Philosophy - The Expanding Circle
GCC Instructor David Makinster delivers a brief lecture titled "The Expanding Circle" for his Introduction to Philosophy classes. Hi, David Makinster here, and I am doing a brief lecture
on the concept of the Expanding Circle. And actually, this is a concept that I discuss in a number of classes-- actually, most of my classes. So this particular video is being done for my online intro philosophy course. It will correspond to what we study in the Weston book. Unfortunately, Weston took the chapter on the Expanding Circle out of Practical Companion to Ethics. He's got about a half dozen books in print right now, and he moved it to other books. If you're in an ethics course and watching this, Sterba has a chapter on it, Singer talks about it. And if you're in a class that in which we're watching the film Rashomon, which would include intro philosophy and several of my ethics courses, you'll find that our discussion about Rashomon will make references to the notion of the Expanding Circle. OK, so what is the notion of the Expanding Circle? The notion of the Expanding Circle is very important to environmental ethics, to feminist ethics, and to multiculturalism. Many non-Western societies already embrace the notion of the Expanding Circle. Feminism-- feminist ethicists have seen it as an alternative to patriarchal ethics. OK, environmentalists have seen this is a crucial notion that we have to try to reestablish if we're going to have a real relationship with the natural world, such that we value the natural world, such that we understand our place in it,
and actually are going to have a healthy relationship. So let's begin. The idea is that as a small child, when you're first born, you have a very narrow circle. It's you and your primary caregiver, in most societies, usually your biological mother. You learn the fundamental relationships that are going to enter into all of your later ethical relationships. You learn those with your primary caregiver. You learn trust. You learn what it is to be able to depend on someone. You learn what it is to be taken care of, to be cared for, and to care about others. All those things are at the core of learning how to actually be a decent human being and engage in healthy relationships with other people, with the environment, with your community. As you grow older, the circle expands. In the traditional family-- by the way, when we speak of the traditional family in this culture, we're not talking about the traditional family. We're talking about an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. This is modular little families, when the kids move out and you see them on holidays. That's not the traditional family. The traditional family is what we call the extended family. In a traditional family-- and this is pretty much worldwide for most of history-- the family included not only the children,
the biological parents, but aunts and uncles, the cousins, the grandparents especially. And they were all in very, very vital relationships to one another. And they all lived in close proximity. And these relationships were the foundation of your life. So the circle expands. You have other caregivers. You have relationships with other people. You may have pets. Any child psychologist will tell you, a child who has a pet is likely to be more emotionally sound than a child who does not have a pet. Why is that? Because with pets, you learn about things such as unconditional love, about someone depending upon you so you have to be responsible-- this sort of thing. OK, the circle expands. That includes friends, people who are not necessarily blood relations. It may include the community. It may include physical features of the environment. A village may say this particular lake is sacred to us. This grove of trees, this river, the earth itself-- these things are sacred to us because they are a part of our lives, and we live in a relationship to them. There is no reason for this circle to ever stop expanding. They can expand infinitely.
Many times mystic, particularly say, in the poetry of Rumi-- R-U-M-I. He's a, I believe, 14th century Persian poet, who is currently the most popular poet in the world. He oftentimes talks about this unity, this love expanding to embrace all things. And religious mystics often talk about that. As Peter Singer puts it in his book, How Are We to Live? the more you love, the more meaning your life has. The less you love, the less meaning your life has. When we talk about Rashomon, we'll talk about how Kurosawa says, what the movie is really about is the quicksand of ego. People are actually doing this in reverse and sinking down and suffocating. This idea-- you can see why this is important to environmentalism, understanding that we are, in fact, part of this large, interconnected, interdependent web. You've probably all heard the quotation from Chief Black Elk-- we did not create the web of life, but we are part of it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. Environmentalists are trying to get us to understand that that is very, very true, that it's not here's the humans, here's nature. We're part of nature. Even if you live in a city, you're breathing the air. You're dependent upon the water table. You're dependent upon things growing for you to eat in other places.
You're dependent upon, therefore, bees and birds and so forth that pollinate those crops. And, as we certainly know in the Northeast these days, you're very much affected by the climate. That's all part of nature. You're in nature, even if you're living in steel and glass. You can't escape the fact that you are part of nature. So, the extent to which we respect and take care of the things to which we are connected have, once again, quoting Confucius, empathy and respect for those things to which we are connected, is the extent to which we're going to be able to establish healthy relationships. Confucius talked a lot about this, as far as applying this to multiculturalism. Many Archaic societies believe this. The old Archaic goddess religions appear to have been very much founded upon this sort of a notion of where our values come from. We co-create our values together. And we do it through concrete, flesh and blood relationships. Ethics is about relationships. The ancient Greeks would have thought-- if you said, well my ethics is just private. They would have said, I have no idea what you're talking about. If I say I'm beside something, you know what I'm talking about. If I say I'm just beside, you'd think I was making some kind of a joke or that was an abusive of language.
Or maybe English isn't my native language or something. Well what do you mean, you're beside? What are you beside? I'm not beside anything. I'm just beside. What would you say? You'd say, look, beside is a relationship. You can't be beside in isolation. You have to be beside something. Well, ethics is about relationships, just as language arises out of relationships. Our living in the world arises out of multiple, interdependent relationships. You can't do that in isolation. Ethics isn't private. There's a big difference between saying, I like something and saying, I think it's right. I can, in fact, say, without contradicting myself, I like this but I don't think it's the right thing to do. I haven't contradicted myself. If saying something is right meant no more than, I like it, I'd be contradicting myself to say, it's right but I don't like it. Or it's wrong but I do like it-- that's what vices are about. I probably shouldn't do these things, because they're not right. I enjoy them though, so I'm going to have to train myself not to do them. If saying something was bad was the same as saying I don't like it, I couldn't say,
it's bad but I like it without contradicting myself. We're not saying the same thing. We're saying something different about it. What we're saying about it comes out of our connection to other things in the world. It comes out of a relationship. It's not something that is purely private and subjective. It comes out of a relationship. So, Confucius talked about this expanding circle idea quite a bit. Like much of Chinese thought, Confucius talked about relationships as being the fundamental building blocks of our world. Some people have said-- and I think this is an oversimplification-- that in the West, we think about discrete objects with discrete borders, maybe bumping into each other like pool balls or whatever. In the East, they think about relationships, everything being made of relationships. And again, I think that's an oversimplification. But I think it is illustrative. It is a good thought starter. Confucius talked a lot about relationships. What is the world made of? The world is made of relationships. How do you, in fact, get harmony within and harmony without? By respecting those relationships that lead to harmony and recognizing those relationships that lead to discord-- harmony within yourself, with your siblings, with your parents, with your community, with your country,
with nature. And, as he said with-- it's usually translated the heavens, but what he meant was the cosmic order. This circle expands infinitely. Now why would this be important to feminist ethics? Very simple reason-- traditional ethics in the West has been what usually gets called patriarchal. And I want to say, as a father, I want to say that it is tragic that the term patriarch has come to mean something negative. But what is meant by patriarchy is simply this kind of way of thinking. You have, at the very top of the social order, the best and the brightest. They will figure out what we ought to do. Because we're not good enough and we're not smart enough to do it. We need this elite to do it for us. So our values will come top down. They will be dictated to us, explained to us by those who see more than we do. Now they will also have to be able to enforce those values, which means that they have power over us. How do they get that power over us? Essentially, we give it to them. Top down, elite, power over-- how long would it take for that kind of a structure to lead to abuse, for the people at the top to be doing, essentially, nothing but promoting their own self interest? Well, almost immediately.
I mentioned before this conversation with a sophist, Thrasymachus, in book one of the Republic. Thrasymachus, at one point, is scoffing at Socrates and his friends, saying, why do you even investigate the nature of justice? Everybody knows that what happens in any society is the most powerful just simply make laws to promote their own self interest and then tell everybody else it's their moral duty to follow those laws. What Thrasymachus is describing is what modern feminist ethicists would call patriarchy. We've given away our power to people who we trusted to see better than we could and manage our lives better than we could. And all they're doing, really, is promoting their own self interest. Feminist ethics says this is wrong, for any number of reasons. People who don't have power in society generally are labeled bad. Whatever is female is inferior. Whatever is not white is inferior, in some societies. The rich are better than the poor, whatever. All these sorts of hierarchical ways of enforcing injustice come out of allowing ourselves to think about the world in this way. Feminist ethics talks about co-creating, a term I used a little while ago. It's not top down.
It's co-creating. We're doing this. We're building our ethics. We're building our life out of concrete relationships-- not out of abstract principles, but out of concrete relationships. Our values arise from real life, for what actually promotes a good life. And we don't need power over. We need mutual empowerment. Mutual empowerment-- if we're going to work together to build a good life, we have to empower one another to actually do that. How do we do that? The beginning is dialogue. The beginning is we actually are present for each other. We hear each other. We listen to each other. We speak honestly with each other. We share what we can share, so that we can work together. Instead of patriarchy, we have equality. You can see why this would be such a powerful, powerful alternative for people promoting feminist ethics. You know what? We've always been on the bottom of this, robbed of power. Rather than just flip it over and say, what we really need to do is to take the people who are in power and put them under our heal so that we can be in power-- no, that's just you're preserving the same wrong. You're just changing the personnel. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called
"On the Myth of the Moral Superiority of Oppressed Peoples." It's a wonderful, witty little piece in which he points out that we fall into this habit of thinking that because a group of people is suffering an injustice that they're morally superior to their oppressors. Historically what has often happened is that when the people who are being oppressed manage to flip over that relationship-- people who have been on the bottom manage to get on top-- they tend to behave every bit as badly as the people they've replaced, if not worse. The problem is the whole way of thinking. The problem isn't who's on top. The problem is believing somebody's got to be on top, rather than we've got to take responsibility for our own lives and be accountable for our own lives and build our own lives out of positive concrete relationships. On that note, let me just remind you one more thing about Socrates. Socrates said that there is one and only one really important philosophical question, and that is, how are we to live. When Socrates is talking about what is piety, what is justice, what is knowledge, what is this, that, the other thing-- as far as he's concerned, those questions only have value insofar
as they help us to settle the question of how are we to live, particularly by allowing us to expose and let go of answers that just don't work. So is this all about the heart of philosophy? Yeah, it's very much about the heart of philosophy, if you construe philosophy as love of wisdom. Now a number of people, Sterba in particular, has talked about the traditional paradigm for philosophy as it's developed over the past 2000 years. The paradigm is war. I'm an academic philosopher. What do I do? Someone takes a position. I circle that position looking for weaknesses. And when I find a weakness, I attack at that point of weakness. And I displace them. And now I'm king of the hill. Well, meanwhile everybody else is circling me to do the same thing. That's using warfare as the paradigm for doing philosophy. How ridiculous is that? Well, I suppose if you're worried about scarce resources, if you're worried about your territory, if you're worried about rivals for your position, then you start acting like a Sophist, which is essentially what this is about. The Sophists believed might makes right, including in arguments. The argument that wins is the argument that is right,
obviously, because all we want to do is win. Love of wisdom would mean that, you know what? We're going to work together. We're going to mutually empower one another. And we're going to discover together what our lives can be and how we can get ourselves, collectively, to a good life. Because the Greeks understood. And, as every sensible person has understood since and before the Greeks, that we don't live in a vacuum. We live in relationship with other human beings and with the Earth. And understanding how we can create healthy relationships in that way is the key to understanding who we are and how we can live a good life. Thank you.