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The Street Philosopher
Torpid In A Taxi
Seán Moran contemplates a comatose cabbie.
Photo © Seán Moran 2018
Of the crowds passing the dozing Mumbai driver in my photograph, not one person was tempted to tickle his feet. It was only right that they resisted the urge, for he deserved a rest from his labours. Driving a taxi in the Indian city formerly known as Bombay is one job that demands an alert, well-rested person. When I’m a passenger there, I often shut my own eyes and hope that the taxiwallah keeps his eyes wide open as he forces his cab through the anarchy.
When philosophers take an interest in sleep, it is usually from an epistemological standpoint, meaning from a concern with what knowledge is and how we might acquire it. So they ask if dreams can tell us something (as Pythagoras, Freud, and Jung believed), or whether we can’t be sure that we’re not dreaming now (as Descartes argued). But they don’t often consider another aspect of sleep: its ethical implications.
A Good Sleep
The American National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep for adults per day, and the saying ‘Early to bed and early to rise keeps a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ hints that sleep is a significant part of The Good Life. Both our physical and mental health depend on sleep. This is borne out by recent studies showing that a lack of sleep can be responsible for a range of ills, including heart disease and depression; and 2017 research by Oxford Economics and the UK National Centre for Social Research reveals that adequate sleep is a more important factor in human happiness than household income. That sleep trumps wealth in the happiness stakes is a remarkable finding; but it seems it would take a very large increase in salary to compensate for the loss of sleep that a new job might involve. So if you are healthy and wise thanks to sleeping well, it seems there’s no need to be wealthy too.
Aristotle considered The Good Life to be a well-balanced life. To him the flourishing life is one that avoids extremes of both deficiency and excess. So the notion that six hours’ sleep is not enough but ten hours’ is too much fits nicely with his principle of a ‘happy medium’.
Aristotle saw sleep as a temporary but necessary privation of our positive state of wakefulness. He believed that our perceptive faculty cannot withstand continuous stimulation, hence the need for hypnos (sleep) to allow this over-stimulated faculty to recuperate from fatigue and recover its normal function. After an excess of being awake we need to be unawake for a while to restore the balance. Aristotle thus regarded sleep as having the biological ‘final cause’ or purpose of preserving the organism, because of its restorative function. This is unlike supernatural explanations of sleep, such as that of Pythagoras, for whom dreams conveyed messages from the gods. Present day biologists would object to Aristotle’s principle of a ‘final cause’ though: teleological (purposeful, goal-seeking) explanations for physical phenomena are currently out of favour in scientific circles.
Our taxi driver’s perceptive faculties would almost certainly be over-excited after weaving through the chaotic Mumbai traffic. But the rest of us similarly endure excessive stimulation before bedtime, though freely chosen. More and more people are using personal electronic devices with screens as ways of winding down at the end of the day. It’s the contemporary version of reading a book or listening to the radio before dropping off. Except that it doesn’t always work. The blue component of the light from the screen stimulates what Aristotle called our ‘perceptive faculties’. Blue light is detected by special cells in the retina that trigger activity in the prefrontal and thalamic regions of the brain – the structures that regulate alertness and cognitive performance. The phenomenon is a powerful one: blue light can even jolt people who are totally blind into an alert state. This response has an evolutionary origin, because locking our sleep/wake cycles into phase with useful daylight hours has a survival value. Screens disrupt these natural circadian rhythms by triggering certain brain areas while suppressing the melatonin secretion that would encourage sleep. The interactive demands of the devices intensify the effect; so replying to emails, responding to social media postings, or playing a game further amplifies our state of perceptual arousal sparked off by the blue light. We are not ready to sleep in this state. For a variety of reasons, the situation is worse for teenagers (or ‘screenagers’), even though they need more sleep than adults.
Disturbing our sleep patterns impairs the balanced Good Life described in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, but it has implications for deontological – rule-based – ethics, too. These are the ethics of duty, and it’s sometimes a person’s duty to be fully awake. Swallows may be able to fly while asleep, but we are unhappy when airline pilots attempt this feat. Even when we are technically awake, our alertness levels can vary. When we are sleep-deprived, our cognitive functioning suffers. Poor judgement caused by fatigue has been blamed for nuclear incidents at Three Mile Island in the USA and Chernobyl in the former USSR, and the Exxon Valdez oil spillage off the coast of Alaska. Hospital doctors routinely make life-or-death decisions when sleep-deprived. In their bleary-eyed state, a misplaced decimal point on a dosage instruction is in danger of putting their patient into a permanent sleep.
Philosophers are affected too. Socrates often stayed up all night trying to solve philosophical puzzles, and was rather fond of late-night drunken carousing too. Perhaps this sort of carry-on affected his judgement when he was in court on the trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. When he was found guilty (after unwisely refusing to play the legal game), he was invited to propose a suitable punishment, such as exile from Athens. Instead he suggested that he be given free meals for life, so the court condemned him to death for his cheek. Perhaps if he’d had a few good nights’ sleep, he might have been more circumspect in court. On the other hand, Socrates was such an independent-minded curmudgeon that even a night or two in the arms of Morpheus would probably have made no difference. (In Greek mythology Morpheus, the winged god of dreams, was a son of Hypnos, the god of sleep.)
Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant said that he had been roused from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ over various philosophical issues by the Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume. Kant wrote his masterpiece A Critique of Pure Reason (1781) in this newly awakened state, thus sending to sleep a fair number of future generations of philosophy undergraduates, and causing insomnia in some of the remainder. This convoluted and dense work has what French dramatist Molière humorously termed ‘dormitive powers’ in his play The Hypochondriac (1673). Molière was talking about opium, but the term has become a more general way of mocking pseudo-scientific explanations, since saying that opium puts users to sleep because of its virtus dormitiva is simply stating that opium causes sleep because of its sleep-inducing powers – a circular explanation that actually explains nothing. A proper explanation would involve a story about the drug’s interaction with opioid receptors in the brain, its effects on neurotransmitters, and so on. In Kant’s case, an explanation of his writing’s dormitive powers might point to the length of his sentences, his opaque vocabulary, and his nested subordinate clauses. (In case enraged Kantians are roused from their slumbers by this and plan to come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches, I did say that the Critique was a masterpiece.)
In the deontological ethics advocated by Kant in his second Critique (Of Practical Reason, 1788), a well-established principle is that ‘ought implies can’. Put differently, an action can only be your duty if it is within your power to do it. So, it cannot be the case that you ought to negotiate personally with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal, for example, unless you happen to be a world leader. Likewise, it cannot be your duty to sleep for the recommended time if this is not something you can do. Certainly, you can stop drinking coffee after a certain time of day, avoid interacting with electronic screens near bed-time, and do whatever it takes to put you in the mood for shut-eye, but there are no guarantees. You might toss and turn worrying about domestic trivia, Kim Jong-un, or the posturing of our own dear leaders. Falling asleep is not entirely within our conscious control. Furthermore, because tiredness impairs our judgement, this in turn blinds us to the fact that our judgement is affected. So we are not always aware of just how tired we actually are, nor of the desirability of getting some sleep so we can face the following day’s challenges in a fully-awakened condition. Our rational selves can project us forward, though. In our sensible state earlier in the day we can take action to counteract our future dozy state of mind. This is easier said than done.
A notion, used metaphorically, has recently crossed over from African-American urban culture to the wider internet milieu. You might be enjoined to “Stay woke”, or perhaps asked “Are you woke?” If you correct the questioner’s grammar and reply, “Yes, I am fully awakened, thank you,” then you ain’t woke. It has come to mean being alert to injustice, discrimination and privilege in society.
If we are woke we will treat the Mumbai cabbie as an equal and let him sleep, and question the oppressive structures that deprive him of a balanced Good Life. But we might still want to shut our eyes when he drives us up a street the wrong way, blaring his horn, pursued by flashing blue lights.
© Dr Seán Moran 2018
Seán Moran is in Waterford Institute of Technology, and is a founder of Pandisciplinary.Net, a global network of people, projects, and events.