December 31, 2013
My post on morality and ethics from the other day isn’t as clear as I would have liked it to be, so I wanted to say a little more to clarify some of my arguments.
Many years ago I wrote a post arguing a consequentialist position entitled The Negative Sides of Altruism. I basically argued that love without knowledge is empty and troublesome. At the time, I felt that whether altruism is a good or bad thing depends on the person practicing it. I still largely agree with that old post, but I would now add some much needed corrections.
In my latest post, I talked a lot about love and caring, adding an emotional element to my views on morality and ethics. The key point I was making is that in real-word situations, understanding people and where they’re coming from is everything. Human beings are very emotional creatures and you’ll never understand them well if you can’t get a grip on their “angle”. Their perspective. How they see things.
We begin in a state of ignorance toward the world and its problems. We don’t understand ourselves. We understand others even less. Our attention and time is limited, so the core question is to ask yourself is — what do I care about? Who do I care about? Why do I care about these things over other things? Why do these other people care about the things they care about?
To take the time to study different issues and positions, reading books, listening to lectures, attending events, it’s a lot of work and is a large sacrifice on the part of the individual. History books are really thick and take years to read. Most of us have a lot going on in our lives. We have families, work, community events. We don’t have time to be fully informed on every single issue.
This is where purpose, passion and love come in. I mentioned that people have three main responses to the world:
1) Living happy and content with the way things are. Or,
2) They try to change it into what they want it to be. If they can’t do that, they,
3) Insulate themselves from things they don’t like. And if they don’t have the resources to achieve that, they,
4) Flee into fantasy and their imagination.
Morality is about how we live together, trying to be as happy as we can, sharing what we do like, and dealing with all the things we often don’t like, together. That’s insanely complex. I really could care less about technical definitions of philosophers labeling things “right” and “wrong”.
How people go about trying to change the world is a big issue. Some try to create companies and change the world through innovation. Some try to alleviate suffering by helping the sick and poor. Others fight for reforms in issues which carry personal significance to them and their life.
People are always trying to gain control of society’s resources. Some need these resources to make important changes, but others are only hoping they can insulate themselves from life’s struggle as much as possible. They hope to build themselves a private paradise and ignore the suffering and misery of the world. That’s important to understand because the people who do that cause the most misery in the world.
The worst forms of evil are rooted in a delusional rejection of reality. Tyrants, terrorists and cult leaders all dream of overthrowing the social order to build their pet utopia, rarely caring who dies in the process. Greed is rooted in a rejection of reality. It’s fear of an unpredictable future combined with unfulfilled desires. The more fear in their heart, the more greed. They come to feel if they just have enough money, they can buy their way out of every problem that may come their way.
Unfulfilled desires very often leads to neurotic personalities.
We suffer as human beings. We’re pitiful, stupid, weak creatures. We find it all demeaning, and it is. Being a human is demeaning. The randomness of it all. At any time we can come down with an incurable disease and die. It takes forever to get from point A to point B. We’re so often separated from the people we love. Our lives are dictated to us by Kafkaesque forces far beyond our control. Finding love is difficult and doesn’t always work out. Having to take care of our bodies is a pain in the rear, whether it be exercising, eating right, brushing our teeth, showering, and all that. Most jobs are so boring and unfulfilling, and it takes a bazillion years of work and schooling to get into the jobs worth having. Even when we do painstakingly learn things, we forget it all so quickly. Just on and on.
Human existence is strange. We live in a world of conditional happiness and conditional love. We have all these choices of who we could be and what we could do with our life. What we want is to be loved and happy, but only some doors lead to that and we have no strategy guide. If we choose the wrong doors, we may end up in misery, poverty, and loneliness. It doesn’t take very many mistakes before it can all cave in on us. We don’t want to be free. As Jean-Paul Satre said, we’re condemned to be free.
Consciousness seems almost divine, yet we live in these meat-bags which are fragile. Sometimes I entertain the idea that the goal of a good society should be to make happiness and love as unconditional and widespread as possible, but I’m undecided. The Brave New World scenario Alexey and I have been discussing is basically doing that through social and technological changes.
I often mention spirituality on my blog, but I don’t mean religion. I’m talking about people who don’t run from this suffering of life. Somehow they find peace within the storm and they don’t become neurotic and immoral. They remain kind in an unkind world. They are loving in an unloving world. They give in a world which tries to hoard. They build when everyone else is tearing down. They’re different.
Some sort of transformation process happens in the deeply spiritual person, where building and contributing to a beautiful world means more to them than even their own life, as crazy as that sounds. But what should be more important than your own life? What if this is your only life you’ll ever live?
The tyrant raises armies to go quell a social protest and these odd-balls come out of the wood-works and stand in front of the incoming tanks.
They light themselves on fire in peaceful protest to the mistreatment of their fellow brothers and sisters. They refuse to move even when armies aim guns at them.
What is it about these people? They’re the total opposite of the lone gun-mans who go shooting innocent people in schools or public squares. They’re the total opposite of cult leaders or tyrants. They’re not running from or insulating themselves from the world and all its suffering. They jump in to help and do whatever they can, even if it costs them dearly. They’re normal, everyday people who will give their lives for others. They always stand for love, connection, and a deeper sense of community and brotherhood.
They seem to realize some deeper aspect of reality and do not fear death in the same way as a normal person. Their faith is not a rationalization to avoid fearing death. It’s much more profound.
Albert Einstein once said that science without religion is lame, but religion without science is blind. That sums all of this up succinctly. Spirituality without knowledge is empty. Just like in my post on altruism, it has no substance. But when you can combine spirituality and knowledge through science, then you can build a beautiful world. They need each other. Science without spirituality leads to things like atomic bombs, manipulation in advertising and politics, and mass surveillance spread throughout the society.