Tag Archives: favorite

Robert Burton

I am not poor, I am not rich; nihil est, nihil deest, I have little, I want nothing: all my treasure is in Minerva’s tower. Greater preferment as I could never get, so am I not in debt for it, I have a competence (laus Deo) from my noble and munificent patrons, though I live still a collegiate student, as Democritus in his garden, and lead a monastic life, ipse mihi theatrum, sequestered from those tumults and troubles of the world, Et tanquam in specula positus, (as he said) in some high place above you all, like Stoicus Sapiens, omnia saecula, praeterita presentiaque videns, uno velut intuitu, I hear and see what is done abroad, how others run, ride, turmoil, and macerate themselves in court and country, far from those wrangling lawsuits, aulia vanitatem, fori ambitionem, ridere mecum soleo: I laugh at all, only secure, lest my suit go amiss, my ships perish, corn and cattle miscarry, trade decay, I have no wife nor children good or bad to provide for. A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1651

Nick Bostrom

what hangs in the balance is at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 human lives (though the true number is probably larger). If we represent all the happiness experienced during one entire such life with a single teardrop of joy, then the happiness of these souls could fill and refill the Earth’s oceans every second, and keep doing so for a hundred billion billion millennia. It is really important that we make sure these truly are tears of joy.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford, 2014, p. 103

James Boswell

My revered friend walked down with me to the beach, where we embraced and parted with tenderness, and engaged to correspond by letters. I said, “I hope, Sir, you will not forget me in my absence.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, it is more likely you should forget me, than that I should forget you.” As the vessel put out to sea, I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London, 1791, vol. 1, p. 257

Jonathan Schell

Regarded objectively, as an espisode in the development of life on earth, a nuclear holocaust that brought about the extinction of manking and other species by mutilating the ecosphere would constitute an evolutionary setback of possibly limited extent—the first to result from a deliberate action taken by the creature extinguished but perhaps no greater than any of several evolutionary setbacks, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, of which the geological record offers evidence. […] However, regarded subjectively, from within human life, where we are all actually situated, and as something that would happen to us, human extinction assumes awesome, inapprehensible proportions. It is of the essence of the human condition that we are bornm live for a while, and then die. Through mishaps of all kindsm we may also suffer untimely death, and in extinction by nuclear arms the number of untimely deaths would reach the limit for any one catastrophe: everyone in the world would die. But although the untimely death of everyone in the world would in itself constitute an unimaginably huge loss, it would bring with it a separate, distinct loss that would be in a sense even huger—the cancellation of all future generations of human beings. According to the Bible, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge God punished them by withdrawing from them the privilege of immortality and dooming them and their kind to die. Now our species has eaten more deeply of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and has brought itself face to face with a second death—the death of mankind. In doing so, we have caused a basic change in the circumstances in which life was given to us, which is to say that we have altered the human condition. The distinctiveness of this second death from the deaths of all the people on earth can be illustrated by picturing two different global catastrophes. In the first, le ut suppose that most of th people on earth were killed in a nuclear holocaust but that a few million survived and the earth happened to remain habitable by human beings. In this catastrophe, billions of people would perish, but the species would survive, and perhaps one day would even repopulate the earth in its former numbers. But now let us suppose that a substance was released into the environment which had the effect of sterilizing all the people in the world but otherwise leaving them unharmed. Then, as the existing population died off, the world would empty of eople, until no one was left. Not one life would have been shortened by a single day, but the species would die. In extinction by nuclear arms, the death of the species and the death of all the people in the wold would happen together, but it is important to make a clear distinction between the two losses; otherwise, the mind, overwhelmed by the thought of the deaths of the billions of living people,  might stagger back without realizing that behind this already ungraspable loss there lies the separate loss of the future generations.

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, New York 1982, pp. 114-115

Derek Parfit

One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves.

Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth. We ought to transfer to these people […] at least ten per cent of what we inherit or earn.

What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and we are discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.

Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would have given us all, including those who suffered most, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Volume Three, Oxford, 2017, pp. 436-437

Jeremy Bentham

Dr. Priestley published his Essay on Government in 1768. He there introduced, in italics, as the only reasonable and proper object of government, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ It was a great improvement upon the word utility. It represented the principal end, the capital, the characteristic ingredient. It took possession, by a single phrase, of every thing that had hitherto been done. It went, in fact, beyond all notions that had preceded it. It exhibited not only happiness, but it made that happiness diffusive; it associated it with the majority, with the many. Dr. Priestley’s pamphlet was written, as most of his productions, currente calamo, hastily and earnestly.

Somehow or other, shortly after its publication, a copy of this pamphlet found its way into the little circulating library belonging to a little coffee-house, called Harper’s coffee-house, attached, as it were, to Queen’s College, Oxford, and deriving, from the popularity of that college, the whole of its subsistence. It was a corner house, having one front towards the High Street, another towards a narrow lane, which on that side skirts Queen’s College, and loses itself in a lane issuing from one of the gates of New College. To this library the subscription was a shilling a quarter, or, in the University phrase, a shilling a term. Of this subscription the produce was composed of two or three newspapers, with magazines one or two, and now and then a newly-published pamphlet; a moderate sized octavo was a rare, if ever exemplified spectacle: composed partly of pamphlets, partly of magazines, half-bound together, a few dozen volumes made up this library, which formed so curious a contrast with the Bodleian Library, and those of Christ’s Church and All Souls.

The year 1768 was the latest of the years in which I ever made at Oxford a residence of more than a day or two. The motive of that visit was the giving my vote, in the quality of Master of Arts, for the University of Oxford, on the occasion of a parliamentary election; and not being at that time arrived at the age of twenty-one, this deficiency in the article of age might have given occasion to an election contest in the House of Commons, had not the majority been put out of doubt by a sufficient number of votes not exposed to contestation. This year, 1768, was the latest of all the years in which this pamphlet could have come into my hands. Be this as it may, it was by that pamphlet, and this phrase in it, that my principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined. It was from that pamphlet and that page of it, that I drew the phrase, the words and import of which have been so widely diffused over the civilized world. At the sight of it, I cried out, as it were, in an inward ecstasy, like Archimedes on the discovery of the fundamental principle of hydrostatics, eureka!

Jeremy Bentham, “Deontology, or the Science of Morality”, The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, and Ecclesiastical Record, vol. 16, no. 32 (October, 1834), pp. 279-280

Derek Parfit

We live during the hinge of history. Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast. We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors. If we act wisely in the next few centuries, humanity will survive its most dangerous and decisive period. Our descendants could, if necessary, go elsewhere, spreading through this galaxy.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, vol. 2, Oxford, 2011, p. 616

James MacKaye

Quantities of pain or pleasure may be regarded as magnitudes having the same definiteness as tons of pig iron, barrels of sugar, bushels of wheat, yards of cotton, or pounds of wool; and as political economy seeks to ascertain the conditions under which these commodities may be produced with the greatest efficiency–so the economy of happiness seeks to ascertain the conditions under which happiness, regarded as a commodity, may be produced with the greatest efficiency.

James MacKaye, The Economy of Happiness, Boston, 1906, p. 183-184

William Butler Yeats

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’

All his happier dreams came true –
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. `What then?’

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, `What then?’

William Butler Yeats, ‘What then?’ (1939)

Benjamin Franklin

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Benjamin Franklin, letter to Joseph Priestley, September 19, 1772

Jeremy Bentham

Under the Gentoo and Mahometan religions, the interests of the rest of the animal creation seem to have met with some attention. Why have they not, universally, with as much as those of human creatures, allowance made for the difference in point of sensibility? Because the laws that are have been the work of mutual fear; a sentiment which the less rational animals have not had the same means as man has of turning to account. Why ought they not? No reason can be given. If the being eaten were all, there is very good reason why we should be suffered to eat such of them as we like to eat: we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have. The death they suffer in our ands commonly is, and always may be, a speedier, and by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature. If the being killed were all, there is very good reason why we should be suffered to kill such as molest us; we should be the worse for their living, and they are never the worse for being dead. But is there any reason why we should be suffered to torment them? Not any that I can see. Are there any why we should not be suffered to torment them? Yes, several. See B. I. tit (Cruelty to animals.) The day has been, I grieve to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholen from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, London, 1789, chap. 17, sect. 4, n. 1

Richard Dawkins

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s Utility Function’, Scientific American, vol. 273, no. 5 (November, 1995), p. 85

Sheldon Reaven

Paul loved to live. Many periods of his life were a flurry of dinners, plays, operas, romantic evenings, wrestling matches. These occasions were marked by a great sociability. Killing Time itemizes these activities, but does not, I think, fully convey their athmosphere.

Feyerabend would hold court at Berkeley’s faculty lunchroom, in later years at the Chez Panisse restaurant. A steady stream of students, faculty, and assorted personages came and went. Paul was the main attraction. Discussions would careen through fine food and wine; music and opera; romantic prospects and dénouements; Feyerabend’s revered classics of literature, history, and philosophy—perhaps he would be rereading an old favorite, perhaps a new book offered a novel treatment; Perry Mason, mystery books, and the best soap opera actors—soap opera being the sole repertory acting on TV; intellectual celebrity gossip; even philosophy of science. Feyerabend would discuss the state of his ailments, and his newest try for a remedy (e.g., acupuncture). Discussion would continue afterward, as Feyerabend with difficulty would make his way to a class or his bus stop; it was a big occasion when he got a specially outfitted car. His house was a dense labyrinth of books; indeed for years one of my functions was to scout out interesting books on any topic, and interesting musical discoveries, to recommend to him. These were immensely sunny times. Feyerabend was like champagne, sheer fun to be around.

Sheldon Reaven, ‘Time Well Spent’, in John Preston, Gonzalo Munévar and David Lamb (eds.), The Worst Enemy of Science? Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend, Oxford, 2000, p. 24

Thomas Nagel

Consider how strange is the question posed by someone who wants a justification for altruism about such a basic matter as this. Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital with severe burns after being rescued from a fire. “I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,” he says, “and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic? How can his pain give me or anyone else looking at it from outside a reason?

This question is crazy. As an expression of puzzlement, it has that characteristic philosophical craziness which indicates that something very fundamental has gone wrong. This shows up in the fact that the answer to the question is obvious, so obvious that to ask the question is obviously a philosophical act. The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic.

Thomas Nagel, ‘The Limits of Objectivity’, in Sterling McMurrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 109-110

Thomas Nagel

When the objective self contemplates pain, it has to do so thought the perspective of the sufferer, and the sufferer’s reaction is very clear. Of course he wants to be rid of this pain unreflectively—not because he thinks it would be good to reduce the amount of pain in the world. But at the same time his awareness of how bad it is doesn’t essentially involve the thought of it as his. The desire to be rid of pain has only the pain as its object. This is shown by the fact that it doesn’t even require the idea of oneself in order to make sense: if I lacked or lost the conception of myself as distinct from other possible or actual persons, I could still apprehend the badness of pain, immediately. So when I consider it from an objective standpoint, the ego doesn’t get between the pain and the objective self. My objective attitude toward pain is rightly taken over from the immediate attitude of the subject, and naturally takes the form of an evaluation of the pain itself, rather than merely a judgment of what would be reasonable for its victim to want: “This experience ought not to go on, whoever is having it.” To regard pain as impersonally bad from the objective standpoint does not involve the illegitimate suppression of an essential reference to the identity of its victim. In its most primitive form, the fact that it is mine—the concept of myself—doesn’t come into my perception of the badness of my pain.

Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 161

Jorge Luis Borges

Un hombre se propone la tarea de dibujar el mundo. A lo largo de los años puebla un espacio con imágenes de provincias, de reinos, de montañas, de bahías, de naves, de islas, de peces, de habitaciones, de instrumentos, de astros, de caballos y de personas. Poco antes de morir, descubre que ese paciente laberinto de líneas traza la imagen de su cara.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Epílogo’, in El hacedor, Buenos Aires, 1960

Jon Elster

Because it is often easy to detect the operation of motivated belief formation in others, we tend to disbelieve the conclusions reached in this way, without pausing to see whether the evidence might in fact justify them. Until around 1990 I believed, with most of my friends, that on a scale of evil from 0 to 10 (the worst), Communism scored around 7 or 8. Since the recent revelations I believe that 10 is the appropriate number. The reason for my misperception of the evidence was not an idealistic belief that Communism was a worthy ideal that had been betrayed by actual Communists. In that case, I would simply have been victim of wishful thinking or self-deception. Rather, I was misled by the hysterical character of those who claimed all along that Communism scored 10. My ignorance of their claims was not entirely irrational. On average, it makes sense to discount the claims of the manifestly hysterical. Yet even hysterics can be right, albeit for the wrong reasons. Because I sensed and still believe that many of these fierce anti-Communists would have said the same regardless of the evidence, I could not believe that what they said did in fact correspond to the evidence. I made the mistake of thinking of them as a clock that is always one hour late rather than as a broken clock that shows the right time twice a day.

Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 136-137, n. 16

Stephen Grover

We know that the Null Possibility does not obtain, but the fact that it is a possibility deprives us of our best opportunity for claiming that the Maximal Possibility obtains instead. Because there could have been nothing we have little reason to believe that there is everything. Instead, there is just something.

Stephen Grover, ‘Cosmological Fecundity’, Inquiry, vol. 41, no. 3 (September, 1998), p. 295

Quentin Smith

Not long ago I was sleeping in a cabin in the woods and was awoken in the middle of the night by the sounds of a struggle between two animals. Cries of terror and extreme agony rent the night, intermingled with the sounds of jaws snapping bones and flesh being torn from limbs. One animal was being savagely attacked, killed and then devoured by another. […] [I]it seems to me that the horror I experienced on that dark night in the woods was a veridical insight. What I experienced was a brief and terrifying glimpse into the ultimately evil dimension of a godless world.

Quentin Smith, ‘An Atheological Argument from Evil Natural Laws’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 29, no. 3 (June, 1991), pp. 159, 173

Bertrand Russell

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Bertrand Russell, ‘The Free Man’s Worship’, Independent Review, vol. 1 (December, 1903), pp. 415-424

Bertrand Russell

Alone in my tower at midnight, I remember the woods and downs, the sea and sky, that daylight showed. Now, as I look through each of the four windows, north, south, east and west, I see only myself dimly reflected, or shadowed in monstrous opacity upon the fog. What matter? To-morrow sunrise will give me back the beauty of the outer world as I wake from sleep.

But the mental night that has descended upon me is less brief, and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly, the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death? It was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul through which I look out upon the night of nothingness. The revolutions of nebulae, the birth and death of stars, are no more than convenient fictions in the trivial work of linking together my own sensations, and perhaps those of other men not much better than myself. No dungeon was ever constructed so dark and narrow as that in which the shadow physics of our time imprisons us, for every prisoner has believed that outside his walls a free world existed; but now the prison has become the whole universe. There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.

Why live in such a world? Why even die?

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1914-1944, London, 1968, pp. 158-159

Xul Solar

Me oprimen vagas asfixias de deseos, como nieblas enemigas que rivalizan, mortíferas; en medio de mi agitación mi espíritu revolotea por los espacios buscando ayuda para hacerme huir, no sé hacia donde. Desgranarse de olas oigo entre el pedal del mar y siento brisas refrescantes; pero se desvanecen las flotas nocturnas de barcas peregrinas al llamarlas; cabalgatas de adustos gigantes pasan silenciosas por los lejanos desiertos del aire ocultando la color-ceñida luna, pero su alma inferior no me comprende; fantasmas, cosas veladas llenan la atmósfera y ágiles movimientos oídos me atraen fatalmente, mientras como serpientes las nieblas se disipan. Visiones claras en la noche, rítmicos suspiros musicales de la selva florida, variados arrullos de aguas que van danzando y el aliento-perfume de la primavera adolescente que juega y me rodea como llamas deliciosas, en fiebre delirante me anonadan, oh!, y en un grupo movido de doncellas delicadas y magníficas sirenas!

Pero sus danzas y cercanas palabras no entiendo, con la más bella junto a mí, y el cansador deleite me adormece dolorosamente, ocultando las nieblas tristes el cuadro, digno de eternizarse en su juvenil vida.

—Oh! qué manos, qué llamadas, me llevarán al aire puro, al sol radioso y al satisfecho mediodía? En esta lucha angustiosa me haré veterano; con mis manos, mis ojos y oídos divinos, con mi ardiente é hirviente cerebro encontraré el camino, si no lo hay, si no hay país sin angustia para mí, todo yo, dentro de mis pensamientos, para mis hermanos, me haré un mundo!

Xul Solar, ‘Noche’, Buenos Aires, 1910