In other words, why should we devote our lives to helping humanity when realistically we don’t know if what we are doing is helping at all?
The golden rule says that we should treat others the way we want to be treated ourselves.
I don’t like this rule very much. For one, how we treat others heavily depends on how others treat us. There is no vacuum where we can evaluate how we would treat other in absence of the anticipation of how our actions will be received. Values do not exist in isolation. Ethics is the study of values, but ethics is also the study of the relationship between individuals and the people around them. In addition, we are not immune from our history that propels us to act in one way or another. It is entirely possible that we model our behavior done unto us in the past, regardless of whether it is just or not. The golden rule is one of those theories that have little practical application in the world.
I was thinking back to Arendt’s criticism of the contemplative life as a basis for formulating philosophy, wondering if she probably thought Kant was completely out of touch with reality when he came up with the categorical imperative. My criticism of the golden rule falls within this strain of Arendtian thought. Analytical philosophers tend to blast continental philosophy for not following the “philosophical” method of approaching philosophy. But analytical philosophers also tend to be college professors, and college professors are also tenured and get paid to exist and occasionally publish a peer-reviewed paper. They also tend to be very out of touch with realities of working a job they could lose at any moment, and their writing is geared towards other academics as opposed to non-academia people (which ignores 99.99% of the population).
Our actions emulate things that happen to us more than reflecting the values of how we think we should act in the world. When you have your heart broken, you tend to also break other people’s hearts because that’s just what is familiar. We emulate behaviors that we experience. It does not matter if we should or not; it’s just what we do. Morality is something we ascribe to our own actions afterwards to be able to live with our lives. Morality is a product of emotion tinkered with some retroactive logic.
Unfortunately for humanity there isn’t a universal constant for the common person. There are no “common people” in the world. People are deeply individualistic, and there cannot be a universal set of ethics governing behavior against a bodiless mass because there’s no such thing as university humanity. People have their own lives and own expectations about how the world around them acts. They act in response to this world, and no matter how finite we can boil down the criteria of someone’s decision, they still act in accordance to their own values and respond to the value of others.
I was asking myself the other day — is there something real about ethics, or is it just something we tell ourselves to make sense of our feelings?
The world is pretty fucked up. It’s saddening, but there has also never been a point in time where the world hasn’t been a fucked up place. Granted, it’s a lot less fucked up now than it was in the past, but will there ever reach a point in the world where it isn’t fucked up? Where does the idea of duty fit into our lives? Do we have a responsibility to un-fuck the world?
In the face of an unjust world, we have two ways of looking at the world: we could either fight for a more just world, or we could just try to live our best life despite injustice.
I keep on going back to negative and positive duty from this one guide to the libertarian social contract I read for high school debate, mostly because I am unoriginal and unread, so I have to borrow the same few ideas over and over again to discuss the same point. Negative duty is the duty not to do something, while positive duty is the duty to do something. I think we can all agree that we have a duty not to do harm unto others. How people interpret that is up to them, but I think it would be very hard to to justify actively harming other people unless there’s some justification like revenge or necessity. This is more-or-less decided by how we live our live. We can control the amount of harm we do to the world; it’s a lot harder to control how much harm the world does to us.
I think it’s a lot harder to justify that we have a responsibility (I mean, active responsibility) to fight for a better world. For one, none of us actually knows what an ideal world is. There are trade-offs to everything, so who gets to decide what is an ideal world and what is not an ideal world? If, at the end of the day, our conception of an ideal world turns out to actually be a shitty world — I can’t imagine how many times that has ended up happening in history (e.g. every war ever) — then we just spent out entire life fighting for a shittier world. Not only have we not made the world a better place, we have also made the world a worse place. That’s some pretty bad vibes. I prefer to default to the belief that I have no idea what a world better than the current world looks like. I mean, in practice. There are a lot of things I would like to change in theory, but theory never really got civilization anywhere, did it?
Beyond that there’s just this idea of wanting to live the best life. Fighting in general involves a lot of bad juju. You make enemies. There’s not really an end goal. It’s just negative vibes all the way around. When you want to live the best life, a lot of times it’s easiest to just forget that the world around you exists. There’s a reason why gated and utopian communities exist; people just don’t want to be in constant contact with the real world because the real world can be really shitty sometimes. When given the choice to live in a shitty world or a world that’s disconnected and shitty in other ways but less shitty than the real world, who wouldn’t want to make that choice?
So how do we decide? What is the correct choice? Personally, I think it all boils down to emotion. How obligated do we feel in making the world look a lot more like we want it to look (under our current conception of justice, of course, which is probably subject to a lot of change and by no means considered universal). It is discomfort in one direction that defeats discomfort in another direction.
Asian American literature, or any racial literature really, is big on this concept of inherited trauma. Hegel talked a lot about inherited history, and I suppose he could have been referring to this idea of inherited trauma, at least unintentionally. What actually actually meant in any of his writing is beyond me or really anybody really. In the face of trauma, we have many coping mechanisms. From denial to projection to sublimation to displacement to repression — the great part of being human is that you can convince yourself of anything really. If you didn’t really care about what happened in the world, you can easily convince yourself that you have no impact on the world and that nothing you do would ever make a difference, so there’s no point in trying. If you did care about what happened in the world, you can also easily convince yourself the opposite: that what you do does have an impact on the world and that things you do do have an impact on the world.
It is all a bit out of wack to me. I remember a while ago I was reading about this philosopher (I think it was Marshall McLuhan; I’m probably wrong) that was bemoaning the cultural influences of Post-modernism, whenever they surface in the 21st century — particularly the indifference and lack of objective moral centrism. As of now, I think our society is still going through the final cries of Victorianism and Romanticism — trust in scientific discourse is slowly dying and the emphasis of the individual subjectivity is facing copious amounts of backlash. Alas, as someone who ironically identifies with post-modern ethics, I don’t particularly care. People care about different things and have their own sense of what is correct an what is not correct; why does that matter in my life? Such is post-modern reality — a world without moral absolutism.