Newsletter: October 2023

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Hello everyone, and welcome to October.

Autumn is underway and that means it’s time for some online philosophy classes. This coming week we’re holding introductory meetings for my course on environmental philosophy, The World Around: Philosophy and the Environment. The Tuesday and Wednesday sessions are fully booked but there’s still space in the Thursday group. And I can put your name on a waitlist for the other two sessions if you’d like to join them.

Not sure the course is for you? I offer a full money-back guarantee before the second full week of class so you can try it out risk-free.

Not sure you can afford the course? I offer a pay-what-you-can option for those who can’t afford the full course fee. Just let me know if you’d like to take this option.

In other philosophy news, a number of us gathered over Zoom last week to discuss open borders—the idea that no one should be barred from living or working wherever they want. It’s the kind of intriguing proposal that goes counter to so much of how the world actually works but in a way that confronts us with the challenge of explaining why, exactly—or whether— things should continue to work that way.

And on my blog, I added the third in a growing series on existentialism. This post looked at some historical antecedents to existentialism. What do Diogenes the Cynic, Immanuel Kant, and Jesus have in common? Check it out.

I’ve also started teaching in person this autumn at Kwantlen Polytechnic University—more on that in a moment—but before the semester started I managed to get out for three nights of camping in E. C. Manning Provincial Park. The views were terrific. I even included some with the promotional video I made for this autumn’s online course.

Kwantlen, where I’m teaching this autumn, is located in Surrey, the second largest city in the Metro Vancouver area after Vancouver itself. The city is a major centre of the Punjabi diaspora and about three quarters of the students in my class are of Punjabi descent—a mix of first- and second-generation immigrants. Indian Punjabis are mostly Sikh (there’s also a Muslim-majority state of Punjab in Pakistan) and Punjabi Sikhs have been migrating to Canada since the late nineteenth century. Sikhs have come to occupy prominent places in Canadian public life, including former British Columbia premier Ujjal Dosanjh and the current leader of the federal New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh.

Canadian Sikhs have also been caught in the middle of a major diplomatic fracas in the last couple of weeks. A Sikh separatist leader was assassinated in Surrey in June, not far from where I teach, and the Canadian government recently claimed they had credible evidence that the Indian government was behind the hit. The history and politics behind this incident are far too complex to relate in this newsletter (you can find a brief explainer here), but it places many of my students in a vulnerable position. Canadian universities like Kwantlen serve as a foothold on the path to immigration—leading to a job, permanent residency, and ultimately citizenship in Canada—and many families in Punjab mortgage their future to set their children on this path. If diplomatic relations between Canada and India break down, it would be financially ruinous for many of these families.

The large Sikh presence in my classrooms seemed a reason to include some Sikh philosophy in the syllabus—and to learn a bit about Sikh philosophy in the process. I knew literally nothing about Sikh philosophy before I started planning this class. What I know now is almost entirely thanks to Keshav Singh, an American philosopher who’s written on Sikh ethics. He’s one of the only philosophers working in English to take a systematic look at Sikhism. Among other things, he’s written a short article on Sikh ethics for the online magazine Psyche.

Sikhism originated in the Punjab in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This was a time of religious upheaval in India, as Muslim armies were making inroads in the subcontinent, culminating with the establishment of the Mughal Empire in 1526, which would remain the dominant political force in the Indian subcontinent until the nineteenth century. Sikhism has recognizable commonalities with other Indian religions while also showing the influence of Islamic Sufi mysticism. Like Islam, Sikhism is monotheistic, although the Sikh divinity is genderless and panentheistic, pervading but not identical to the universe. But Sikhism also draws on an ancient Indian tradition of seeing so much of our ordinary experience of the world as illusory—an illusion known to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs alike as māyā. In particular, and in common with these other Indian traditions, Sikhism teaches that the idea of a separate self or ego is an illusion.

That illusion of a separate self is called haumai in Punjabi—literally “I–me”—and it is the source of all vice according to Sikh teachings. According to Keshav Singh, haumai is “a kind of false conception of oneself as singularly important, and correspondingly, a false conception of the world as revolving around oneself, as a world of objects there for one’s use.” The five central vices of Sikh philosophy, known as the “five thieves”—lust, wrath, greed, attachment, and arrogance—all ultimately derive from haumai.

This ethical teaching is grounded in a metaphysics of ultimate unity. “The One is present in all; the One pervades everything,” says the Guru Granth Sahib, the central sacred text of Sikhism. If we could see clearly how things really are—and attaining this clarity is the spiritual aspiration of Sikhs—we would see no ultimate separation between ourselves and others. Haumai, by contrast, is the error of seeing oneself as separate, and of attaching singular importance to one’s own wishes. If underlying reality is One and the person in the grip of haumai sees himself as separate, “he is quite literally out of touch with reality,” as Singh puts it.

I taught Sikh ethics in tandem with Aristotle’s ethics. Both are systems of virtue ethics: in both systems, ethical evaluation focuses on dispositions of character rather than particular choices or actions. But they also differ in important ways. The comparison helps to highlight three features of Sikh ethics that struck me as especially interesting.

The first is that Sikh philosophy takes vice as its starting point for ethical analysis. Aristotle, by contrast, starts with virtue. In the second, third, and fourth books of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle draws a portrait of the person of good character, spelling out the various virtues that make a person worthy of admiration. Vice comes in secondarily as the various ways we might miss the mark—and Aristotle famously argues that virtue is a mean between two opposite vices. In Sikh ethics, by contrast, the error of haumai is primary and we come to understand virtue in terms of avoiding this error. As one of my students pointed out, this approach allows for more flexibility in imagining a virtuous life. Aristotle offers up one recipe for how to be good. In defining virtue negatively, as what isn’t haumai, Sikh ethics isn’t as prescriptive about how you ought to live.

In taking haumai as its starting point, Sikh ethics conceives of vice as unified—this is the second feature that struck me as interesting. There are all sorts of ways we can go wrong in life—we can be greedy, we can be angry or violent, we can be lazy, dishonest, stingy, inconsiderate, and so on—but all of these various faults have a common source, on the Sikh view. That all vice should be unified in this way isn’t obvious. Although some have argued that Aristotle has a unified conception of virtue, that unity doesn’t stand out on the page. And because Aristotle understands vice in terms of contrasting ways of failing to be virtuous, it would be harder still to identify a unity of vice in Aristotle’s thought.

Which brings me to the third feature of Sikh ethics that strikes me as interesting: the idea that what unifies vice is a kind of self-centredness or self-regard—and here Sikhism couldn’t be farther removed from Aristotle, who claims that insufficient self-regard is a vice. It’s easy to see how some bad behaviour derives from selfishness. But is that true of all bad behaviour? It’s been interesting thinking through this question with my students. I asked if they could think of instances of vice that don’t ultimately derive from selfishness. They proposed harming others to protect family or jingoistic nationalism as possible examples. In these cases, the vice derives not from centring my own interests but those of particular others or of the nation. That’s not the end of the story, of course. One could construe these instances as an expanded form of selfishness, where I identify with some larger unit but still in a way that creates a duality that misapprehends the ultimate oneness of reality.

These examples raise a further question of what counts as self-centredness. Although it’s sometimes translated as selfishness, haumai seems to have a broader reach. It’s not simply a matter of trying to get what you want without consideration for others. It’s the deeper error of making yourself the measure of all things, of making sense of the world only as it pertains to you. That kind of self-regard might show itself clearly in moments of greed or arrogance but it’s an undercurrent of most of our lives most of the time. Giving attention to this undercurrent, and working to overcome it, seems to me a worthy undertaking, whether or not you identify as Sikh. 

Seven things I learned in September
  1. Chewbacca the Wookiee is left-handed. (source)
  2. Among British and American women, obesity is inversely correlated with income: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be obese. The same is not true of men. Although men have a higher obesity rate overall, it doesn’t correlate with income. (source)
  3. In the late 1990s, Marvel Comics sold Sony the license to make a movie about Spider-Man. According to the terms of the contract, the film rights to Spider-Man revert to Marvel if Sony doesn’t release a new Spider-Man film within five years and nine months of the last one. For that reason, we’ve had an endless stream of Spider-Man films—with Tobey Maguire, then Andrew Garfield, then Tom Holland—because Sony wants to prevent Marvel from re-acquiring the film rights to this lucrative property. (source)
  4. In 1922, during the inflation crisis, the German Reichsbank issued a 10,000 Mark note with an image of a young man’s head that includes an easy-to-miss vampire biting at the man’s neck. The note was a subtle dig at France, which was perceived as vampirically feeding on the German treasury. (source)
  5. In Medieval and early modern Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to charge animals with crimes and give them legal representation. In one case, a lawyer representing some destructive rats in the French town of Autun argued that his clients hadn’t appeared in court out of fear of the local cats. He demanded that the city provide for safe conduct for the rats and the city duly complied. (source)
  6. There are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than there are in Ethiopia itself. (That data point comes from 2010 so it’s a bit dated, although I imagine it still holds.) (source)
  7. The US has reduced greenhouse case emissions by 7% from 1990 levels and the EU by 34%. In the same period, Canada’s emissions have risen 11%. (source)

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