasures in the present or near future than in the distant future” (see p. 47). But our attitudes are also time-biased in the sense that, once pleasures and pains are in the past, we care less about them. It’s worth asking whether Hurka is right about this, since there are plenty of pleasurable and painful experiences that have a lasting effect on us. Regardless, his point is that the importance to us of knowledge, achievement and virtue last longer (pp. 59-50). Immanuel Kant, E.F. Carritt, and T.H. Green on the negligible value of pleasure (pp. 60-61). The biological explanation for our alleged time-biased attitude toward past pleasure and pains (p. 62). Psychological vs. ethical hedonism (p. 64; see also p. 11) Two main arguments against the hedonist’s claim that pleasure is the only good: ➢ (i.) morally vicious pleasures: the example of the sadist (pp. 65-66); the example of schadenfreude (p. 66); the issue of virtuous pains (p. 66); Socrates’s view (p. 67) ➢ (ii.) mindless pleasures: examples from Homer’s Odyssey and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (p. 68); Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” (pp. 68-70); Hurka on the three ways in which the experience machine severs our connection to the world (p. 70); The Matrix (pp. 70-71); John Stuart Mill on a pig (or a fool) satisfied versus a human being (Socrates) dissatisfied (pp. 71-72). The distinctiveness argument (p. 72; see also pp. 21-22) Chapter 4 This chapter is dedicated to the value of knowledge. It opens with Hurka asking why we educate our children. Notice that his answer cites reasons both instrumental and intrinsic (p. 75) “What exactly is knowledge?” This question reflects the interest of an important sub-discipline of Philosophy, known as epistemology. Hurka proceeds to define knowledge as requiring (a.) believing something that is true, where (b.) that belief is justified by evidence. In other words, your true belief is grounded on good reasons (p. 76). Knowledge, therefore, involves not only knowing that something is true, but also why it’s true (p. 82, bot.; p. 83, top). Hurka identifies three categories of knowledge: (i.) knowledge of the external world; (ii.) knowledge of our relation to the world; (iii.) knowledge of our own internal states—i.e., our thoughts, feelings, and traits of character (p. 77). Although it is necessary to know particular facts, there is a greater value to general truths (p. 78, top; pp. 79-80). In science, these general truths take the form of scientific laws, whereas in Philosophy they take the form of metaphysical truths. General truths lend unity to the substance or content furnished by particular facts (p. 83). Metaphysics is a sub-discipline of Philosophy dealing with first principles, such as the nature of being, substance, identity, cause, time and space. A truth is general if (a.) its content is widely extended—i.e., it applies to many things; and (b.) it has explanatory power—i.e., it can explain that wide array of things (pp. 78-79). Hurka later adds that explanatory power consists not just in how many individual truths a general truth explains, but in how many different kinds of truth it explains (p. 84). What results is a hierarchy, “with items higher up in the hierarchy explaining ones lower down” (p. 79). • • • Not all knowledge is of equal value. Some is trivial (p. 76). Knowledge is trivial if it’s (a.) localized—i.e., not extended—in its subject matter and (b.) fails to illuminate, or explain, anything else (p. 81). Understanding combines two intellectual styles, each of which Hurka associates with a city, namely, Athens, the home of Western Philosophy, and Manchester, the home of the industrial revolution. Athenian knowledge if of abstract principles, while Mancunian knowledge is of particular facts—in other words, literally and figuratively, the nuts and bolts (p. 83). The “full cognitive ideal”: well-justified true belief that’s precise and explains many other truths of different kinds (p. 85). Notice that this combines Hurka’s definition of knowledge (p. 76) with his definition of generality (pp. 78-79), complete with his addendum (p. 84, bot.). ...
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Final Answer

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Running head: BEST


The Best Things in Life


The Best Things in Life


Simon Leys refers to a hut in a refugee shantytown in Hong Kong that he shared

with two other students, one an artist, the other a philologist. On the wall, his artist friend
had hung a painted calligraphy, which spelled Wu Yong Tang, which Leys translates as
“The Hall of Uselessness.” This was intended to allude, or refer, to a passage from The
Book of Changes. What is the significance of this reference?
The reference refers to the situation in which Simon Leys and his friends were at that time. It
alludes to the passage that highlights the uselessness of a dragon in springtime which bears the
concept of the incubation of talent and potential to be revealed when the time is right.

Abraham Flexner discusses the example of Michael Faraday, an important

nineteenth-century research scientist who made important contributions in the fields of
electricity and magnetism. Although much of Faraday’s research was of great practical
value, according to Flexner, utility “was never a criterion to which his ceaseless
experimentation could be subjected.” What is Flexner’s point?
Flexner observes the approach that Faraday had on his projects – driven by his imagination and
curiosity. He identifies the motivation behind this as the need to improve on the works of those
before him such as Oersted and Wolaston. Faraday was driven by his fascination with the

Cornell University

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