Saturday, January 9, 2010

2010.01.09 — The Reader

Random House Vintage, 1997.

I finished The Reader the other day. I began it about 10 days ago, and I enjoyed it, but it wasn't a great book. Good, and that's about it. The praises on the cover were at best overblown, at worst histrionic. (And it further confirmed my opinion that Oprah seems to like mostly good, but not truly great, books.)

When I'd finished the read I set aside the book without any additional thought. But by accident I discovered that an e.friend was reading it, and she had exactly the same reaction. And then I remembered that the friend who'd lent The Reader to me, had had the exact same reaction — 'It was okay,' he'd said with a somewhat dismissive shrug and dragged out emphasis on 'okay.'

And it was — is —okay. Reading it wasn't a waste my life, but didn't significantly affect it either.

To my surprise, the movie was in some ways superior to the book. Note, I saw the movie first, and so that may engender bias. However, normally I enjoy books far more than the movie covers because moving pictures do not convey, usually, complexity of thought, personality or feeling as vibrantly as can well-written words. However, my hat's off to Kate Winslet and the team behind the movie, because it actually surpassed what the book was able to convey.

My thought is that that is because the book, while good, isn't brilliant. I guess, after having my thoughts meander, what I am concluding is that The Reader is competent and that it does provokes some thought on the nature of duty and obligation and how they are as easily instruments of evil as they are of good. And the 'issue' of the sexual relationship between the older woman and the older boy was reasonably well written, as was its effect on his adult life. Reasonably well written, but it did not sing the body electric.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010.01.04 - One Act Play on Truthfulness

A Philosophical Play on the the Morality of Truthfulness

In 5000 BC and other Philosophical Fantasies, as well as in his many other books, Raymond Smullyan, a professor of mathematics and great thinker in a Taoist manner, skewers with great glee logical thought and fallacies of logic in well written and extremely entertaining little stories, parables, thoughts, quips and barbs. He also questions accepted truths, such as for example, from 5000 BC:

It has ... been argued that if a person is inconsistent, he will end up believing everything. But is this really so? I have known many inconsistent people, and they
don't appear to believe everything. The inconsistent people I have known have not seemed to have a higher ratio of false beliefs to true ones than those who make a superhuman effort to maintain consistency at all costs. True, people who are compulsively consistent will probably save themselves certain false beliefs, but I'm afraid that they will also miss many true ones (39-40)!
I think that ... to be overly concerned about whether one's beliefs are or are not the result of wishful thinking is very bad, ultimately destroying, rather than aiding, the objectivity of one's judgement. Not only that, but this concern may well prevent one from knowing what he really thinks. How many fine thoughts have been repressed because it is feared that they may be only wishful thinking (99)?

From 5000 BC I particularly enjoyed his short one act play, Why are You Truthful? This is a perfectly executed conceit in Taoist inspired writing. It is an humorous and philosophically sophisticated argument that truthfulness is moralistically relative. Smullyan's brilliance is that he makes this argument without actually stating that that is what he is doing using the characters' dialogue.

He concludes the play with the moralistically engaging statement that the truly honest truth-teller is the one unaware of being truthful. This challenges the prevalent idea that truth-telling automatically equals 'good' morality. Moralistically, the unconscious truth-teller is a-moral because being truthful does not require that s/he make a moral choice. And so, in Chuang-Tzu-style, Smullyan arrives at the logical conundrum that so-called pure honesty is amoral. I love these sorts of western-flavoured koans, especially when they are spun with Taoist philosophical humour and chutzpah. And, what is more, I think Smullyan proves, logically, his case because he was able to move his argument outside logic's delimitations.

My little old brain puzzled and mulled over some of the philosophical consequences of this. I thought, that if Smullyan's conclusion – well, not Smullyan's, as such, as his conclusion is a re-iteration of a great deal of Taoist/Zen thinking – anyway, I thought that if this argument is sound, then the same argument will be able to be made from the opposite direction.

I felt that that was probably true, but I needed to explore the argument outside my head. So I put it out onto e.paper in the form of a one act play. I did so because it is a great form for this kind of playful thinking, again, in the nature of Chuang-Tzu's Taoist writing.

But, more to the point, I wrote my own play in order to provide Smullyan with my highest form of praise: so in imitation of Why are You Truthful? I wrote Why are you False? a contrarian play in one act.

Now a pair of plays, that, if I have been lucky, will be more than the sum of their parts paired.


To read my play Why are you False?, and my comments on Why are you Truthful? now, click here, although I think it better to read Smullyan's play, below, first.

Why are You Truthful?

A Play in One Act*


Raymond Smullyan

Personæ Dramatis

Moralist (host)



Carey (Epistemologist – un-invited)











MORALIST: I have gathered you good people together on this occasion because I know that you are among the most truthful people on earth, and so I propose that we hold a symposium on truthfulness. I wish to learn from each of you your reasons for being truthful.

ADRIAN: My reason is quite simple. It says in the Bible that one should be truthful, and I take the Bible seriously. Since my greatest duty on earth is obedience to the will of God and God commands me to be truthful, my reason for being truthful is obvious.

MORALIST: Very good! And you, Bernard, why are you truthful?

BERNARD: I also take the Bible very seriously. The one thing in the Bible that impresses me most is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Since I wish others to be truthful to me, I am accordingly truthful with them.

MORALIST: Excellent! And you, Carey, what are your reasons for being truthful?

CAREY: My reasons have nothing to do with religion. I am truthful on purely ethical grounds. I desire to be virtuous, and since truthfulness is one of the virtues and lying is one of the vices, then to be virtuous it is necessary for me to be truthful.

EPISTEMOLOGIST [who is, strangely enough, in this group though he wasn't invited]: I find this reason peculiar! Carey evidently doesn't value truthfulness in its own right but only because it belongs to the more general category of virtue, and it is this more general category that he values. Indeed, his very way of putting it: "To be virtuous it is necessary for me to be truthful," his very use of the word necessary suggests that he is reluctant to be truthful but is nevertheless truthful only as a means to another end, that end being virtue itself. This is what I find so strange! Furthermore, I think –

MORALIST: Sorry to interrupt you, old man, but it was not my intention that we criticize the speakers as they go along. I prefer on this occasion to let the speakers simply state their views; we can reserve critical analysis for another time. And so, Daniel, why are you truthful?

DANIEL: My reasons are also non-religious – or at least nontheistic. I am a great admirer of the ethics of Emmanuel Kant. I realize that his ethical attitudes were, at least, psychologically, tied up with his religious ones, but many people who reject Kant's theistic views nevertheless accept his moral ones. I am one such person. I am truthful out of obedience to Kant's categorical imperative, which states that one should never perform any act unless one wills that act to be universal law. Since it is obvious that if everybody lied there would be utter chaos, I clearly cannot will it to be universal law that everybody lies. The categorical imperative hence implies that I, too, should not lie.

MORALIST: Very good! And you, Edward, what are your reasons for being truthful?

EDWARD: My reasons are purely humanistic and utilitarian. It is obvious that truthfulness is beneficial to society, and since my main interest in life is to benefit society, then accordingly I am truthful.

MORALIST: Splendid! And you, Frank, why are you truthful?

FRANK: In order to live up to my name. Since my name is Frank, then it behooves me to be frank with people.

MORALIST: Stop being facetious! This is a serious symposium! What about you, George, why are you truthful?

GEORGE: Because I am a selfish bastard!


GEORGE: Exactly! The few times I have lied, I have ended up getting it in the neck! It's not other people I care about; I care about myself. I don't want any trouble! I have simply learned from hard and bitter experience that honesty is the best policy.

MORALIST: What about you Harry?

HARRY: My ethical orientation is rather similar to George. But instead of using the rather harsh phrase selfish bastard, I would prefer to classify myself as a hedonist; I perform only those acts calculated to maximize my pleasure in life. I am not as fanatical as George; I place some value on other people's happiness but not as much as on my own. And I have much rational evidence that in the long run I will be happiest if I am always truthful.

MORALIST: So you are a hedonist! In other words, you are truthful because it gives you pleasure to be truthful, and you avoid lying because you find lying painful. Is that it?

HARRY: Not quite. I do not necessarily derive immediate pleasure from being truthful. Indeed, sometimes it is immediately painful. But I am a thoughtful and rational person; I am always willing to sacrifice my immediate pleasures for the sake of my ultimate good. I always plan ahead. Therefore, I am truthful since as I told you I have rational evidence that my being truthful is best for me in the long run.

MORALIST: What is this evidence?

HARRY: That is too long a story for us to go into now. I think we should instead hear the views of the other speakers.

MORALIST: Very good. What about you, Irving?

IRVING: I am also a hedonist.

MORALIST: That so far makes three of you! George, Harry, and you.

IRVING: Yes, but I am not like the others.


IRVING: You mean how not! By temperament, I feel very different from George, and unlike Harry I am not the rational type of hedonist. Rather, I am mystical hedonist.

MORALIST: A mystical hedonist? That's a strange combination! I have never heard that one before. What on earth do you mean by a mystical hedonist?

IRVING [sadly]: I don't know!

MORALIST: You don't know? How come you don't know?

IRVING: Well, you see, since I am a mystical hedonist, I am also a hedonist. I feel that if I knew what I meant by a mystical hedonist, I would be less happy than I am not knowing what I mean. Therefore, on hedonistic grounds it is better that I do not know what I mean by a mystical hedonist.

MORALIST: But if you don't even know what you mean by a mystical hedonist, how can you possibly know that you are one?

IRVING: Good question! As you say, since I am unable to define a mystical hedonist, I couldn't possibly have rational grounds for knowing that I am one. Yet, in fact, I do know that I am one. This is precisely where my mysticism comes in.

MORALIST: Oh, my God! This is too complicated for me!

IRVING: Me, too.

MORALIST: At any rate, what is your reason for being truthful? The same as Harry's?

IRVING: The reason is the same, but my justification of the reason is totally different.

MORALIST: I don't understand. Can you explain this?

IRVING: Why, yes. Like Harry, I believe that my telling the truth is best for me in the long run. But unlike Harry, I have no rational evidence for this. Indeed, all the rational evidence I have is quite to the contrary. Therefore, the rational thing for me to do is to lie. But I have a strange intuition that I had best tell the truth. And being a mystic, I trust my intuition more than my reason. Hence, I tell the truth.

MORALIST: Most extraordinary! And what about you, Jacob?

JACOB: My truthfulness is a matter of contingency, not choice.

MORALIST: I don't understand you!

JACOB: I have simply never had the opportunity to lie.

MORALIST: I understand you even less!

JACOB: My attitude is as follows: Obviously, no one in his right mind would ever think of lying to his friends; it only makes sense to lie to one's enemies. If any enemy ever threatened to harm me, I would not for a moment hesitate to lie to divert his attack. But since I have no enemies and never have had any enemies, the opportunity for me to lie has never presented itself.

MORALIST: How singular! And what about you, Kurt; what are your reasons for being truthful?

KURT: I have only one reason. I am truthful simply because I feel like being truthful; I have no other reason than that.

MORALIST: But that is no reason!

KURT: Of course it is a reason! As I just told you, it is my only reason.

MORALIST: But your reason is no good!

KURT: Whoever said that I had a good reason? I said that it's my reason; I didn't say it was a good one.

MORALIST: Oh, but just because you feel like being truthful, it does not follow that you should be truthful. Of course, I believe that you should be truthful but not merely because you feel like it. There are many things I feel like doing, but I don't do them because I know that I shouldn't do them. Not everything one feels like doing is necessarily right! So why is your feeling like being truthful an adequate justification of your being truthful?

EPISTEMOLOGIST: I thought we weren't supposed to argue with the speakers.

MORALIST: I shall ignore that remark. I repeat my question: Just because you feel like being truthful, why does it follow that you should be truthful?

KURT: Should be truthful? Who the hell ever said that I should be truthful?

MORALIST: Don't tell me now that you believe that you shouldn't be truthful!

KURT: Of course not! I don't give a damn what I should or shouldn't do!

MORALIST: Oh, come, now; surely you want to do what you believe you ought to do!

KURT: What I ought to do! I couldn't care less! Look, man, I don't give one hoot for all your ethics, morality, religions, rights and wrongs, oughts and shoulds! As I told you, I feel like being truthful and that is my only reason.

MORALIST: But I am trying to explain to you that that reason is inadequate!

KURT: I don't give a damn whether it is adequate or not! It so happens I feel like being truthful! Do you mind?

MORALIST: No, I don't mind. I don't mind at all. Only you needn't be so belligerent about it! Now what about you, Larry? Why are you truthful?

LARRY: Why does a tree grow?

MORALIST: Look now, we are not here to play mystical games with each other. I asked you a serious question.

LARRY: And I gave you a serious answer.

MORALIST: Oh, come now, what does a tree growing have to do with your being truthful?

LARRY: More perhaps than you realize.

MORALIST: I wish you would stop giving these cryptic responses! What are you, one of these Zen Buddhists or something?


MORALIST: Oh, no wonder you talk in this strange manner! But you can't tell me why you are truthful?

LARRY: Can you tell me why a tree grows?

MORALIST: I still don't see what the hell the growth of a tree has to do with your being truthful.

LARRY: More perhaps than you realize.

MORALIST: So we are back to that again! You Zen men are the most frustrating creatures to talk to!

LARRY: In that case, why do you talk to us? But I'm glad you called me a creature. That at least shows that you have some insight into the true relationship between me and a tree.

MORALIST: Oh, really now, in what significant way are you like a tree?

LARRY: In what significant way am I different?

MORALIST: Oh, surely now, you regard yourself as a little more significant than a tree?

LARRY: Not at all.

MORALIST: But do you not realize that a tree is at a lower stage of life than a man?

LARRY: I find your use of the word lower ill advised. It is psychologically misleading and sets an emotional tone that is tantamount to begging the question. I would prefer to say that a tree is at an earlier stage of life.

MORALIST: Let's not be pedantic and quibble about words! In this context, lower and earlier mean exactly the same thing.

LARRY: Oh no they don't! Objectively the may have the same meaning in this context but subjectively they certainly do not. One would say that a child is at an earlier stage of life than an adult but surely not at a lower stage. This latter mode of speech gives the impression that an adult is superior to a child, which I don't believe many would wish to do.

MORALIST: All right, have it your way; so you're not superior to a tree. But why are you truthful? And please don't answer my question again with the question, "Why does a tree grow?"

LARRY: If you tell me why a tree grows, then perhaps I can tell you why I am truthful.

MORALIST: I still don't see the connection between the two! Why must I first tell me why a tree grows?

LARRY: Because I have great difficulty understanding your use of the word why. I was hoping that if you told me why a tree grows then I could gather enough data on your use of this word to help me answer your question more satisfactorily.

MORALIST: Oh, so our difficulty is semantical! In that case, I'll use a different word. What is your reason for being truthful?

LARRY: Does everything have to have a reason?

MORALIST: Well of course!

LARRY: Really now? Does a tree have a reason for growing?

MORALIST: Of course not. At least, I don't think so.

LARRY: They why should I have a reason for being truthful?

MORALIST: Because you are not a tree!

LARRY: So because I am not a tree, it follows that I should have a reason for being truthful?

MORALIST: Oh heavens, you are only confusing matters! Look, a tree is not a conscious being; it has no free will and makes no choices. So one would hardly expect a tree to have a reason for growing, but one would expect you to have a reason for what you do!

LARRY: I grant you that if I were not conscious then I would not possibly have a reason for anything I do. But it does not therefore follow that because I am conscious I must have a reason for everything I do. In particular, I have absolutely no reason for being truthful.

MORALIST: No reason? None at all?

LARRY: None whatsoever!

MORALIST: Fantastic! In other words, you are in the same category as Kurt. You feel like being truthful and that is the only reason you are.

LARRY: No, no, not at all! You totally miss my point! As Kurt told you, his feeling like being truthful is, for him, his reason for being truthful. But I have no reason at all!

MORALIST: You mean that you don't even feel like being truthful?

LARRY: What a strange non sequitur! Of course I feel like being truthful; otherwise I wouldn't be truthful.

MORALIST: So I was right! That is your reason for being truthful.

LARRY: I am sorry, but you are still confused. I both feel like being truthful and am truthful but there is no evidence that either of these two phenomena is the reason for the other.

MORALIST: Look, I just can't believe that you have no reason at all for being truthful! You must have a reason; you just don't know what it is!

LARRY: At this point, I am not sure just which of several possible meanings of the word reason you have in mind. When you ask the reason for my being truthful, are you asking for my motive or purpose in being truthful, or are you seeking the cause of my truthfulness? Or are you perhaps asking whether I am truthful out of some principle like virtue or duty or obedience to God or the desire to serve humanity or to be personally well off? Which of these meanings do you have in mind?

MORALIST: Take your choice!

LARRY: I would rather you choose.

MORALIST: Very well then. Which of these principles you mentioned is relevant to your case?

LARRY: None of them.

MORALIST: Then what is the principle you follow?

LARRY: None whatsoever. I am not truthful on principle.

MORALIST: All right then, let's go over to another of your suggested meanings, cause. What is the cause of your being truthful?

LARRY: I have no idea.

MORALIST: Aren't you helpful?

LARRY: I am trying to be.

MORALIST: You certainly don't seem to be trying! At any rate, let's go on to the next possibility. What is your motive or purpose in being truthful?

LARRY: I am not aware of any motive, and I certainly have no purpose in being truthful. Does a tree have any motive or purpose in growing?

MORALIST: Why must you keep picking on that poor tree?

LARRY: Why do you keep picking on me?

MORALIST: I'm not picking on you! I'm trying to help you. I'm trying to help you to know yourself better.

LARRY: Why on earth should I want to know myself better?

MORALIST: Well, don't you want to?

LARRY: Of course not. Why should I want to do such a foolish thing?

MORALIST: What's so foolish about it? Recall Shakespeare's saying, "Know thyself."

LARRY: I guess it's all right for those who like that sort of thing.

MORALIST: And did not Socrates say that the unexamined life is not worth living?

LARRY: Isn't that a bit on the arrogant side? Who is Socrates to decide which lives are worth living and which not? Does a tree examine its life?

MORALIST: Socrates was talking about human beings, not trees!

LARRY: What is the difference?

MORALIST: Oh, so we're back to that again! Look, I don't have the time to spend with you playing these useless word games! Since you stubbornly deny that your truthfulness is to any purpose, then I think further conversation is futile.

LARRY: Good grief, how you have misunderstood me! I never said that my being truthful was to no purpose!

MORALIST: Of course you did! A short while back you distinctly said that you had no purpose in being truthful.

LARRY: That is true. Indeed, I have no purpose in being truthful. But that does not mean that there is no purpose in my being truthful. Of course there is a purpose – I feel a very important one – but this purpose is not mine.

MORALIST: Now I don't understand you at all!

LARRY: Isn't that amazing; you understand the matter perfectly with a tree but not with a human! That so beautifully reveals how differently you think of the two. You grant that the tree has no reason or purpose in growing since you say that a tree is not a conscious entity. Yet that does not mean that the growing of a tree serves no purpose. Now you will say that since I, unlike a tree, am a conscious entity, I not only serve purposes but have my own purposes, and indeed I often do. When I came here tonight, I had the definite purpose of speaking with you all. But that does not mean that everything I do I necessarily do for a purpose. In particular, my being truthful serves absolutely no purpose of mine. But I do not doubt that it serves a very important purpose. You see now why I compare my being truthful to the growing of a tree?

MORALIST: Yes, now for the first time I begin to get an inkling of what you are saying. I don't think I would agree with your point of view, but I do find it of interest, and I wish we had more time to go into details, but the evening is getting well on, and we should not neglect our final speaker, Simplicus. Actually, I planned this occasion primarily in Simplicus's honour as a tribute to a great and truthful man, one who is probably more truthful than all of us. All of us here tell nothing but the truth, but Simplicus also always tells the whole truth. Therefore, he should be most competent to analyze the real purpose of truthfulness. And so we ask you, Simplicus, what is your reason for being truthful?

SIMPLICUS: Me? Truthful? I had no idea that I was.


Now, if you want to read my play Why are you False?, and my comments on Why are you Truthful?, click here.

*Note: permission to publish
Why are You Truthful? has been requested. As of yet my request has remained unacknowledged. Please visit St. Martin's Press at if you would like to purchase this excellent book.