Archives for posts with tag: choice

I recently made the mistake of listening to a podcast that had Sam Harris in it. Whenever I am exposed to Sam Harris, I get a kind of migraine until I am able to express fully how terrible he is, and then relief sets in. Sweet, sweet relief. Now, if you happen to be a fan of Sam Harris, I would recommend instead you read another racist utilitarian, John Stuart Mill. His racism is far more dignified, and he has the honour and privilege of being one of the earliest incarnations of a white feminist!

john stuart mill

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

Harris’s general philosophy is that pain = bad, pleasure = good. It’s hedonistic utilitarianism, but this time, Harris suggests that we use science because nobody has thought of using science to determine morality before. Morality has always been so wishy washy and soft in the past, and Harris wants to ram hard science down its eager throat. Pain of course is objectively bad, pleasure is objectively good. Claiming objectivity in morality has always tended towards zealous dogmatism in the past, but now with science, that objectivity must be true, and Harris’s dogmatism is justified.

sam harris

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. … it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”

What the dogmatism of Sam “Nuke The Muslims” Harris, and even John “Brutally Subjugate The Indians” Mill to a lesser extent, fails to take into account is that the objectivity of pain as a moral compass doesn’t hold up in the slightest. The gym rat maxim of “No Pain, No Gain” literally requires pain. Getting hella swole isn’t often thought of as morally bankrupt, if perhaps a bit douche-y, yet objectively it must be. Boxers fighting for a prize belt must also be engaged in Holocaust-levels of immorality, given their premeditated intent to inflict pain on one another. And don’t even get me started on those sexy BDSM freaks in the sheets; mixing pleasure WITH pain is just an ethical nightmare!

bdsm

Just go with it

Yet Harris never mentions those because they’re not predominantly engaged in by Musli… I mean because they’re obviously not unethical behaviours. The thing that distinguishes them is consent. The boxers have agreed upon certain rules and regulations before entering their fight; the magic and wonder of BDSM is underscored vehemently by an emphasis on consent; and if some bro wants to tear his quads by going for that one extra rep, more power to him. Without consent, these activities turn into assault, rape, and non-consensual lifting. I don’t know what that last one would be like, but I certainly don’t want to find out.

do you even lift

Please don’t make me lift

What Sam Harris seems to miss is that human beings are quite capable of making their own decisions. I guess science hasn’t gotten to that part just yet. If a woman chooses to wear a Burqa, fine. People are agreeing to be punched in the face, and if that’s okay, certainly a choice in attire is okay. If she is coerced into wearing a Burqa, that becomes less fine. Issues of age and capability certainly impact consent, but ultimately it is not up to Sam Harris to decide who gets to agree to what, and what their available choices can be. It is very easy to paint a culture we don’t belong to as being intrinsically coercive (the hypocrisy being how ignorant we are of the coercive factors insidiously lurking within our own), but it is the inhabitants of that culture that ought to have the right to choose which direction they wish to go.

burberry-ad-sexy-model

Let’s let Saudi Arabia determine which direction our culture goes with regard to our media’s portrayal of women

People in general seem to have a hard time letting others live out their lives, because we know what’s best and if they’re doing something different, they must be barbaric savages, unfit to make their own decisions. This isn’t a call for relativism; my autonomy is worth just as much as yours. This is a call for the respect of autonomy, and to engage only in consensual interactions. Rather than, you know, nuking a religion, like only a genius ethicist could conceive.

Freedom is so important that America paradoxically conflates liberty with wage slavery and obsessive consumerism, and nobody seems to mind because FREEDOM.

561986993ab4f427a77c28a94b69628653eaca2b33c109804b21973a3b4dc16c

I can’t tonight. I’m actually too busy selling my labour to buy products I don’t need.

Freedom by itself, however, is merely chaos. Viktor Frankl wonders at the necessity of a Statue of Responsibility on the Pacific side of the United States to complement the well-established Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. Responsibility, and by extension morality, is not only predicated on freedom, but ought to exist in partnership. We cannot be moral unless we are free to choose, and we cannot be free to choose without understanding the moral weight of those choices. Jean-Paul Sartre based his entire ethical philosophy on the primacy of freedom, claiming that not only was morality linked to freedom, but was inextricably bound to it: recognizing the freedom of others pushes us to respect our shared humanity within it.

Today, this dyad of freedom and morality is under considerable threat. Not from radical Islamic terrorists who lurk in the shadows of political dissidence, or even from their Communist predecessors. This insidious saboteur is determinism. If the universe is primarily based on causal relationships, then all our decisions have already been preordained by the inviolable laws of the universe. We are not human beings, but an ecology. Growing like plants, we are fixed in our rigid binds, incapable of even struggling against them. Morality becomes impossible for the same reason that we don’t consider earthquakes to be capable of moral judgement.

There are those who not only accept this causal prison, but revel in it. Sam “Sam Handwich” Harris sought to illustrate how morality could still exist within a deterministic framework, and I honestly wish I had a better source for my readers here, because he failed so abysmally that I feel bad that this is my only reference. He claims that human choices can still be made, even without free will, because we feel that we are making a choice. The ontology of the universe be damned; our feelings supersede reality. This guy is supposed to be a scientist, keep in mind. Sam Handwich later goes on to say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion, and if we really think rationally about it, we’ll realize that we don’t actually possess free will at all. This means that those feelings of choice that separate us from from the amoral grizzly bear, who kills only from biological instinct, are themselves the illusion, and Sam Handwich manages to contradict his own point a few idiotic paragraphs later. The moral solution in his determined universe is an abortion of utilitarianism which I won’t get into for the sake of avoiding a long rant. Personally I’d recommend reading John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer if you’re curious about utilitarian ethics. They at least have functioning brains.

Outside of this moron, however, people still desperately fight for freedom. Not only for the moral implications of avoiding determinism, but because freedom is simply worth having. Consider this quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.

I believe that is a suitable rejoinder to Sam Handwich‘s drivel.

However, I can’t say that freedom exists just because it’s nice and has a lot of cool quotations associated with it. I can say that freedom exists because causality as we understand it doesn’t. The first argument against causality is David Hume’s theory of necessary connections. A necessary connection is something we perceive as a cause. For example, there is a necessary connection between fire, gunpowder, and an explosion. Hume argues that this perceived necessity is actually a human construct, and postulates the problem of induction. Just because something has happened before, even repeatedly, does not necessarily mean it will happen again. You ever flick a light switch that doesn’t turn on right away? Maybe it’s something weird with the electricity; maybe it’s because the causal link suffered a bit of a hiccup.

This might sound like philosophical malarkey, but some theories of quantum physics prove Hume right. The quantum leap of an electron from one atomic orbit to the next is entirely unpredictable, and the minuteness of Planck’s constant is the only barrier against the chaos of the quantum universe overflowing into our experiential realm. Functions of the brain also exist outside of causality, with the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles operating randomly. Randomness is no determinate of free will, however, as every decision would become arbitrary and equally outside of our choices. On the other hand, it does exclude causality from being the defining characteristic of our universe.

I believe that if we are looking for a quantum solution to the problem of free will, then we should not be focusing on randomness but on probability. Given the indeterminate nature of electrons, as the position of an electron cannot be measured without abandoning the knowledge of its momentum, scientists are only able to make educated guesses based on probability. Adaptive mutation fortifies this argument by showing that bacteria and yeast can evolve useful mutations rather than completely random ones (as traditional Darwinian evolution theorized). Not all bacteria develop the adaptive gene in these studies, however, which shows that reacting to stimuli is neither random nor deterministic, but based on probability.

Probability when applied to human society makes sense. Statistics show a strong correlation between someone’s environment and their behaviour, but at the individual level, one cannot look at trends and predict a definite outcome. A street urchin raised by addicts will likely become an addict, but there is no way to tell with 100% certainty. It is that uncertainty that allows for choice. We can coast with the social conditioning, environmental pressures, and biological impulses that will push us along a predetermined path, allowing us the dubious honour of simply being another statistic, or we can make choices and break the mould. There is always a choice. Some scenarios will offer fewer choices than others, and fewer choices means a lesser degree of moral responsibility. A lesser degree of morality means those of us with more choice are responsible for elevating these ignoble souls to an equitable level where we can all claim access to a full spectrum of opportunities. That is the link between morality and freedom.

Everyone wants to be happy. Being happy is so critically important that the pursuit of it is literally a right guaranteed by the American Declaration of Independence. Thousands of books have been written about that pursuit, and given their continued publication one can only assume that the pursuit has yet to be concluded. Happiness is always just one more life-affirming meme away, ever out of our grasp. Perhaps this is due to the elusive definition of happiness, for what does it mean to be happy? Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, accordingly, happiness is varying degrees of synonyms for happiness. That is super helpful.

Since I’ve already ragged on memes once, let’s see if they can redeem themselves, and we’ll try to learn what they can teach us about defining happiness since the ever-infallible Wikipedia ended up being a disaster. This website has a collection of “Happiness Is” memes that describe various instances when the word ‘happy’ seems appropriate, such as not having to set your alarm clock for the next morning, or finding an old family album. These examples give quite an accurate depiction of how many people view happiness: ephemeral events that elicit an upswell of positive emotion. Happiness can’t be defined linguistically because it exists beyond descriptive vocabulary as an almost spiritual experience, and it arrives in a way that we only recognize when we feel it.

Now when we live by the maxim that “if it’s in a meme then it is factually improbable,” as we all should, we’re forced to analyze this version of happiness more discerningly. If happiness is as laudable as the profit-driven self-help industry claims it to be, then we’re dedicating all of our life goals to a fix. We hop from island of bliss to island of bliss, desperately searching for that next dopamine rush, dreading the moments in between. That sounds a lot less like a fulfilling existence and more like Jennifer Connelly’s character at the end of Requiem for a Dream. Is most of life utterly without value? Discounting the feelings outside of happiness is the pinnacle of delusion. Creativity requires a good deal of personal suffering and frustration. Inside Out taught us that even sadness has its own virtue, and anger is often the healthiest response to unjust events. Happiness has never once moved the world forward, and if we only celebrate positive emotion then we are putting pacification above progress.If our sole focus is maintaining a happy persona, we may even disregard warning signals of an impending crisis simply because to acknowledge it would get in the way of our placid, happy thoughts.

Regardless of my argument, people will still pursue happiness. Not because they’re meme-loving sycophants abstaining from reasonable thought to endorse the epidemic cult of positivity, but because as human beings we intrinsically strive for it. Even a curmudgeon like myself still seeks to find the light in this world of darkness. The Founding Fathers were not dumb, and their inclusion of happiness was not a mistake. Even Aristotle suggested that a life of happiness ought to be a person’s ultimate goal. Aristotle, however, had a different definition of happiness from today’s life coaches peddling their snake oil. He believed that a happy life was one of virtue, and happiness was derived from adhering to the golden mean rather than embodying the hedonistic platitudes of fucking internet memes.

Of course there are plenty of faults in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, but he began a philosophy of happiness where it wasn’t understood as an emotion, but as a way of life. Nietzsche expanded on this philosophy by saying that the happiest people were those who thrived in suffering, and could create meaning through it. Have some irony:

Wisdom without context. The highest plateau a meme can achieve.

Wisdom without context: the highest peak a meme can achieve.

Here is a happiness that could weather any negativity, for it is a way of life that thrives in any emotional state. It is a happiness that demands value and purpose to enhance our life, rather than a narcotic high to dull it. Nietzsche’s philosophical meaning is somewhat controversial, but the brilliant Viktor Frankl survived the culmination of Nietzschean values, and in doing so, created his much more widely accepted interpretation. According to Frankl, a meaningful life is found through our works, our connection to others, and/or our attitudinal outlook.

This last point may seemingly endorse a meme-spirited happiness delusion, so let’s address that nonsense before it gets out of hand. Have another meme:

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

I sincerely doubt that this meme is referring to a meaning-based form of happiness, given the message of its sister-meme here:

It's because I hate memes. That's why it's my least favourite blog. I really shouldn't have to spell this out.

It’s because I hate memes. That’s why it’s my least favourite blog. I really shouldn’t have to spell this out.

but we’ll give them an intellectual boost and just assume that some degree of intelligence went into their production, and that they are in fact referring to Frankl’s attitudinal outlook dictating happiness as the representation of purpose.

Frankl viewed the attitudinal approach to meaning as the absolute last resort. He saw it as the only option in approaching the Nazi gas chambers with either dignity or shame. This isn’t a Godwin argument; look him up. He says that if there is even a chance at overcoming a negative situation, to adopt a positive outlook in spite of it is to embrace irrational masochism. The solution is always to change the circumstances, not the attitude.

There is also an underlying tone of condescending individualism in these insipid and ridiculous memes. To say that the person who is wealthy and employed has the same choice to be happy as the broke bum who just lost their job is statistically wrong. Saying happiness is a choice is being oblivious to the countless circumstances that have a direct impact on our well-being. Oh, you lost your baby in a miscarriage after five years of trying for a child? All you need is a change of perspective, and you’ll feel better! That’s an asshole thing to say. Like the worst thing. Never say that. To reiterate: other emotions are necessary parts of our lives, to demand happiness at all times is unnatural and cruel, and to call emotions a choice is completely ignorant of our instinctual reactions. It’s wrong no matter how you define happiness.

At what level are we responsible, if at all, for the happiness of others? Meaning is entirely unique and subjective, so we can’t exactly create it for other people. However, Frankl’s second aspect of meaning is a connection to others, which does suggest that if we are open and caring then we create meaning both for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. That sounds like a good start.

What about collective responsibility? If we recognize happiness as meaning, and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs puts “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, wouldn’t that mean that a country that promises its citizens the right to pursue happiness must accommodate all the underlying needs in order for that promise to be fulfilled? Happiness can’t even begin to be pursued until the third level of “love and belonging,” and even then there would need to be a societal agreement and plan to abolish discrimination of all kinds. The progress on that 240 year old promise is a little slow. Way to make liars out of the Founding Fathers, America.

Happiness as an emotional state is nice, I guess, but when planning out one’s life that version should only play the most minor of roles. Pursue meaning. Pursue purpose and value. Treat the happiness that we strive for as a way of being that incorporates the full spectrum of emotion. Live a fulfilling life, and allow that life to connect with others. Define happiness properly, and stop learning how to live from fucking memes!

Have some links:

Say No to Happiness – Ideas with Paul Kennedy: A CBC radio show investigating the philosophical implications of happiness and meaning, and which is more important.

Smile Or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich: The social implications of the cult of positivity.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting? – Slavoj Žižek: Žižek is a combination of popular neo-communist philosophy and that one scene from Dazed and Confused. These are his thoughts on happiness.