Monday, August 24, 2009

"It was true that a person of great faith could with impunity have acted boldly: It was only that Michael was not that person. What he failed to do was accurately to estimate his own resources, his own spiritual level: and it was indeed from his later reflections on this matter that he had, with a certain bitterness, drawn the text for his sermon. One must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles." Iris Murdoch, the Bell, page 207.

"'We are both boulder-pushers.' This is his phrase for what he sees as his own failure. His fight to get out of his poor background, to win scholarships, to get the highest medical degrees, came out of an ambition to be a creative scientist. But he knows now he will never be this original scientist. And this defect has been partly caused by what is best in him, his abiding, tireless compassion for the poor, the ignorant, the sick. He has always, at a point when he should have chosen the library or the laboratory, chosen the weak instead. He will never now be a discoverer or a blazer of new paths. He has become a man who fights a middle-class, reactionary medical superintendent who wants to keep his wards locked and his patients in straitjackets. 'You and I, Ella, we are the failures. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept the truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonize Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we'll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.'" Doris Lessing, the Golden Notebook, page 195-196.

"What is terrible is that after every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women's emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don't live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly... I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out. I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come, or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons - but I won't do it, I can't be like that..." Doris Lessing, the Golden Notebook, page 283.

Ideas and actions

My friends were over for dinner and we were discussing whether we have a moral duty to help others, others who are less fortunate than ourselves. One of them suggested that big principles won't translate into action. Actions spring not from ideas or opinions but somewhere else, from a well of emotion. It may be years before grand theories spark up emotions. Everybody likes the idea of performing noble acts. How many of us are actually pushing the boulder?

That is why religions manipulated fear and guilt to motivate people into doing the "right thing". That's how magnificent churches were built. Aren't most of our actions (and inactions) still driven by fear and guilt? Maybe that is why it is so difficult to create a secular morality, it is so difficult to get people to feel and do anything. They tell us people are suffering, women are being trafficked, climate change will bring disaster if we don't care - they sound like a false alarm, we just look at them and wonder what's in all this for them. Are we supposed to respect them for their grasp of the truth and high moral sense? And mind you, if there's anything in it for them, we will feel much better because we won't have to question ourselves and change our behavior.

One of my friends says how important it is to live up to your principles, matching action with ideas. But are we those people, do we possess the emotional energy to back up our ideals?

So maybe the only way to understand who we are is to look at what we do, and what we don't.


Anonymous said...

I still insist that living up to principles is important as they appear as an invisible threshold for moral testing, and that what we say and think, how and why we form those principles are of vital importance. The latter must be well-built so that the former follows smoothly. This may sound like a very concrete formula, but I would rather say this, in fact, is like discreet maths that the the range in which it should be shaped is infinite!

The argument that bid ideas should not necessarily translate into actions is a bit arrogant. Life is not an embroidery made of ideas, and ideas are not there to identify yourself, bur rather to stabilize your beliefs and instincts. Then you have some features to stabilize your ideas and, sadly, to manipulate those ideas, namely “social norms”, which may include any constraints on people. Also, I think some ideas should be followed by some others, refuting or affirming, which will eventually result in some actions (maybe after several centuries).

I have to say that I find “doing the right thing based on the religious motives” discussion rather outdated and superficial, just like the rationality assumption on economics! People should, of course, do the right thing on the basis of “natural” moral duty (based on one’s set of values) rather than the fear of God or other religious threats. Otherwise, we would all be consequentalist and create some evil-like monsters and dispacth them towards the badly-behaved!
Good actions based on religious threats, rational actions based on daily horoscopes, being nice to people due to fear of karma are all equıvalent to each other that, we should rather live to search for the emotional energy and try not to feel guilty about it.

Having said that, I really think fear is not always bad for some. It is even necessary for creative instability, which can be one of those big ideas “translatable” to good (and maybe) bad, but always valuable actions. Some should be afraid of what they are doing sometimes, but should still do what they are doing if they believe that is the right thing to do - not because it is something they enjoy doing givien the circumstances and back it up by making up some reasons:


lightcapsule said...

I don’t disagree with you at all, and even my piece (and my previous piece) does not refute your arguments. My piece is not a moral judgement, but an observation of myself and others. I am not saying that we should not have any principles, and I think you put it very well when you say that “ideas are there to stabilize your beliefs and instincts.” I am just saying that beyond a common pool of moral principles (and even compliance with those does not come naturally to everyone, hence incentives and penalties), we may have different value systems, and we do. We have different priorities, different circumstances, different things excite and move us, we tolerate (or forgive, as you like to say) different things. To be able to put our energy where our heart is, we should first get to terms with who we are. And this consciousness, knowledge of self is only achieved through reason. So it’s not an unconscious being and doing, it’s consciously observing what makes you happy and pursuing it. This is true freedom. Adopting others’ goals or ideas of right or wrong or success or failure makes us unhappy. This is very basic and straight forward but I am only understanding it recently, that’s why I’m writing about it so much.

I can see that this may have deterministic connotations, and I am uncomfortable with that, too. When we don’t have common principles and benchmarks, this leads to too much laziness and tolerance in ourselves and others. Yes, we have become too forgiving. We should have principles and goals, just that we should set them ourselves. Many people confuse freedom and tolerance with lack of meaning and value. It is our duty to be aware of what’s going on and allow ourselves to feel strongly about things, and taking the appropriate action to change them. And reason and ideas become relevant here: Becoming aware and determining the most appropriate way to change something or reach something.

But the energy that drives us is emotion.

Nong said...

We are more or less saying the same thing, but please, let’s not get confused with freedom and having a sincere life. I am not saying we should all be fascist, form a common set of values and then do some manipulations to our own value sets and hold on to them. Then what is the point in living? What I am saying is that one should not give up her ‘thing’ (principle, value, goal, ambition, pen, apple, damacana, etc… whatever you call it) just because the circumstances or her(is) social surrounding say so. I truly believe that one can only have freedom when s/he has the enough space to think about that ‘unconsciously’. Not only spatially, but also mentally and time-wise.

lightcapsule said...

whole heartedly agreed.