Posts Tagged ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’

Blindness and the moral life

November 29, 2012

In Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs mentions my two favorite William James essays: “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Both were included in part 2 of Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals [Gberg] (1899). Can’t let pass the opportunity to remark on them.

If you don’t agree with me, don’t see the world just as I see it, you must be blind.

That’s the ancestral blindness we all inherit and must struggle to resist, according to William James in his 1898 essay On a Certain Blindness in Human BeingsHe said it was his favorite too. Our myopia stems in large part from our literal neglect of the visible and natural world. “We grow stone-blind and insensible…”

We of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

Is there a cure? Yes: simplify.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level… The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life.

The “savage” practitioners of native wisdom have much to teach us (as we learned in “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” last year).

Another great James essay is “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891). I’ve been quoting it recently, in connection with the “Atheism & Philosophy” course I’ll be doing again next year, and in connection with the recent TPA keynote by Robert Kane. It says it takes only two of us to constitute a moral republic. Our desires make a presumptive claim on the world of our peers, as nothing else can.

…we have learned what the words “good,” “bad,” and “obligation” severally mean. They mean no absolute natures, independent of personal support. They are objects of feeling and desire, which have no foothold or anchorage in Being, apart from the existence of actually living minds.

MPML concludes:

The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man.  ”See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore choose life that thou and thy seed may live”–

James’s language may have taken a turn for the scriptural here, but his ultimate message in this essay is solidly secular, earth-bound, and common-sensical. This is not from the Good Book, or any good book, but from real life itself.

When this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial… and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life.  From this unsparing practical ordeal no professor’s lectures and no array of books can save us.

This is James’s anti-intellectualism rearing its tangible head. “Dumb” is not stupid:

The solving word, for the learned and the unlearned man alike, lies in the last resort in the dumb willingnesses and unwillingnesses of their interior characters, and nowhere else.  It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy hear, that thou mayest do it.

In other words: no one is coming, from heaven or abroad, to relieve any of us of our personal responsibility to choose as wisely and generously as we can. We need to be kind and compassionate and good, and to act accordingly, because that’s the right thing to do. We need to open our eyes and see the real people, with their real desires and real lives, with whom we share this real world.

Addendum. And what about the real animals, and all the other forms of life who live here too? Neither James  nor Lachs nor I would deny that sentient beings of every species merit kindness and compassion. All would also probably agree with Sara, who said in her final presentation yesterday that so-called “animal whisperers” may be extraordinarily good at interpreting non-verbal signals but they’re no telepaths. My dogs are plenty clever (though not so clever as Hans), they react predictably to words like “treat” and “walk,” but they and their kind have not crashed the communications barrier that separates symbolic and purposive thought from mere conditioned behavior. But, that’s no excuse for humans ever to be blind to their needs or to abuse their trust. Peter Singer was right about that.

The Rock

October 6, 2009

“Some emotions make us flourish, others sap our well-being, others make us wither.”

No kidding. I’ve been talking up the positive emotions, and so does Ricard just a few paragraphs on: “positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire” to include joy, interest, contentment, and love.

Great. But a friend reports his 10-year old daughter’s recent diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and the attendant emotions are just as you’d expect: “feeling stuck, tired, angry, & not much fun to be around.” I have a 10-year old too, I’m sure I’d be every bit as demoralized and debilitated by that news as he is. There are moments in life when overt demands to flourish ring false.

I’m not about to advise my friend to buck up and be happy. That would be insensitive and probably counter-productive. But I wonder if I’d be able to tell myself that, were we to find ourselves in his family’s  situation.

Ricard mentions William James’s concept of “sustained, voluntary attention“– the key, for James, to free will, self-determination, and ultimately to happiness itself. (Winifred Gallagher just wrote a great big book on this.) When life snaps you over the head with a two-by-four, can you still turn your attention away from “disturbing” emotions to positive, nurturing thoughts? I know, Buddhist meditators can do it for hours on end. But Buddhist meditators, afflicted by many forms of suffering and denial, still tend not to have 10-year olds with Type 1 diabetes. Or is that an outworn, culturally-confused stereotype?

Maybe it is. Buddhists in America especially come in all shapes, sizes, and domestic situations. But I’m afraid the “calming” exercise in this chapter is not a lot more specifically instructive to me than the earlier advice to expand my mind. “With a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever…” Carpe diem? Memento mori? I think Hallmark could do better.

In general I have nothing but admiration for such sentiments, which come to me in almost precisely this form and with some considerable frequency– usually on sunny days when I’ve placed myself in my own form of meditative receptivity, while hoofing it around and watching the thoughts rise and fall.

What I still want to understand is how Buddhists and other serene folk summon such comfort and joy when the days and nights are dark and long and the news is heartbreaking. We’re passionately “attached” to our children, we grieve when they suffer, we curse the impersonal universe that dispenses weal and woe so indifferently, and at such moments feel anything but appreciation for life’s maldistributed “potential.” (Is that what Heidegger meant by “presence in the mode of absence?”) At such moments, what we want is to be dealt a new hand… not to be urged to be effusively grateful for the crummy old one.

And we’re going to need a better “exercise,” there’s not much consolation in this one.

Chapter Ten, to Ricard’s credit, picks up the challenge. “There’s no question here of ceasing to love those whose lives we share.” No, there’s not.

“As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience.” Again, details here are wanting. But this is key, if only I could figure out how to make it fit my psychological  locks: “You are overwhelmed by a sudden tide of anger… But look closely. It is nothing more than a thought… It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it.”

But when conditions objectively “suck,” as my friend observes, shouldn’t we identify with the emotions that express our sharp revulsion? It feels like the right response–not the most pleasant, not the happiest, not the healthiest, just the right one. Why is that wrong? Why are we entitled to stuff those emotions and opt for the positive ones, when conditions do not elicit them spontaneously?

Of course, liberation from anger at the moment it arises would be wonderfully soothing– to me. It would not mitigate a little girl’s anguish, would it?

But is the point, rather, that even righteous anger does no good and might do harm? That begins at last to speak to me, as did the Oklahoma City Dad’s refusal to endorse Timothy McVeigh’s execution (ch12). One more death, one more angry act of retribution, eases no one’s pain.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” leaves us all blind and gummy.

Once again, though, the exercise does not work for me. “Don’t unite with the anger… keep on just  observing [it], it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.” Yes, eventually we’ll all evaporate. Just now, though, when the anger is a tight little knot and the world does not feel much like home, is observation the best response? It might be. But it feels like a waste of perfectly good adrenaline.

schopenhauer1Ricard quotes “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer,” and his coupling of striving and desire. The Mark_Twainimplication is that desire always frustrates, is  “everywhere impeded,” always struggling, fighting, suffering. We can escape desire, or suppress it. But Mark Twain said the best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it. Is that not, sometimes, a gratifying strategy? (I don’t know what Shania says about desire, that’s whose image Google wanted me to put here. You prob’ly did too.)

As for dismantling hatred and hostilities: Buddhists and cheek-turning Christians have much to teach us all about this. I confess I simply do not comprehend the sensibility that is capable of feeling love and compassion for even the most hateful and hostile others, simply because they too “strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.” I suppose I am deficient in fellow-feeling. I hope I would refrain from calling for Tim McVeigh’s head, but I don’t feel bad about not extending to him the love and compassion I feel for my kids. Should I? Please explain.

My reflections on this book began with some quibbles about renunciation. Ricard is explicit, now, in denying my presuppositions: “Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness… saying no to all that is pleasant… Genuine happiness– as opposed to contrived euphoria– endures through life’s ups and downs.” And smooths them out? “We can get off the endless roller coaster of happiness and suffering.” That’s fine, I’m not that fond of roller coasters anyway. And I’m very fond of Ricard’s next authorial citation: “Simplify, simplify.”

But I still think William James has had the sharpest insight into our correct default position on the question of desires: fulfill as many of them as we can, erring on the  side of the presumption that more (not fewer) satisfactions will raise the sea level of our happiness.

william-james“Take any demand however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all.” The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Is this wrong? If you read it as an excuse for narcissistic, ego-grabbing, non-reciprocal, non-altruistic selfishness, read on:

“Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock’s inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed. We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.”

Our emotions and desires need not pull us apart. They can bring us together, here at The Rock. We just gotta follow the rules,barney_fife keep our cool, resist pointless anger, and practice a little tough love (as well as loving-kindness) with the rule-breakers. Don’t be spiteful and immature. (And, don’t get a swell-head like Goob did once.) Ol’ Barn had it all figured out. “Frood wrote a book about it, Andy.”