By Chet Yarbrough
The Big Questions of Philosophy
By: David Kyle Johnson, Professor
Narrated For THE GREAT COURSES
By Professor Johnson
David Kyle Johnson (Lecturer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania)
David Johnson’s first thirty lectures revolve around proof of God, the definition of reason, knowledge, truth, and the existence of free will. Those lectures, though logically consistent, are a slog and may cause listeners to stop listening. However, the last six chapters of Johnson’s lectures are rewarding summaries of government philosophy and the meaning of life.
Johnson questions several arguments about God’s existence by revealing their logic and evidentiary failings. Johnson defines reason, truth, knowledge, and testimony as falsifiable evidence for God’s existence. He challenges arguments about the existence of soul, and what it means to be free. He explains the significance of mind and body, good and evil, and personal identity. Along the way, he defines good and evil with various side trips showing how we “ought” rather than “how” we really live. Johnson’s attacks many, if not all, substantive philosophical arguments for the existence of God. His noted weaknesses of many philosophical beliefs about God, truth, and knowledge are mind numbing.
The first two thirds of Johnson’s philosophical analysis conclude God’s existence is an unverifiable truth, solely dependent on the chimera of faith.
In contrast, Johnson’s summary of government philosophy and the meaning of life are both entertaining, and informative.
There is a good deal of bias in this review because of personal interest. The first thirty chapters may be of more interest to some, but his analysis of the history of economic and political theory remind one of how great it is to be steeped in western culture.
From an American perspective, the only substantive concern is with the category of serious anarchy. Serious anarchy is Johnson’s category of what is known as Libertarianism in the United States.
Rand Paul, US Senator from Kentucky
The most famous American Libertarians are Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Thomas Sowell, the Koch brothers, Steve Forbes, and Peter Thiel. Essentially, they believe government should be restricted to defense of the country with citizens responsible for their own actions. The only law should be moral law because government-imposed law restricts personal autonomy. There should be no government regulation that infringes on personal autonomy in social, or economic policy.
Lecture 32 asks—What Justifies a Government? Johnson recalls luminaries like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Hobbes viewed citizens as naturally power hungry and that government is necessary to protect citizens from being harmed by acquisitive neighbors. Locke suggests citizens enter a social contract with a government when they choose to become members of a nation-state and by contract will not be allowed to infringe on a neighbor’s freedom of choce, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. In the case of Locke, laws are passed to protect citizens by a government Republic that represents the will of the people who vote for them. Rousseau agrees with Locke but insists on direct democracy to establish any laws meant to protect citizens. Each of these men influence the founding fathers in writing an American constitution.
Lecture 33 asks—How Big Should Government Be? Johnson summarizes the economic philosophies of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes who shape much of what American government has become.
The economy of America is largely based on Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. Though many know of Adam Smith, few seem to have closely read “Wealth of Nations” to clearly understand what he said about economic growth. There have been many interpretations of “the invisible hand” that range from an extreme that suggests self-interest is all that matters in an economy to price-controlling when competition is driving businesses into bankruptcy. Neither extreme represents Smith’s belief in “the invisible hand”. Neither self-interest nor competition is all that matters for an economy to grow. Smith tempers self-interest by arguing it cannot be adhered to at the expense of the common good. Smith endorses competition when it lowers prices for the public. However, Smith notes monopolies created from aggressive acquisition of competitors restricts competition and infringes on the common good.
Karl Marx addresses the threat of capitalism making slaves of workers who are undercompensated for their labor that only benefits entrepreneurs who own businesses without fairly compensating their employees.
History has shown the weakness of Marx’s argument. Labor organizes to increase compensation for labor. More than labor costs determine value. There is the willing buyer and seller that determine the cost of any business’s survival. Marx ignores too many other variables when valuing labor without addressing risk to entrepreneurs, the cost of doing business, and the inherent inventiveness of capitalist self-interest.
John Maynard Keynes is a preeminent economic theorist who recognizes the weaknesses of capitalism. Capitalism engenders economic crashes, panics, recessions, and depressions.
Johnson notes Keynesian economic theory ameliorates those threats by deficit spending when “the invisible hand” fails the common good. Johnson suggests Keynes offers a middle ground between Smith and Marx. The inevitable problem is knowing where the line is to be drawn between government overreach and an “invisible hand” which benefits the common good.
The next two lectures address the limits of liberty and societal fairness. America is among the richest countries in the world, but homelessness seems to grow with each passing year. Having traveled some, it appears America is doing a poorer job of dealing with poverty and homelessness than more autocratic countries like China. One picks China as a contrast because it has a population of 1.4 billion versus 320 million in America. The wealth of American citizens far outweighs the wealth of Chinese citizens. U.S. per-capita income is estimated to be 5.78 times higher than China’s.
One sees no homeless people sleeping in parks or on the sidewalks of major cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, or Guangzhou in China. America is not doing a very good job of drawing the line between government outreach and the impact of capitalist self-interest when it comes to homelessness. This is not to argue limits to liberty in China are either better or worse than America’s ineptitude. However, managing homelessness is a distinct societal unfairness in America. This is a national problem that needs to be addressed by American government policy based on the welfare of its citizens.
At the end of Johnson’s lectures, one is reminded of Plato’s fictional writing about the Oracle of Delphi identifying Socrates as the wisest of Greeks.
Socrates (Greek Philosopher, 470 BC to 399 BC.)
Plato writes that Socrates disbelieves the Oracle. He questions scholars of his time to find they know no more than him. However, he concludes “xero katie pou den xero tipota” or “I know something that I know nothing”.
The final chapter of Johnson’s lectures is “What is the Meaning of Life”.
There is no definitive answer. Maybe, it is the number 42, the nonsensical conclusion of the Bible noting “The Duration of Suffering”. (It is also Douglas Adams ironic answer in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.)