Pain, Pills & Will

A Pain That I'm Used To

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There are many ways to die, but the public concern tends to focus on whatever is illuminated in the media spotlight. 2012 saw considerable focus on guns and some modest attention on a somewhat unexpected and perhaps ironic killer, namely pain medication. In the United States, about 20,000 people die each year (about one every 19 minutes) due to pain medication. This typically occurs from what is called “stacking”: a person will take multiple pain medications and sometimes add alcohol to the mix resulting in death. While some people might elect to use this as a method of suicide, most of the deaths appear to be accidental—that is, the person had no intention of ending his life.

The number of deaths is so high in part because of the volume of painkillers being consumed in the United States. Americans consume 80% of the world’s painkillers and the consumption jumped 600% from 1997 to 2007. Of course, one rather important matter is the reasons why there is such an excessive consumption of pain pills.

One reason is that doctors have been complicit in the increased use of pain medications. While there have been some efforts to cut back on prescribing pain medication, medical professionals were generally willing to write prescriptions for pain medication even in cases when such medicine was not medically necessary. This is similar to the over-prescribing of antibiotics that has come back to haunt us with drug resistant strains of bacteria. In some cases doctors no doubt simply prescribed the drugs to appease patients. In other cases profit was perhaps a motive. Fortunately, there have been serious efforts to address this matter in the medical community.

A second reason is that pharmaceutical companies did a good job selling their pain medications and encouraged doctors to prescribe them and patients to use them. While the industry had no intention of killing its customers, the pushing of pain medication has had that effect.

Of course, the doctors and pharmaceutical companies do not bear the main blame. While the companies supplied the product and the doctors provided the prescriptions, the patients had to want the drugs and use the drugs in order for this problem to reach the level of an epidemic.

The main causal factor would seem to be that the American attitude towards pain changed and resulted in the above mentioned 600% increase in the consumption of pain killers. In the past, Americans seemed more willing to tolerate pain and less willing to use heavy duty pain medications to treat relatively minor pains. These attitudes changed and now Americans are generally less willing to tolerate pain and more willing to turn to prescription pain killers. I regard this as a moral failing on the part of Americans.

As an athlete, I am no stranger to pain. I have suffered the usual assortment of injuries that go along with being a competitive runner and a martial artist. I also received some advanced education in pain when a fall tore my quadriceps tendon. As might be imagined, I have received numerous prescriptions for pain medication. However, I have used pain medications incredibly sparingly and if I do get a prescription filled, I usually end up properly disposing of the vast majority of the medication. I do admit that I did make use of pain medication when recovering from my tendon tear—the surgery involved a seven inch incision in my leg that cut down until the tendon was exposed. The doctor had to retrieve the tendon, drill holes through my knee cap to re-attach the tendon and then close the incision. As might be imagined, this was a source of considerable pain. However, I only used the pain medicine when I needed to sleep at night—I found that the pain tended to keep me awake at first. Some people did ask me if I had any problem resisting the lure of the pain medication (and a few people, jokingly I hope, asked for my extras). I had no trouble at all. Naturally, given that so many people are abusing pain medication, I did wonder about the differences between myself and my fellows who are hooked on pain medication—sometimes to the point of death.

A key part of the explanation is my system of values. When I was a kid, I was rather weak in regards to pain. I infer this is true of most people. However, my father and others endeavored to teach me that a boy should be tough in the face of pain. When I started running, I learned a lot about pain (I first started running in basketball shoes and got huge, bleeding blisters). My main lesson was that an athlete did not let pain defeat him and certainly did not let down the team just because something hurt. When I started martial arts, I learned a lot more about pain and how to endure it. This training instilled me with the belief that one should endure pain and that to give in to it would be dishonorable and wrong. This also includes the idea that the use of painkillers is undesirable. This was balanced by the accompanying belief, namely that a person should not needlessly injure his body. As might be suspected, I learned to distinguish between mere pain and actual damage occurring to my body.

Of course, the above just explains why I believe what I do—it does not serve to provide a moral argument for enduring pain and resisting the abuse of pain medication. What is wanted are reasons to think that my view is morally commendable and that the alternative is to be condemned. Not surprisingly, I will turn to Aristotle here.

Following Aristotle, one becomes better able to endure pain by habituation. In my case, running and martial arts built my tolerance for pain, allowing me to handle the pain ever more effectively, both mentally and physically. Because of this, when I fell from my roof and tore my quadriceps tendon, I was able to drive myself to the doctor—I had one working leg, which is all I needed. This ability to endure pain also serves me well in lesser situations, such as racing, enduring committee meetings and grading papers.

This, of course, provides a practical reason to learn to endure pain—a person is much more capable of facing problems involving pain when she is properly trained in the matter. Someone who lacks this training and ability will be at a disadvantage when facing situations involving pain and this could prove harmful or even fatal. Naturally, a person who relies on pain medication to deal with pain will not be training themselves to endure. Rather, she will be training herself to give in to pain and become dependent on medication that will become increasingly ineffective. In fact, some people end up becoming even more sensitive to pain because of their pain medication.

From a moral standpoint, a person who does not learn to endure pain properly and instead turns unnecessarily to pain medication is doing harm to himself and this can even lead to an untimely death. Naturally, as Aristotle would argue, there is also an excess when it comes to dealing with pain: a person who forces herself to endure pain beyond her limits or when doing so causes actually damage is not acting wisely or virtuously, but self-destructively. This can be used in a utilitarian argument to establish the wrongness of relying on pain medication unnecessarily as well as the wrongness of enduring pain stupidly. Obviously, it can also be used in the context of virtue theory: a person who turns to medication too quickly is defective in terms of deficiency; one who harms herself by suffering beyond the point of reason is defective in terms of excess.

Currently, Americans are, in general, suffering from a moral deficiency in regards to the matter of pain tolerance and it is killing us at an alarming rate. As might be suspected, there have been attempts to address the matter through laws and regulations regarding pain medication prescriptions. This supplies people with a will surrogate—if a person cannot get pain medication, then she will have to endure the pain. Of course, people are rather adept at getting drugs illegally and hence such laws and regulations are of limited effectiveness.

What is also needed is a change in values. As noted above, Americans are generally less willing to tolerate even minor pains and are generally willing to turn towards powerful pain medication. Since this was not always the case, it seems clear that this could be changed via proper training and values. What people need is, as discussed in an earlier essay, training of the will to endure pain that should be endured and resist the easy fix of medication.

In closing, I am obligated to add that there are cases in which the use of pain medication is legitimate. After all, the body and will are not limitless in their capacities and there are times when pain should be killed rather than endured. Obvious cases include severe injuries and illnesses. The challenge then, is sorting out what pain should be endured and what should not. Since I am a crazy runner, I tend to err on the side of enduring pain—sometimes foolishly so. As such, I would probably not be the best person to address this matter.

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  1. That is an interesting topic. I just looked online and saw that 67% of people over the age of 12 drink.

    Much of this is marketing. One of the most recognizable icons of successful selling, is the mediocre product coke. Drug companies now buy expensive tv time, and push their medications. The drugs of several years ago are back on tv with class action lawsuits.

    As each new kind of pain killer is released, we get ads reminding us that we should have lives that are pain free. Of course, they do not use someone who looks like me, but one of the beautiful people.

    The number one cause of kidney transplants in the US are directly related to acetaminophen or Tylenol use.

    Yet life is about pain, growth, and overcoming adversity. Only dope heads think they can avoid it all.

    I totally agree with you, with one exception, terminal or end-stage diseases. In those cases, I am ok with drug usage that totally gets rid of all pain. I do not think it compassionate to withhold any medications or painkillers that would kill pain. My mother died from cancer, in pain, because the government did not want to turn her into an addict, 20 years ago.

    There is a proper place for painkillers, but I think like smoking ads, ads for medicines should have caveats listed. If a doctor does not give a pain pill, his patients will go elsewhere.

  2. I’d be interested to tease apart the two strands of your argument. At present, the analgesic medications available are not free of side-effects, but it isn’t hard to imagine a possible future in which they were much safer. Would the development of fairly safe analgesia (let’s say, no more dangerous than martial arts or running) address your concerns?

    My suspicion is that it wouldn’t, because of the other strand of your argument: that, dangers notwithstanding, we should train ourselves to endure pain in case we ever need to. Leaving aside my reservation that this is better seen as a prudential error than a moral failing, I wonder how far you would want to take this. If my life does not provide a sufficiency of painful experiences (let’s say I’m not a runner or a martial artist or anything similar), should I seek them out or manufacture them as ‘learning’ experiences? if not, why not?

  3. Mike,

    “From a moral standpoint, a person who does not learn to endure pain properly and instead turns unnecessarily to pain medication is doing harm to himself and this can even lead to an untimely death.”

    I see this as a practical perspective and not a moral one. I see no moral implications in any of this.

    If a drug could be taken that had the following properties then I see no moral objection at all:

    – It does not have any adverse side effects, non-addiction, non-dependence.

    – It does not mask warnings of damage that pain sometimes helps identify – e.g. the pain of a torn tendon, the pain from touching very hot objects, the reflex response to dangerous touch. In many case pain is a mistaken signal. Sometimes it is a referral to problems elsewhere. If these pain signals could be modulated to cause not pain but some other distinguishing signal.

    But these are pragmatic issues.

    I see nothing inherently virtuous to being able to resist pain. Only practical use, as you’ve described. If drugs could have the same effect of making the subject resistant to pain, not by tolerance but by masking, then I see no moral distinction.

    “… is not acting wisely or virtuously, but self-destructively”

    Wisely I can understand. But I see no indications for virtue. This sort of respect for pain tolerance or pain wisdom as a virtue is no different than something like the theological virtue of virginity: the invention of some social norm that has some meaning in the system within which it is practiced, but is otherwise an arbitrary rule and inherently pointless.

    We seem to have a habit of distorting practical wisdoms into virtues. Prior to reliable contraception as an aid against unwanted pregnancy and unwanted disease maintaining one’s virginity had some practical reasoning behind it. Even now there are risks in certain sexual behaviours. And there are risks in activities that can result in physical damage and consequential pain. All very pragmatic. Only the dogmatic raise these to the level of virtues.

    “This can be used in a utilitarian argument to establish the wrongness of relying on pain medication…”

    Some equivocation in the use of ‘wrongness’? Surely only wrong in the sense of being unhelpful in building a reliance, and then only if the reliance is problematic. Reliance is problematic if there is a potential limit in supply, or if prolonged use causes reduced effectiveness, which in turn causes a spiral of increased dose, with elevated risk from side effects. If these were not present then in what way could it be wrong?

    “…unnecessarily as well as the wrongness of enduring pain stupidly.”

    Again, wrong pragmatically, only if it masks damage; and not morally wrong.

    “a person who turns to medication too quickly is defective in terms of deficiency”

    This sounds like some sort of warrior code of virtue. An entirely bogus social construct. What possible defect could you be thinking of? Note that all foods are drugs. They have chemical and biological effects on us. Moderation is often seen as a virtue, but this is only a practical issue. Extremes of deficit or indulgence cause actual damage. Other than that I see no moral issue whatsoever.

    “one who harms herself by suffering beyond the point of reason is defective in terms of excess.”

    What is this point of reason, this standard? Who decides? Many people would think that anyone who trains vigorously in martial arts is unvirtuous. They are training to the point of occasional actual damage, with an end which has violent intent. The utility for self-defence may just be an excuse.

    “Currently, Americans are, in general, suffering from a moral deficiency in regards to the matter of pain tolerance and it is killing us at an alarming rate.”

    Why moral deficiency? This is beginning to sound like a sermon. I see morality as a construct for interpersonal behaviour. As such one could argue that people that over medicate, or over eat, are imposing a financial burden on the rest of us when they need medical care as a result of their behaviour. But then so are you when you injure yourself. Even with your own medical insurance you will be contributing to the statistics that cause insurance companies put up premiums for everyone else. This seems like an elitist position you are taking, which in itself is morally questionable.

    “What is also needed is a change in values.”

    Who decides that? Who sets the values for everyone else? If you want to legislate against drug use do you also want to legislate against obesity?

    “I am obligated to add that there are cases in which the use of pain medication is legitimate.”

    Who decides when? Is your tolerance level the gold standard we must all aim for?

    “After all, the body and will are not limitless”

    And they are different for different people. Though I suppose through eugenics we could try to rectify that.

    “Since I am a crazy runner, I tend to err on the side of enduring pain-sometimes foolishly so.”

    You need locking up you madman! 🙂

  4. Ron Murphy;

    You assume that virtues are universalizable.

    I have virtues for myself. That is my ethical code. I expect myself to be A and to do X, Y and Z. I don’t expect you to be A and to do X, Y, and Z nor do I preach A or X, Y and Z.

    Maybe Mike’s virtues are for him and for those like him, not for you or for me.

    Temperance might be a virtue for Mike and not for you, but that would not make it any less a virtue for Mike.

    Now, maybe we agree on some virtues and we (as a society) establish an ethical (or moral) code, but we may still, as individuals, have our own virtues, depending on our genes, our projects, our situation, on who we are, etc.

  5. I don’t think Socrates would agree with you. A slave may have a virtue, a child may have a virtue, but those are not “genera.” If you cannot determine what constitutes a virtue for all, then how can you understand what a virtue is? If you cannot determine what it is for all, then how can it be virtuous for you to practice “virtue?”

    I would think your definition is more applicable to a vice, but that’s me.

  6. swallerstein, if that is indeed Mike’s understanding, then that would insulate him from some of Ron’s (and my) criticisms, but it does not explain why he would say that ‘Americans are, in general, suffering from a moral deficiency.’

  7. Timrford:

    There are no objective virtues.

    Socrates, of course, believes that there are objective virtues, given that he (in the Dialogues) believes in the Forms, that the Good (and other virtues) are Forms, are the realest of the real.

    I don’t believe in the Platonic Forms.

    I think that we (as people) decide what is a good life.

    Now, we (as a society) may agree that a good life involves certain virtues and as a member of society, I may subscribe to that contract, but I may also decide on certain personal virtues, on a personal code of ethics.

  8. Colin:

    You’re right about Mike’s position.

    I just could not resist getting in my two cents or two dollars (given inflation).

  9. Swallerstein,

    Moral relativism prevails. Though having many common genetic and social traits it should be unsurprising that we have some common opinions on virtues. But we have to recognise when we are being judgemental and deciding what is virtuous for others, rather than just for ourselves.

    Sometimes we personally feel strongly enough to stand up and object – female genital mutilation, slavery, … But there are many trivial differences in personal opinion on what is right for oneself that it seems excessive to consider them moral issues. Even inappropriately judgemental when it comes to matters of how one perceives pain, or on when one should resort to pain relief as opposed to touching it out.

  10. … toughing it out.

  11. Ron,

    ‘But there are many trivial differences in personal opinion on what is right for oneself that it seems excessive to consider them moral issues.’

    Exactly. As a bit of a runner myself (though nowhere near Mike’s class) I have some sympathy with his feelings on the matter. There is something fulfilling about withstanding a mild-moderate degree of pain or discomfort in pursuit of my goals. But I wouldn’t be at all interested in universalizing those preferences.

  12. Ron Murphy:

    I personally don’t have any strong ethical code against using pain-relievers.

    I’m not a runner.

    However, what seems trivial to you, may not seem trivial to me and for example, always greeting people courteously may for me be an important ethical principle, even though for you it may seem trivial or old-fashioned, etc.

    It seems that as long as I recognize that my ethical principle of always greeting people courteously may seem trivial or unimportant to many people and don’t try to force it on them or proselytize it, I’m not making the world a worse place.

    On that point, we might even be in agreement about what “not making the world a worse place” signifies.

  13. I would think that it is necessary to have objective virtues, and even more desirable. Gotta think that the early philosophers had a pretty good handle on this.

    If you get to decide what is a virtue, what is to keep you from saying that the use of the date rape drug is your virtue? Could Hitler say with impunity that it was a virtue to kill Jews? (He did justify it on similar grounds). Must we accept that NAMBLA regards sex with children as a virtue.

    This sound like the “do whatever you want if it makes you feel good.”

    This position says allot, tho. But Porphrys, I would ask you again just what is a virtue, since by definition it must be the same for all? How do you classify virtue in a genus or species?

  14. Timrford:

    The world isn’t what is desireable, but what is it.

    So the fact that it would be desireable for virtue to be objective does not make it objective.

    It seems that interpersonal ethics are a social contract of sorts and that we agree to keep our promises to one another, because otherwise it’s chaos, but yes, a free rider can take advantage of that and they can even see their cheating as a virtue.

    Now we’re social animals and we have all kinds of genetic traits which lead us to treat each other reasonably well, especially if we recognize others as members of our group.

    Sometimes whole groups of human beings, such as the Nazis, take killing others to be a virtue just as certain fundamentalist Muslim groups consider killing non-Muslims as a virtue and the Europeans who came to the Americas considered it right to kill the Native Americans. The Catholic Church used to consider their persecution of heretics and Jews to be extremely moral.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions: many destructive people frame their violence in terms of the good or the right cause, etc.

    I don’t do whatever I want if it makes me feel good, but doing what makes you feel good is called hedonism and it has its philosophical defenders. How about doing what you want if it makes you feel good and it does no harm to others?

  15. Timford,

    Where are these objective virtues written? In the stars? Issued by a God I see no evidence for? It’s easy to mistake one’s own very strong feeling on some matter for an indication of its truth or existence. How does the desire for moral values turn into a necessity for them? This sounds like the wishful thinking of faith.

    Maybe most people that are close to the human norms of behaviour and empathy have a common feeling that Hitler was crazy or evil or both. I acknowledge those feelings in myself. But intellectually I have to question what’s happening in my head when I experience those feelings, and I can’t come up with anything other than biologically inherited and sociologically learned conditions that drive those feelings. I see no evidence for any other explanation.

    The variety of commentary on morality one sees throughout all philosophies and religions indicates that these are very personal feelings that are related to the specific biological and sociological background of the individual.

    There are many people who have been very religious, pious, judgemental of their fellows, as influenced by their religion, that at some point start to intellectually question what they are feeling, or are nagged by discomfort with the religious morality they have been espousing. They have a change of opinion so strong that they lose their religion. They might become atheist, or merely change to some more comfortable sect. Isn’t this a further indication that morality is flexible, adaptable, personal? I don’t think there is any mistaking the personal nature of morality that just happens to include much common ground because of our common biological and sociological situations.

    The greatest contribution to ethics for me has been the golden rule. Try to pass no moral judgement on anyone except in as much as they cause some sort of harm to others. There is of course an easy twisting of even this basic rule. When the religious feel offended by criticisms of their religion, for example, they sometimes feel the golden rule is being broken against them. But oddly the more vociferous they are in their indignation the more offensive they seem to be in dishing out fire and brimstone to non-believers. It seems easy to take one’s personal feelings for an objective morality.

    There is also the tricky matter of moral relativism. We observe that morals are relative, being specific to the individual, or to a culture, or to a religious sect, or to a political movement. But this is the observation of the existence of moral relativism. There is less justification for extreme prescriptive moral relativism, whereby, for example, postmodernists have been reluctant to criticise cultural practices like female genital mutilation because it’s someone else’s cultural norm.

    If the golden rule is taken at face value and applied equitably without regard for culture there may be sufficient common ground to make a claim for a moral code that comes as close as possible to some imagined objective morality. But I can’t see any justification for anything else.

    And there will always be outliers on the scales of human feelings, emotions, empathy, that seem at odss with the feelings of most of us. We treat sociopaths as faulty humans with faulty brains. But if their condition is merely part of the normal variation of human genetics then we have to acknowledge that their condition is not their fault. This doesn’t mean we have to excuse or allow their behaviour when it results in harm to others. We as a human group can choose if we wish where the boundaries lie, and personally I would want to prevent a sociopath breaking the golden rule.

    But ask yourself, what if sociopathic tendencies were the genetic norm? What if your empathetic feelings made you an outlier? It is conceivable that some sort of pragmatic society could exist that is occupied by sociopaths that agree to customs and rules that avoid an out and out blood bath. One might say such a subculture already exist in business where many leaders don’t lose much sleep in making business decisions that inflict hardship on laid off workers.

    All this doesn’t preclude the use of customs. Some groups may choose to prescribe a code of behaviour that suits the group, that is mutually agreed upon. I don’t see any problem, for example, with a golf club imposing dress code and etiquette rules on its members, and imposing penalties for transgressions. But such rules have to be as equitable as possible. The moral issue is not in the rules themselves, but in their application.

    So, for example, I find the discriminatory behaviour of that religious club the Church of England against allowing women bishops to be morally different from the misogynistic behaviour of the Taliban in degree only. Though the C of E might appeal to their own customs on this matter, such as nonsense about the male apostles or whatever their favourite reason is, the C of E is so far removed from its Catholic origins and the original Christian orthodoxy, and Christianity as we know it now is nothing more than the result of socio-political machinations of the early church, that to appeal to custom on this matter and yet to be so adaptable in many others is just a red herring. There are situations where customs don’t break the golden rule and ones where they do.

    So, back on topic, with regard to tolerance and treatment of pain it may be customary for certain athletic sub-cultures to value pain tolerance as a virtue, it is only a custom that they elevate to a virtue. They have the freedom of expression of course to say they think it would be more virtuous for us all to tolerate pain rather than resorting to pain killers too readily. But they have no rational argument to claim it as an objective moral position. It’s opinion.

    I have difficulty answering the question, is it virtuous to be virtuous? It is either so by definition, or not so because it is incoherently circular. Morality is such a messy business that so easily imposes proscriptions unnecessarily on those that don’t agree that it’s worth keeping as simple and as unrestrictive as possible. Unnecessarily elevating personal preference to morality seems slightly immoral to me.

  16. Thanks for the interaction, I learned from you much, and you made me think.

    I will now define virtue, and list the virtues and different kinds. I am not asking you to agree or disagree, this is just food for thought.

    AS A Christian philosopher, I would define virtue as that which signifies a habit superadded to the faculty of the soul, which is somewhat related to the pagan philosophers who held that virtue must be learned. Virtue stands in opposition to vice. Virtue is generally most discussed in the specialty of Moral Philosophy and also, of course, in Theology. My question to you was designed to find out if Moral Philosophy was where you were coming from.
    There are three different kinds of Virtues, Theological, Moral, and Intellectual
    Kinds of Virtues – Theological
    There are three virtues which stand at the pinnacle—Faith, Hope, and Charity (or Love). These are called theological virtues but from them spring seem to spring the other natural virtues. These do not need to be agreed upon, they are in and of themselves relatively stronger or weaker in every man’s life.
    There are Moral virtues, such as justice, temperance, and fortitude.
    1. Justice (religion, piety, gratitude, liberality, and affability).
    2. Temperance (Abstinence, sobriety, and chastity, ALSO continence, humility, meekness, and lastly, modesty, or decorum).
    3. Fortitude – (patience, munificence, magnanimity, and perseverance).
    There are Intellectual Virtues (they are practical).
    1. Art
    2. Prudence
    There is certainly a list of established virtues, many of these you will recognize from life experience. In making your own virtues up, if they are not included in the listing above, it is unlikely you can do better. I certainly can’t.

    I may not often agree with you, but I find you interesting, and you make me think. Thanks, Tim

  17. Ron, see the post above for answer to some of your thoughts. If you have q’s after that, let me know, and I will either dazzle you with brilliance, or baffle you with bs!

  18. Tim Ford:

    If those generous words of praise are directed at me, thank you very much.

    I learn from reading your comments and conversing with you too.

  19. TimFord,

    A few observations from your comment:

    “I will now define virtue” – I observe that we each define virtues in our own terms. We might look to our preferred philosophy or theology, because we are after all learning humans and little of our complex philosophical thought comes to us as novel and original thought. Even if we do come up with something new it is very much influenced by all we have learned from our personal experiences, and from the words of others, which too are part of our experience. But it seems to me that this is all derived from human experience and is in no way ‘out there’ in any sense.

    “I would define virtue as that which signifies a habit superadded to the faculty of the soul” – This seems to beg questions about the soul. I see no evidence and no reason to suppose humans have souls. We observe that they have brains, and we can link so much of our behaviour to the physiological behaviour of the brain that the only reasonable inference so far available to us is that we are behaving brain-body systems. The soul may have been developed as an explanatory concept when no evidence for brain behaviour was available, but I see no more explanatory power in the concept of the soul than I do of phlogiston: outmoded superseded speculative ideas.

    What I’m not denying is the history of the richness of philosophical and theological ideas. We humans had them, developed them, built philosophies and religions around them. Much is made of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in science. It seems to me that the greatest paradigm shift is still underway: the discarding of superstition. But there’s much resistance to the shift.

    “Virtue is generally most discussed in the specialty of Moral Philosophy and also, of course, in Theology.” – And this is a case in point where a rich history of speculative ideas developed into systems of thought, world views, persists despite no supporting evidence. There remains only pseudo-evidence; in particular what appears like a detachment of a mind from its physical embodiment, the brain, to the extent that the mind appears free of the brain, to the extent that we feel we have free will. Even physicalists like me can’t discard this illusion. For many people it is sufficiently persuasive that they can continue to maintain the idea of a mind or a soul. But when you dig deeper into neuroscience and psychology there are so many examples that show that we do not have free will and that our introspective perspective is very unreliable.

    “There is certainly a list of established virtues” – Yes there is. Establish historically and persisted by those who don’t yet see the implications of the physical nature of the brain.

    “many of these you will recognize from life experience” – I have been told, by artists, philosophers, theologians that these are all virtues. But in many cases they seem to make the case for virtues very dilute. Some of them, like prudence, temperance, are merely pragmatic recommendations if you want to achieve certain things in life. But the things you want to achieve that require these ‘virtues’ are merely taken for granted. Temperance, for example, the application of moderation and self-control, is of little interest to someone who would rather have an exciting challenging and sensuous short life. Who is to say that the goal to which temperance contributes is in itself virtuous? Temperance is only virtuous if it contributes to some goal that is deemed to be virtuous. In what way is temperance a virtue in its own right? I find these questions are never pursued to their conclusion.

    There are millions of people who have no appreciation for art at all, and who do not participate in any art. The self-appointed guardians of our virtues might consider these others ignorant philistines. But that’s often the way with self-appointed judges.

    “In making your own virtues up, if they are not included in the listing above, it is unlikely you can do better. I certainly can’t.” – Maybe that’s because anyone who sees some lived life alien to yours as virtuous it would naturally appear less than virtuous to you.

    Personally I see your list as a list of complex social behaviours that appeal to the human mind that has evolved to the state it has and is able to engage in these ‘virtues’.

    Particularly the aesthetic virtues, like art. They ‘tickle our fancy’, so to speak. It’s as if this brain that has evolved in response to natural selection that has driven it to have some problem solving and predictive capacities finds itself being coincidentally able to do things that have no immediate survival benefit. The act of making images, of prey, or landscapes, might well help hunters to plan and track their prey, and so contribute to survival. But what use is being able to make images more elaborate than necessary? When elaborate images are made what do they do to the perceiving brain that sees them? What feelings do they invoke and why; and how, biologically? It is not at all clear that they have survival benefit, and yet they invoke emotion, wonder, awe. We humans elevate them into virtues because of the emotional effects they have upon us. They are not inherently virtuous in any sense.

    We are survival machines. So we elevate to virtues those behaviours that seem to increase our survival as individuals and as a species: prudence, temperance. We exhibit empathy, and elevate justice to a virtue.

    I am quite happy, as an evolved human living in the culture that I do, to label these behaviours as virtuous. But I would not want to kid myself that they are romantically magical or divine. They are human behaviours that we enjoy, generally, but not universally. So I am also wary of pouring disdain on those that don’t quite see these virtues as I do.

  20. melvin polatnick

    Physical pain is no longer tolerated and is avoided by the use of opium derivatives in pill form. This is good news for doctors; most patients are pain suffers who often return for refills. But a competitor has arisen in the form of an unemployed youngster who is offering the same product at a discount. The source of supply for the young drug dealers are patients with medical insurance coverage, they get the pain pills for free and by selling them on the open market their incomes are supplemented. It is a money maker for everybody but doctors whose waiting rooms are now only half full.

  21. ((I observe that we each define virtues in our own terms)). Actually, usage and convention for definitions are established by common usage, hence the lack of a need to re-define what virtues are, my definition is an established one.
    ((The soul may have been developed as an explanatory concept when no evidence for brain behaviour was available, but I see no more explanatory power in the concept of the soul than I do of phlogiston: outmoded superseded speculative ideas)). Again, the problem you encounter is a fallible intellect. I am fairly certain that the human brain is being used around a ten percent capacity, coupled with an inability to measure the infinite with the finite. I spent 40 years working in the medical field, with more than a few neurosurgeons. Some are like you, and some are like me. If they could reduce it to the brain, or if there were sufficient proof, I believe we would either have heard of it by now, or we are the subjects of the biggest cover-up since the raising of Lazarus. (I have a small sense of humor). Out of curiosity, have you any experience with Aquinas? There are more than a few philosophers who found many answers in his writings, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles.
    Before I had to retire for medical reasons, I worked for one of the largest health care services organizations in the world. It was my job, to turn around operations that were giving only 3 or 4 percent profit levels, to the national average of 7-10% profit. Once I understood business, and human nature, I moved the profit level to a low of 29% to a high of 39%, NOT by cutting costs or laying off employees, but by increasing productivity. The interesting part is that I began to see how this works in all areas of life.
    I went to UNM, and choked on what they had done to Philosophy, they turned it into a business of education, to support the university. I got a free scholarship to go to school because I am a disabled combat veteran. I quit freshman philosophy (walked away from my scholarship), three months later entered a Master’s Program at another University, one that was highly respected. What the two schools do is very different. I have one of those driven personalities, the need to achieve, and I am by nature a competitor.
    Pretty much everyone agrees that secular philosophy is in trouble, in deep kim chee, as they say. No one is doing anything to resuscitate it, and it has become increasingly irrelevant, with each passing year. I saw where they had a philosophy meeting somewhere, and only scientists were invited. What a kick in the shorts! If philosophers do not do something, it is not the scientists who will kill off philosophy, it is the philosophers. It no longer has an application for the common man.
    Philosophy needs a diagnosis, a treatment plan, marketing plan, and you (not personally) need to force the change in attitude by others in the university.
    I have a limited time to be on this site, because my course demands are increasing. You will never see many Thomists here, methinks.
    I lack what many of you have developed in the years scholastically, but I am really good at one thing, research. I anticipate a catch-up on my part. Even my professors at the entry level commented that I seem to take to this like a duck to water. We will see.
    I am grateful to all of you who helped me to advance my understanding, I have no desire to argue anymore, for I have seen with my own eyes what is happening with philosophy in the secular world. I will continue to read TPM, as well as other publications. The PTSD seems to be under control, so life is good.

  22. TimFord,

    “Actually, usage and convention for definitions are established by common usage”

    Which are then interpreted personally, and hence the great detailed variety of interpretations of religious books. Even in a strict church where the is public agreement on all the important matters of belief people will privately vary in the degree to which they agree with the church doctrine but may not say so explicitly and publically. The individuality of human brains and life experience pretty much guarantees difference in opinion. Even if some groups agree on some specific point, such as the death penalty for murder, you’d still find that they would disagree on some individual cases. Not all juries agree at the moment they start their deliberation; they differ, discuss, reach agreement; but even then individuals on the jury might have reservations.

    “Again, the problem you encounter is a fallible intellect.”

    That is precisely what science is revealing. The intellect of humans does not have reliable access to what is happening in the brain through introspection, so that there is no evidence that claims to religious experiences like revelation have any bearing on actual religious phenomena at all. Same for free will: no evidence to support the introspective feeling we have it. Same for any claim to metaphysics that there is supposed to some deity out there.

    “I am fairly certain that the human brain is being used around a ten percent capacity”

    On what basis are you certain? There is no evidence I know of to support this. It’s an old wife’s tale. All the indications are that the brain is busy working away all the time. We are unconscious systems; even multiple unconscious systems, performing all sorts of tasks automatically, concurrently. Perhaps you are thinking of the conscious aspect of the brain. The conscious system seems to be the CEO that makes overall decisions but rarely gets its hands dirty on the real work.

    “coupled with an inability to measure the infinite with the finite.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you expand? We can measure the finite, though to limited degrees of precision. Our limited precision may have some limit in physics; but before that limit all measurements in science are usually accompanied by error bounds. As for the infinite, that is only a vague concept which expresses unbounded measurement and doesn’t necessarily relate to actual never ending expanse, as our simplistic concept would have it.

    “If they could reduce it to the brain, or if there were sufficient proof, I believe we would either have heard of it by now…”

    Why so? Neuroscience is still a relatively young science. I note that some 19th century commenters where declaring the end of science because we knew all there was to know. Have you stopped following neuroscience? What specifically do you think is the barrier to further progress? What do you suppose will happen to the human intellect when upgrades are provided that allow us to marshal our thoughts better so that the individual can better formulate ideas? What will science have achieved in one hundred years, a thousand years? Theists and many philosophers seem to think that the current human mind is the pinnacle of mortal development; that if we don’t understand now we never will, or that their current idea on any matter is the last word, QED. This seems to be gravely naive.

    Aquinas was a 13th century theist. He may have had some great ideas for his time, but they were heavily biased by his religious commitment.

    “There are more than a few philosophers who found many answers in his writings”

    Rather than simply refer to Aquinas (appeal to authority) and those that found him useful wouldn’t it be better to relate specific points of his that you think have specific value today?

    “Pretty much everyone agrees that secular philosophy is in trouble”

    But for different reasons. Theists will always find trouble with anything that doesn’t support their theism. But the trouble is that theistic philosophy is nothing more than theism cherry picking philosophy that supports theistic predetermined conclusions. Many scientists have a problem with philosophy because much of it still operates on the mistaken principle of the primacy of thought, and does not take account of current science. Morality is one area where theists will not let go of the deistic prescription and philosophers refuse to take into account what is known from evolution and neuroscience that makes the older philosophical notions of morality and virtues seem like instinctive guesses.

    “No one is doing anything to resuscitate it”

    There are some philosophers who take science seriously. For me the remaining problem is that professional philosophers still can’t shake off much of the older philosophy that has no relevance.

    As for Thomism, I’d still like to know why the presupposition that there is a God should be taken seriously. Everything in theology stands on top of requiring that there is actually some sort of God, and yet not a jot of reason for supposing there is; and no evidence for one either. I’d really like to get to the bottom of religious belief but I’ve never found a theist who is prepared to take their belief so seriously that they would defend it seriously. Most debates sink into quotes from the Bible, or an agreement to disagree, or a claim to personal truths that we must all find for ourselves (code for don’t disturb my truth). This is often how the debate ends:

    “I have no desire to argue anymore, for I have seen with my own eyes what is happening with philosophy in the secular world.”

    It’s a pity, but those of faith soon run out of conviction sufficient to defend the faith, but never lack the commitment to curl back up into the shell. Every theist I’ve seen debate either resorts to simple assertions, or they make their god vanish into a mist of words that have no meaning, or refuse to get to the bottom of simple questions, such as why the presupposition for any God. I’ve read books by theists, even scientists that are theists, and they all fall into equivocation as the main tool for sidestepping conflicting evidence.

    This is off topic from the OP, so, my email is ronmurp, and it’s a gmail account. I’d be happy to dig deeper. And I appreciate you may be pushed for time, but it needn’t be a quick exchange. I would genuinely like to find a theist who will discuss the detail of what maintains their faith. The offer extends to anyone of faith.

  23. Then more friends can easily talk about this challenge

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