One Thing & Another

Lisbon, Portugal

Notes From My Journal: Returning After 30 Years

The first time we were in Portugal, it was rainy and cold. That gave us a bad impression of the country. We knew our reaction was unfair but it must have had an unconscious effect: It took us nearly 30 years to return. We expected to have better weather this time since the weather in Portugal is usually good this time of year. And it is.

Our guide in Lisbon, Rogerio, is both knowledgeable and also agreeable. He talks entertainingly about the country’s history and culture.

“At one time,” he says, “Portugal and Spain were the two most powerful colonial powers in the world. They even signed a treaty dividing the world between them.”

I admit I had completely forgotten about that.

But it’s true. Portugal’s empire once went from China to Africa to South America. They still speak Portuguese in Macao, Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil.

And just one of Portugal’s former colony’s, Brazil, is nearly the size of the United States and has a population of more than 200 million. Portugal is a fraction of that size and has only 10 million people, less than the population of Rio.

I ask Rogerio about Portugal’s relationship with Spain now. “There must be lots of similarities,” I say. “Right?”

There’s a pained expression on Rogerio’s face. In the kindest way, he corrects my faux pas. “There is a very big difference between Spanish culture and Portuguese culture,” he tells us.

“How so?” I ask.

“Well, for one thing,” he says, “the Portuguese tend to be more – how should I put it – more reserved than the Spanish.”

“Like how?”
“The Spanish tend to be, well, rougher around the edges, as you say. More passionate.”

“You mean less sophisticated.”

“One could say that.”

I am taken aback. I’ve always thought of Spain, and certainly Madrid, as very sophisticated. And I’d always assumed that Portugal, being smaller and poorer than Spain today, was less sophisticated. But according to Rogerio, that’s not true.

I find myself feeling happy to hear his opinion. Not because I have anything against the Spanish. It’s just that I like learning things that surprise me. But is it true?

The next day…

As it turns out, Rogerio isn’t the only Portuguese who feels that way. This afternoon K and I are listening to a Rick Steves podcast about Madrid. The subject of culture comes up and – sure enough – one of Steves’ local tour guides makes the very same comment.

 Today’s Word: thewless (adjective)

Thewless (THYOO-lis) is a Scottish word that means weak or timid, lacking vigor or spirit. Example, as used by James Joyce in Ulysses: “As he strode past Mr Bloom’s dental windows the sway of his dustcoat brushed rudely from its angle a slender tapping cane and swept onwards, having buffeted a thewless body.”


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Thoughts on Ethical Philosophies and Moral Practice*

You believe there are some things that are always wrong. Murder is one of them. You wouldn’t think of murdering anyone under any circumstances. Unless of course you were acting in self-defense and you had no choice. Or you were acting to defend a family member. Or a friend. Or you were fighting a just war…

You believe that lying is also wrong. Unless lying could prevent someone from being murdered (see above). Or unless it would spare someone from some unnecessary pain. Or unless…

When talking about ethics, having a certain and fixed opinion has an advantage.  Saying that some behavior is unequivocally right or wrong feels good. You are confident. You have no doubts. Human behavior can be understood and judged.

On the other hand, having doubts about whether something is wrong feels confusing. It feels like ignorance. It feels like weakness. You feel insubstantial. Incapable of fully understanding the world you occupy.

Ethical philosophies are sometimes categorized as absolute or relativistic.

Absolutists believe that actions are inherently moral or immoral. Relativists believe that there are no universally valid moral standards. An action is right or wrong depending on circumstances and intentionality.

The Ten Commandments could be viewed as an absolutist ethical doctrine. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not steal. Honor they father and mother. There is no language in that Old Testament text that allows for exceptions.

And yet religious people who take the Old Testament literally, as God’s law, routinely relativizethese laws. Thou shalt not kill… unless you are defending yourself or a loved one or your country or your culture or…

Christ is reported to have said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Is this an absolute?

It’s absolute in the sense that it is meant to be universal – i.e., that it can work for everyone. But it is relativistic because the morality of the action (what one should do) depends on the individual’s personal feelings. How heor shewould like to be treated in that particular situation.

The Utilitarian school of ethics, founded in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill, attempted to overcome this problem by replacing the subjective (How would I want to be treated in this case?) with an objective measure: that one’s behavior in any situation should be judged in terms of a measurable consequence.

Rather than ask how you’d like to be treated in a particular situation, you ask which of your possible behaviors would provide for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

At first, that sounds like a problem solved. But how does one determine the “greatest good”?

In many cases, that decision would have to be subjective.

Immanuel Kant saw these flaws and attempted to solve them. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he said that human beings can and should govern their actions according to a single, unconditional standard that tells them how to act no matter what their personal feelings, opinions, or goals may be.

This is Kant’s “categorical imperative”: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

Again, this appears on the surface to be an improvement over the other three in terms of edging towards the absolute. And perhaps it is. But still it must be acknowledged that if you asked a dozen people to identify rules that should be universally applied, you’d likely get disagreement.

The Ten Commandments have the virtue, the questionable virtue, of simplicity. They are hard. They are definite. They are unmoving.

They spring from a simple notion of how the universe operates: as a battleground where absolute good is in a daily conflagration with absolute evil.

Relativistic ethics, it could be argued, stem from a more complex view of the universe and reflect the actual relativities of ethical ideas as they operate in the real world, even in the real world of fundamentalist and absolute religions.

Absolute moral standards are dense and contracting. Relative ethical standards are light and expanding.

* In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time — that all of existence, or rather our experience of existence, can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation. My theory is that this movement — from expansion to contraction and back again to expansion — is the fundamental pattern of everything we experience and everything we do and could be said to be responsible for all of our technical, artistic, and philosophical achievements as well as all of our hurtful and destructive thoughts and actions.

Fun Fact

Seven decades of observation and experimentation have led scientists to believe that The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago. And speaking of The Big Bang… it was an explosion of space, not in space. And it happened everywhere, not at one point.

Look at This…