Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The only way is ethics…

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

Being an atheist – although not, for goodness’ sake, an evangelical one: who treats such a (dis)belief as an oxymoronic quasi religion (as per DIY) – re-reading the Ten Commandments skit that I posted the other day made me wonder if there were actually any noetic equivalents that could make sense, signify something, to someone like myself: who spends a great deal of his time (for various reasons) simply thinking – but not thinking simply… – just not of any God.

I did find quite a few purported examples online: some self-contradicting; some quite sensible; and some that had arrived from a similar investigation of the self.

And then I realized – d’oh! – especially as I only stated recently that “I have never… been willing to hold my tongue, and simply obey unquestionable orders” (a Bardic ‘commandment’ if ever there was…) – it was highly unlikely, even if I found precepts that made sense to me (as many of those I discovered above did), that I would want to live my life by anything other than my internal moral compass (which probably stems from good parenting and a life trying, hungrily, to understand…) – certainly not by being told what to do, and how. As someone once said – although I don’t know who – “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.” (I shall come back to this in a short while.)

Having said all that, I do have a soft spot for Bertrand Russell and his A Liberal Decalogue – “not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it” –

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

– but that may simply be because of his pithy and erudite way with words, and an equivalence of purpose. (I think the marvellous Will Self may be posited as today’s homologue.) They could, however, quite readily form the basis of the principles governing the production of this blog, and therefore my public persona. If nothing else, I want other people to question, to think – and maybe about things they wouldn’t have, otherwise (even reevaluating things that continually stare them in the face…) – when they read my words.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell: Mortals and Others

Strangely enough, although Russell puts one of my true guiding principles (one of the principal points on “my internal moral compass”, if you will) at the top of his list – “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything” (captured and expressed beautifully in Forbidden Colours by David Sylvian, as “I’ll go walking in circles While doubting the very ground beneath me Trying to show unquestioning faith in everything” – a mantra I often find myself repeating…) – Russell’s oft-perceived arrogance (or simply the fact that these are adjuncts to the originals…) means that he neglects (or reasonably excludes) its counterpart: probably best expressed in the wisdom of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s wonderful, if-you-only-ever-read-one-work-of-fiction-read-this-one, To Kill a Mockingbird

First of all… if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

You could say, of course – as indeed did George McGovern – that such “Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’”; and that many of our laws (both internally and externally administered) have such scriptural origins – particularly this ‘Golden Rule’ or “ethic of reciprocity” – which can be found at the core of many (if not most) faiths and philosophies. But, in truth – to me – this only confirms that such sacred writings have at their hearts definitions of what it is to be ‘good’: a distillation of learned (collective) wisdom and experience (if not our innate altruistic tendencies) that have been encapsulated simply to try and ensure that we all get along.

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think – in fact they do so.
– Bertrand Russell: ABC of Relativity

One of the reasons that this hasn’t led to an ideal, peaceful, egalitarian world (yet) – as represented, say, by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek utopia – is that some people are born without a capacity for empathy; or have to work harder at developing empathy than others (see here for a meaningful introduction to mirror neurons – especially in relation to autism and theory of mind). And, therefore – even though not everyone accepts that empathy is “a reliable way of doing good” – many (including me) believe it is so key to our existence that it is worth such never-ending hard work; or that it is so crucial to business success, that it can (and should) also be developed corporately – despite the disproportionate number of psychopathic CEOs; and the impression that, to be successful in (modern) government, empathy is actually the last thing you want (which is probably why we’re in such a confounded mess…).

The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large. They find themselves born into a certain place in society, and they accept what each day brings forth, without any effort of thought beyond what the immediate present requires. Almost as instinctively as the beasts of the field, they seek the satisfaction of the needs of the moment, without much forethought, and without considering that by sufficient effort the whole conditions of their lives could be changed.
– Bertrand Russell: Proposed Roads to Freedom

Of course, you might find, once your feet are in someone-else’s shoes, that they don’t fit, that what you experience is a deep discomfort, or even pain – a feeling which is brought on by your “own condition”; or, more likely, the shock of a new set of beliefs which are contrary to all you hold dear and true. So how do you then decide which ideology is more legitimate? To whose laws do you refer? Or is it obvious which doctrines are good or bad? (There’s a good reason Bertrand Russell is a famous philosopher, and I am not: although his views on ethics continued to evolve throughout his life.) As a ‘fan’ of both ‘rationalist’ Socrates and ‘sentimentalist’ Hume, I personally agree that “emotion and reason both play critical roles in moral judgment” – but that probably just confirms my own prejudice that both of the two cultures of humanities and sciences are equally valid; and should get together over a pint more frequently.

In silence, an act is an act is an act. Verbalized and discussed, it becomes an ethical problem…
– Aldous Huxley: The Genius And The Goddess

However, in stating this, rather than reaching any sort of conclusion, I seem to have done whatever is the opposite of digging myself into a hole, or painting myself into a corner – opening a can of worms…? – in that I started writing about something particular (and small), and ended up writing about something all-encompassing (and therefore huge, or even infinite). I suppose there is a parallel, though, to be drawn here between those (subjective) rules defined by man, and those (objective) brought about through nature (or even God: should you wish, and have, or believe in, one…) – which I think just about takes me back to where I started.

What do you think…?

The world that I should wish to see is one where emotions are strong but not destructive, and where, because they are acknowledged, they lead to no deception either of oneself or of others. Such a world would include love and friendship and the pursuit of art and knowledge.

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