HIROSHIMA — It has been long since hope for the future was lost, and a vague sense of anxiety is now prevailing among us. Yet this feeling of uneasiness should be the beginning of our thinking philosophically. We should rather take it as an unexpected blessing.
Philosophy is not a science. Therefore how far we can go at best may be to get some idea about an issue at hand and then set up a certain boundary beyond which we cannot know any more about the issue. Even so, philosophy can help people grasp the world from a broader and deeper perspective, and find a route that would help better understand problems confronting us. From such a point of view, I have considered some important issues that are causing me concern.
The first issue is China. Every now and then the idea of creating an East Asia Community is broached in China and Japan. Generally speaking, when a new regional community is talked about, the example should be the European Union. The spiritual bond holding EU members together is a respect for human rights. This is discernible from EU’s Copenhagen accession criteria.
Then what would be the spiritual bond of an East Asia Community? At a recent reception attended by members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Chinese scholars said that it is the Confucian ethic. According to them, the Confucian ethic despises egoism and regards individuals who devote themselves to their state, community and family as an ideal. If so, an individual in the Confucian sense is never an independent Western-style individual possessing his or her own human rights. Certainly there is such a way of thinking at the base of Chinese thought.
There are no signs that the Japanese government has thoroughly considered the significance and meaning of such a spiritual bond in Chinese culture. If we use a diagram showing East Asia stressing the importance of the “whole” and Europe emphasizing the rights of “individuals,” it can be said that Japan has come closer to the latter in the past nearly 150 years while undergoing twists and turns. Of course, placing excessive emphasis on individuals causes problems. But China must internalize the European values and make them part of itself. As long as it fails to do so, its repression of human rights will not cease.
The existence of an environment in which problems related to human rights are freely discussed is a fundamental condition for creating an East Asia Community. Unless such an environment is realized, relations between Japan and China will end up merely being economic in nature, based on profits and losses. The history of philosophy shows that respect for human rights and an emphasis on individuals originate from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Now we must consider anew the meaning of the Enlightenment.
The next issue for consideration is the death of Socrates. As everyone may know, Socrates accepted a death sentence at an Athenian court and died by taking poison in 339 B.C. After deep consideration, Socrates reasoned that it would be bad to break out of prison and escape death. He believed that the best way of living was to follow a conclusion obtained through reasoned examination.
Therefore Socrates followed an order from his soul when he accepted the death sentence. His death, as described by Plato, took place as if his soul had been set free from his body’s fetters and made its way to reach a “good place.”
What is important is that Socrates’ way of life as portrayed by Plato became a model of “goodness.” Thus the body’s shuddering emotional cry of “I don’t want to die” was rejected as evil. In contrast, the idea of going to a “good place” by following one’s soul, even if it means death, was strongly upheld and such a way of living was praised as a sublime way of living. Thus the death of Socrates became the criterion for good and bad.
According to this way of thinking, the essential quality of humans lies in their capacity to reason. I always wonder why Socrates did not raise his voice and cry out, “I don’t want to die.” If he had spoken up and resisted his death sentence by making full use of the rhetorical means available to him in presenting a counterargument, the criterion for good and bad would have taken on much greater profoundness. If so, terrorism would have never been praised as a “good deed.” In this world there is nothing worth staking one’s own life on.
Thinking deeply and philosophically on the question of what is good and bad, and other questions such as whether human rights exist in the soul or in the body have strong relevance when we consider not only the problems of terrorism but also ethical problems related to advanced medical treatments and technologies.
The final issue for consideration is the problem of nuclear weapons. In Hiroshima, where I live, voices calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons are being raised widely. But the question arises as to whether it is achievable. We humans have discovered the knowledge to manufacture nuclear weapons. This knowledge will never vanish.
Can we forget the secrets of life we peeked at in our youth? No, we can’t. Therefore the total elimination of nuclear weapons is impossible. Even if they disappear temporarily, the knowledge for their production will not go away and somebody living somewhere would make nuclear weapons in an attempt to obtain hegemony. Pandora’s box has been opened.
Nevertheless we should do our best to strive for the abolition of nuclear weapons. An objective we humans cannot help pursuing although we can never attain it was given the name of a “transcendental ideal” by 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Humans are mysterious animals. They seek for what they cannot take possession of. This is a distinctive trait of humans. I believe that it is absolutely necessary for us to pursue the complete abolition of nuclear weapons as a transcendental ideal.
A sense of uneasiness is spreading in Japan. And the nation’s immature politics are making the situation worse. Japanese voters must become wiser. Therefore I have presented the Enlightenment vis-a-vis the China problem, the death of Socrates vis-a-vis terrorism and advanced medical treatment and technologies and the concept of a transcendental ideal vis-a-vis the nuclear weapons issue as raw materials for thinking philosophically in one’s everyday life.
Hirotaka Yamauchi is professor of philosophy at Hiroshima University. He specializes in environmental ethics and Hegelian philosophy.