No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.


Euthyphro’s Dilemma…I Don’t Like It

Euthyphro is one of the so-called ‘dialogues,’ written by Plato, between Socrates and, you guessed it, Euthyphro. The dialogue is well known because of a particular dilemma—a dilemma in the original sense between two choices—that Socrates puts to his interlocutor. Euthyphro is filled with a sense of confidence at his ability to judge a pious, or right, action. When Socrates asks his criterium for deciding, Euthyphro responds that a pious action is one pleasing to the gods. Socrates then poses the question: “Is it pleasing to the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is pleasing to the gods?”EuthyphroCartoon

The dilemma often comes up in discussions of the relationship between morality and divinity, i.e., that we get our morality from a divine source. Neither answer to the dilemma is particularly appealing to religious folk. If an action is pious (or a thing is good) because it is pleasing to the gods, then it appears otherwise arbitrary. The gods picked a couple things they don’t like and some that they do, but it could just as well have been another way. This choice appears damaging to divine omniscience as well as problematic for a sense of divine love and care for us. The other choice is perhaps more damaging, from a contemporary religious point-of-view. If an action is pleasing to the gods because it is pious, then the action appears to have some preexistent standing before the gods, damaging conceptions of divine omnipotence. The gods, or God, like us, is just following the rules.

As mentioned, the dilemma is used to complicate understandings of our morality coming from a divine source. Your choices are: 1) God is arbitrary, or 2) God is impotent, or at least nowhere near omnipotent. Forced to make a choice between the two, I think many Christians would choose option one. That way, you could argue that it turns out the things God chose work for us, and we go on living our happy lives. Of course it gets messy if you’re in a situation where life dealt you a bad hand, or someone else’s pleasure is your pain. In that case you might be more inclined to see that morality is unequally beneficial. Secularists, on the other hand, tend to choose option two, including Troy Jollimore in a recent article on the subject, Godless Yet Good.

Jollimore uses the Euthyphro dilemma in response to his students’ common objection that without God, morality is totally subjective. Plugging in the case of murder, either murder is wrong because God says it is, or God says it is because its wrong. In the first case, there was nothing wrong with murder until God said there was, and in the second, murder is something wrong in and of itself and doesn’t need God’s approval to be that way. The idea that the only thing preventing people from running around killing each other is God’s disapproval—a view I have heard espoused many times—is itself immoral to Jollimore. He affirms instead that murder is wrong in and of itself.

I don’t like that option either. Luckily in life, there are always more than two possible choices. Actually, I guess my option is a version of choice one, albeit one that doesn’t involve God. From the standpoint of an objective mind coming up with the best possible scenario for humanity to live by, morality is arbitrary. But from a practical standpoint, morality is not arbitrary at all, because it serves many productive purposes. The fear of arbitrariness is the fear that things could change at any time, that the rules aren’t constant. Even if it were the case, our fear is not a justifiable reason to posit the stability of morality. What we can do, however, is look at history and see that the development of moral or ethical codes is slow and unlikely to change in a day, or even a couple decades. The fear of anarchy is an apocalyptic one, and the chances of its occurrence are slim. If we were to find out this was the case—that morality is completely arbitrary and thus could change anytime—then this has been the case all along and we’ve gotten along fairly well.

It looks to me as if Jollimore shares the same fear of the religious kids in his philosophy class: morality might be arbitrary. There is much more to his argument, which goes on to contrast versions of religious and secular ethics to indicate that there is hope for the latter. He highlights particularism, the idea that the ‘right’ thing to do in a given situation depends on, and cannot be separated from, the context of the situation itself. In contrast to rational or utilitarian viewpoints, answers to moral questions are not found by simply filling in the variables on all discrete circumstances. He suggests the following:

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

I like this as a contrast to morality given from on high, but it must also emphasize that we are born into a world that gives us a conception of morality before we can judge one of our own, and even those who go through the most radical life changes cannot completely escape their shaping by the social circumstances in which they were born and grew. What this means is that we cannot ever have the certainty that we can isolate the self from social influence in any of our dealings. But that’s okay, because no one else can either.

Morals and values change over time, and even the most venerated of them—if we took murder for example—are violated all the time. That does not eliminate their functionality, although it does tell me that exposing the hypocrisies in our moral violations, to the embarrassment of religion and government, may be stepping stones to a more reasonable morality.