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|Some thoughts on practical ethics #5 - Why optimism?|
|by Henrik von Wehrden
While any "why" question can easily be dismissed by a simple "why not?", times have been hard for many, and a general and individual pessimism is haunting many people these days. Indeed in my surrounding I recognise in many the focus on the general decreasing state of everything, the pending apocalypse, and the end of the world as we know it. I feel to be in a very privileged position indeed, because I will remain a radical optimist until the end. Here are my arguments.
Let us begin with the arguments against pessimism.
Now let us continue with the arguments for pessimism. If we chose to have a pessimistic worldview, then this would be clearly our normative choice. However many people have a pessimistic worldview which is rooted in their origin story or other emotional experiences. While it is understandable to have a grim worldview rooted in your biography, it is still no justification for a pessimistic worldview, but a mere explanation. After all, pessimistic worldview influence others, and especially people of power have to consider how they want to influence others. If our convincing of the powerful is rooted in fear, then history will not judge kindly on us, because it equally did not do so before. More importantly, the world will surely not become a better place if people are motivated by their fears. While hence pessimism and negative experiences that are part of our identity are well understandable, it is questionable if we need to pass this on to others. There are many positive examples where such endeavours led to a change for the better, yet there are equally negative examples. I believe that if we would start counting if the optimistic or the pessimistic prevail, it is already a lost cause.
Other arguments for pessimism are of more existential nature. Many people have a pessimistic worldview because of all the "bad" in the world. I would again argue that this is an emotional argument, and often a a biographical argument. In addition is it clear that people are not bad, but actions are. Hence we may judge actions of people, but I would clearly refrain from judging people. The world is not a fairytale, where the morals are clear cut. We should never hold negative experience against anyone, but instead try to help people to overcome their negative experiences if at all possible. It will otherwise be difficult to help people overcome their emotional arguments. Derek Parfit argued that the history of humankind could be like an unhappy childhood, yet the overall life might have been -on the whole- worth it. He continued to argue that we cannot know how future people are going to be. This brings us to the next point- arguments for radical optimism.
Radical optimism is just like any form of pessimism or optimism a normative choice. Martha Nussbaum rightly stated that hope is a practice, and a choice. The question would be then, if we can make this choice, and if we should. It is clear that this normative choice is an effort, and it is unclear who can actively make this choice, and who may merely not have the capability to make that choice. Having a positive outlook in life is nothing people can always choose, but depends on many diverse factors. People who have a generally negative outlook in life may try to seek professionally trained and educated helpers or programs, if they want to seek help. The world of psychiatry has luckily developed more and diverse approaches over the last decades for people in need, yet there is still much to be learned on how to help people with a generally negative outlook in life. Personally, everybody who struggles has my deepest compassion. This is obviously very important, not only for people who struggle, but also for society as a whole. There are other people who may have the capacity within them to gain a general positive outlook. However, shifting our eduction system further and enabling more parts of the educational aspects of society towards enabling a general positive outlook in people is a key challenge for the 21st century. If we would seize this opportunity, the next question would be, why we should make a choice for optimism? We are all interconnected. If one person has a pessimistic outlook, then it may pass on to other people. This argument may not convince everybody, and some people will not have the capacity to react to it. However, an optimistic outlook may equally translate to others, and may also help to create an open and reflective society that is better enabled to give support to people with a pessimistic worldview.
How do we keep learning to translate the everyday challenge into a something that does not lead to despair? Being happy is a serendipity. Those who can be optimistic can consider themselves lucky, and have a responsibility towards others. This responsibility is a truly societal responsibility, because only if we can all enable everybody to be at peace may we overcome our deeply rooted problems. Our first and foremost priority will be to learn ways to marginalise minorities less, and help humans less privileged than us. We should never forget that optimism can obviously be also part of a privilege. I was privileged enough to see many different cultures, and remember that I saw optimistic and pessimistic world views in rich and poor. Yet this is easier said then lived, and only when all people can grow up with the capability to thrive in this world, and have their rights guarded will we surely and maybe finally be able to make the case for optimism. I for myself thrive towards this lack of inequality, and we have gotten closer over time. When my grandmother was born more than 100 years ago two thirds of all people lived in poverty. When my mother was born after the second world war it had hardly changed. When I was born in the mid-70s it was less than half of the people living on poverty. Today it is about 12%, depending on the threshold and how it is defined. The end of poverty will not mark the beginning of ultimate optimism, yet it is a path towards that. As long as I live I choose to throw all my might in contributing towards a world what is worthwhile our optimism, and this is what I call radical optimism. I cannot find an argument for me against it.
|Some thoughts on practical ethics #4 - Cultural personal identity|
|by Henrik von Wehrden
It is well understood that we all are defined by our personal identity. The information that personal identity does not ultimately matter will not change that, and not knowing that our individual personal identity will end seems to be the easiest information we all learn to ignore early on in live. Very small children do not have a real personal identity. It seems as if personal identity is something that we discover, develop and/or learn. At a certain age, personal identity is being probed and framed, which is the age when most little children literally become a character. There are several reasons why this will surely not change even in the distant future, because it is part of our evolutionary development. In other words, personal identity is something we first have not, and then we have it. However, several people realise that their personal identity is indeed fleeting, which is not only the insight of the Buddha, but also Derek Parfit.
There are other people who could even flee into a world of non-identity. There is a prominent example Martin Pistorius. He was trapped for years in his own body, unable to move a muscle, and alter people in his surrounding that after years in a vegetative state, his consciousness had returned. In order to evade the agony of being trapped in his own body, he vanished into a place where "nothing existed". Yet while he described this to be a rather dark place, he was also able to vanish into a world of phantasy. Cultural identity is equally such a place of phantasy, because it is not about who a person is, but about who we are as a united group, interacting with each other. Cultural identity would not make sense if you are alone. Cultural identity can be thus seen as a construct that helps us to belong, and create some sort of unity among a group of people. In the past, this unity was often inherited, yet today in a globalised world, there are many cultural groups that are not inherited. The world grew more diverse, and there is a larger recognition of many different facets of cultural identity. Culture is what makes us diverse and enables societies to thrive. Yet culture cannot be defined as a homogeneous entity, but instead builds on diversity within nested groups. For example may certain traditional houses be built following a localised culture within the construction, but there are often deviances or diversities. This is why art is so central to our lives, because it is ""when our senses are at their fullest" (Ken Robinson). Equally, in a cultural context, art can allow for a strong emotional unity. Many people find at the end of their own personal identity a great consolation that their culture goes on, and hence their contribution to this very culture will be preserved.
Cultural identity is therefore highly relevant, not only because of the emotional gratification to belong, but also because cultural identity can thus help people to make more sense of their personal identity, or the lack thereof, i.e. when we feel united. If we had no cultural identity, and because we have no personal identity, we would have practically no identity at all. This would be clearly a societal problem, because people are ,as was outlined above, not able to live within parts of their development without any form of identity within the foreseeable future. Identity is an important part of our development stages during adolescents, and without such steps people would be lost and confused at this age, and probably also later.
However, we shall not forget that some of the worst atrocities in the history of people can be associated to cultural identity. It is however not the exclusion of people that do not belong to an identity group, that is the actual problem. Instead, it is the actions that may arise out of the exclusion of "others" from an identity group that is the true problem. Consequently, cultural identity should never enable members of a group to take negative actions against other people. This is in itself a very difficult assumption, not only because it would be hard to achieve. More importantly would it potentially elevate cultural dimensions onto the status of religion in a secular state. This is not my intention, yet I believe it is important to raise this issue as it would otherwise allow for critics to make the argument to raise concern. After all, culture is also about believes, and can be about values. Most would agree that culture should also not violate legal boundaries, and this matter is a description of many problems that rose in western democracies as part of the cancel culture and culture wars. Since culture builds on values and is set in the real world, it can also be about rights, and often is also about duties.
Starting with the latter, culture is often conserved by duties. These often follow a certain rhythm or are otherwise embedded into the calendar, or may be an action taken under given circumstances. For instance have many cultures certain actions that are taken in case of a solar eclipse. Such cultural actions often give an interpretation or coping mechanism to reality, and we all know many examples that are celebrations. To this end, culture can clearly give meaning to live. Duties within cultural rhymes or habits are thus often a privilege. One of the most controversial points is the relation between culture and rights. While it should be clear that there needs to be a right for culture, which is the case in many countries, it is often less clear how to deal with cultural actions that violate rights or norms. For instance do many traditional cultures to this day catch whales, despite a global recognition of their protection status. Many controversies arise out of such contradictions between local cultures and laws and norms outside of the respective cultural hemisphere. Here, global responsibility should make the difficult negotiation to balance local culture and global responsibility, which is however in many cases a difficult task. Global initiatives such as the IBPES have highlighted the importance of preserving indigenous cultures. Their preservation could be compared to the cold war, when for instance during the Cuba crisis the world was literally a push of a button away from total annihilation. Equally, many indigenous cultures and first nations are one step away from perishing, and many have already perished. Their fate is not different to our potential fate during the cold war, because what is gone will not come back, and as their culture is smaller in extend, it is even more fragile. More research as well as legal and civil action is needed to preserve these cultures, and due to the dramatic situation it is clear that we need to increase our efforts. This thought cannot be more but a mere starting point.
To conclude, cultural identity could be seen as a starting point, and not an end in itself. Culture is dynamic, interconnected, and ideally flourishing. While many cultures have emerged over the last centuries, many have also emerged, and care needs to be taken to preserve them. More research and action is necessary to embed diverse cultures into the global community. However, as long as people grow up thriving to explore their own identity, and as well as people find meaning in their diverse cultures, cultural identity can be a beacon to belong.
|Some thoughts on practical ethics #3 - What is better, what is worse, and does this matter?|
|by Henrik von Wehrden
One of the most frequent debates I witness in practical ethics is the question whether we can evaluate something to be better or worse. The people I often talk to are actually not exactly part of the academic community focussing on ethics, yet when I mention that some outcome can be best, thereby following Derek Parfit tripple theory, many of these people are baffled. Personally, I am baffled that they are baffled, and will try to unravel here some thoughts about their beliefs.
Utilitarianism claims to aim at the best (overall) outcome, yet our trouble to evaluate exactly what is better or worse is one of the most central mishaps - to me - in Western thinking. To this end I believe we make two main mistakes, that are strangely intertwined and can best be condensed by two big words: Epistemology and deontology. We make an epistemological mistake by attempting to evaluate consequences of our actions through observational knowledge. The second fallacy we make is based on the error to ethically evaluate our actions against some higher rules, instead of the consequences of our actions, which is, simply put, a deontological mistake. Both problems riddle much of the debate that we have about better or worse, and have divided many in the western world since centuries. More explanations on both mistakes - the epistemological and the deontological - seem to be appropriate.
Deontology focussed on the evaluations of our actions based on the principles or rules these are based on instead of the consequences of our actions. While Bentham as an early advocate of utilitarianism was surely focussing on consequences instead of mere actions and their underlying principles, this problem has within societal debates hardly been resolved. Many religious groups and cults are obsessed with a rule based world up until today, and the current cancel culture and social media wars are a mirror of a similarly rule-obsessed world. These current critical realities and societal debates clearly show why deontology must fail, because as much as we try to act right, it almost aways seems we all fail. Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Einstein, Curie and many other people are long devalued by rule-based criticism, as are it seems all our current leaders and inspirers. It is fair to conclude that people make mistakes, yet while this should be a trivial insight, we have to acknowledge that we should not judge these mistakes if they were made with the aim and knowledge to result in consequences that would not be judged negatively. In other words, I reject the principle of deontology or a rule based evaluation, because is can do nothing but fail from an epistemological perspective.
Take the example of Robin Hood. Living in Sherwood Forest he took from the rich and gave to the poor. Who would judge that through a loss of taxes and stolen goods and values the government of Notthingham suffered severe losses? Obviously this would be a very bad interpretation of the story. We have to assume that these were the consequences of his actions, yet his rule to take from the rich and give to the poor is an admirable rule, predating Rawls by several centuries. However, we should not forget that Robin Hood broke many other rules while he acted, as do many protagonists in our favourite stories. The world is simply too messy and diverse to allow for an all rule based all-empirical evaluation.
When we now take the extreme opposite view to evaluate only the consequences of our actions, then we have to make one important pretext. We can only judge on the intentions of consequences. This seems to have been overall more acceptable in the East, and grew increasingly less acceptable in the West; this is of course a crude generalisation, yet still one important general difference. Take the example where a group of people need to push a button every few hours to prevent a doomsday machine to explode, a story from the TV series Lost. At some point in the story, one of the protagonists decides that it is all a hoax, and that they should stop pressing the button. thereby discontinuing to follow the rule they were given. Next, the doomsday machine exploded, and the sad protagonist saw his mistake. Despite this bad outcome we can still sympathise with his action, because he was given a rule without and explanation or reason. Imagine if the world would be based on bizarre rules that we would never understand. Surely people would rebel against such rules, and rightly so, because we do not live in the times of the gods of old, who could dictate rules to us down from Mount Olympus. Instead, modern societies educate us to challenge rules that we do not understand, and the legal system in many democratic nations tries to negotiate exactly this. The ever growing canon of legal decisions hence gives testimony on how rules should be interpreted, and many would argue that most laws of most democratically elected governments are often understandable. Yet such political dimensions cannot ultimately be ethical dimensions, and this is part of our ontological fallacy. Ever since Spinoza, Kant and Hegel moved the western world out of the solemnly religious sphere, rules are not anymore god-given, and hence, were increasingly questioned. This devision led to a severe problem, because the centuries since could not clearly answer the question if there are rules to be followed by all people.
In other words, we widely lost our ontological roots. Now I am far from making a plea for religion here, but simply want to highlight that we seem to have lost any glimpse of ontological truths that we could all agree upon. However, if we cannot agree on anything, then what matters? Critical realism clearly claims that there might be such ontological truths in the world, yet we may never find these principles. While critical realism is still widely restricted to the social dimensions, we can surely widen it to the world as such, and thus state that there are principles we may never observe, but there can be ontological principles that we may as well unravel. These may not be deontological rules, however. Instead it would be much easier that follow principles that do not violate any rules, instead of having our actions simply follow rules. This underlines a different between principles and rules, which is ultimately a matter of scale. The most capital mistake we do to this end is in my opinion to start with our differences, when we should start what unites us.
We have to conclude that our observational powers as well as the deviance of the real world from our expectations do not always give us sufficient reason for rules we can agree upon. We therefore need to take the intention of our actions into account, and thereby modify our viewpoint. Instead of a rule based world view or an act consequentialists world view we need to settle on an intention based worldview, where no one objects our intentions. Our intentions may follow certain rules, which in many cases cannot be neglected to give some general guideline. If we thus continue to agree to act based on certain rules, we equally need to teach the capacity or allow within a system to deviate from certain rules. This would allow both a reflexive setting as well as a clear documentation of the intentions of our actions, something that may seem hard to imagine for many today, yet may in the future just become a modus operandi towards transparency and evaluative competency. Naturally, we shall not need to write down everything we do, yet focus on these acts that actually have consequences. While this is hard to anticipate now, and we need to be aware even of very small, accumulated and interacting consequences, we shall for now lump sum this as part of the epistemological mist we will need to clear in the future, but not here.
Now let is take the extreme opposite viewpoint, that is assume that there are indeed rules to be followed, and how to find them. Many disagreement about rules are because of cultural values, experiential values or legal values. However the main disagreement on rules are not because of these different types of values, but instead because of the category of values. Many controversies cannot be resolved of cultural differences, yet it should be clear that if we all would have the same culture, the world would be clearly less diverse. Consequently one of the most rules we need to agree upon is to know, reflect and accept the values of other cultures. The alternative of a cultural homogenisation might be a side effect of globalisation, developments in communication et cetera, but will not be considered further here. Instead it is most relevant to honour cultural values of others, even if these values are alien to some of us. There are also examples of wider accepted rules. Humans have already evolved into proclaiming human rights, and these are a commitment of the global community for united values. From a historical viewpoint, it seems that these rights and conventions only emerged recently, and the vast majority of the legal apparatus still operates on national or local levels. This is however well put into perspective when comparing our current situation with the situation about 100 years ago. Humankind evolved clearly since then, and from a standpoint of human rights surely for the better, which is reason for optimism. Nevertheless, more steps need to be taken to allow for a greater implementation of human rights and other global values.
The biggest lack to date has probably been in recognising global inequalities. First attempts have been made, notably the global sustainability goals of the taxing of global cooperation that try to evade national tax laws. Yet while many global inequalities decreased, some inequalities such as global income disparity, have increased over the last decades. Pessimists claim we shall never overcome these inequalities, but that these inequalities would even increase. This claim does not only contradict past developments, but is also leading nowhere. If we claim that inequalities increase, what would be the aim of this argument? How would humankind need to devolve to become drastically less equal in terms of material resource distribution? It seems highly unlikely that the necessary totalitarian structures would be established, despite all the rumours conspiracy nutheads try to spread. Even if we would make the argument that such grim developments are already underway, action would need to be taken, since mere discussions have clearly less consequences. The global movements of the last years are to this end among the most hopeful initiatives that emerged, and prove the potential of the global community that can transcend diverse cultural values.
These global initiatives are thus clearly believing in what Derek Parfit called normative truths. There may be indeed some truths that can unite us, because we are able to not only act reasonable, but also responded to reason, underlining the importance of human interconnectedness. Personally, I prefer to live in a world where agency of people can in crease, and we can not only try to unravel what ought to be true, but even may be able to discover what we "might be able to make true" (Parfit). The alternative would be that nothing is true. Who ever opts for this scenario may become a prepper for the pending anarchistic apocalypse, where nothing matters. I hope you have a happy live.
|Some thoughts on practical ethics #2 - Who am I?|
|by Henrik von Wehrden
The 20th Century brought us a thriving of individuality and freedom to many ends, many of which are good. It seems as if we did not reach the heights of our individual personal identity as I write this in 2021 as of yet, and people thrive to explore their identities and find out who they are. From a philosophical standpoint, all this makes no sense, and this is the case since quiet some time, depending who you ask. It was Derek Parfit contribution through his first book "Reason and persons" to conclude that all personal identity is - in a nutshell- constructed, and does not make any sense.
Some people may argue about the continuity of memories, we are basically what we remember. Me, I forget many things, and I am sometimes even glad about it. In addition, memory is indeed very fleeting, and more often than not, our memories are plain wrong. When Bob Dylan wrote the first volume of his autobiography, some people pointed out that they remember some stories quite differently. The Master did not care. All of us are often the same. We think we have a memory, but in a nutshell, we made a memory up, or if you want to blame someone, your brain did that.
Our atoms, molecule and cells are constantly changing. Hence we cannot be the physical matter that builds us. How would you otherwise make sense of Elvis, who - many want to point out to me - yet I can hear his music and see him dancing on video. The King seems very much alive, as is his music. Bodily continuity ends at some point, and since all matter changes constantly all the time, it is indeed hard to defend personal identity via bodily matters.
Are we our cultures, then? Cultural identity is surely something that we could try to settle on. However this is again hard to fix onto a single person, because the times when cultures resolved around one person have slowly come to and end. In ancient egypt the Pharao had the mighty command to build the Pyramids, and while they still remain, all of Egyptians ancient culture is long gone.
Then there is the soul. May it be the Abrahamic religions, yet also Hinduism and also other religions such as some of First nations, the soul is quite central to many beliefs people held, and some still hold. While this is totally up to them, it will be hard to settle on a proof about the existence of a soul. While hence such religions hold the soul as kind of the ultimate claim for personal identity, only in a believers beliefs can this claim hold any value. For everybody else is may not be convincing. The Buddha had a slightly different approach, because causal links do matter in Buddhism, yet the concept of Anatta -non-self- underlines in some lines of thinking any claim of identity or permanence.
Memories, matter, culture or the soul all can thus hold a key to some people concerning personal identity, yet I conclude for myself that if these are not universal answers to the problem of personal identity, then they hold no universal value at all. Do not misunderstand me. Many people get great help in difficult times by knowing that their culture will go on, that they think they will go to heaven, or they will never be forgotten. While all these can be pathways to diminish the sorrows of life, and especially life's end, I agree with Derek Parfit that these forms of personal identity do not matter.
Interconnectedness is instead what really matters. We are all connected by our actions, and how these may create meaning for other beings. This is not about memories of our actions, or about some afterlife reward system. Instead it is about the general contribution our actions may have, and the consequences that may arise out of this. In other words, this is absolutely not about us as a person, but about life in total. If one of our actions leads to a better outcome overall, then we all get better. While some may see this as a grand overture to altruism, one might simply ask, what the alternative would be? A dog eat dog world, the good old hedonism, or maybe pessimism may lead to -you guessed it- nothing. Material gain will perish, the memory of you will perish, hell -even your soul may perish. Ok, the last one was a cheap shot.
I always think that the funniest scenario would be if everybody would get what they believed in. Imagine how thrilling the memory of you would be in a million years, given that it would never fade. Consider how you feel in heaven or hell after a million years? I could image it would get boring either way. Only on the continuity of culture I could somewhat settle, because cultures evolve. To me, the best scenario would be that I am gone, but that the bundle -as Hume called it- but the impact I had through relations with other remains. The Greek word ""trope"" comes to mind, which could be understood as "change". If we changed things for the better, then we did good. This would as well be in line with the Buddha. What is however I think best about it, is that it is hard to deny that this would have meaning and truth. In other words, who could counter-argue the suggestion that we should leave the world a better place than as we arrived in it, and that this change was at least partly through our actions.
To conclude, personal identity was a nice construct that emerged as a way towards a greater freedom in societies that were often less free or not free before. Times are different today, as more and more people perceive the capability to become free. As part of this gained freedom, many explore ways towards our own personal identity. Much meaning was lost through that, and we may sometimes have even lost track of the ultimate goal, that is how we can change the world for the better. This is who I would like to be.
|Some thoughts on practical ethics #1|
|by Henrik von Wehrden
I believe that the main challenge of the 21st century will be to align our actions with our ethics on why and how we act. The dawn of humans let us emerge from only being driven the need to survive and being guided by emotions, and evolved into a world of communication, culture and cooperation. Hence the dawn of humankind unraveled a world where we had the capability to act beyond our emotions, and consequently discovered reason, logic and goals transcending our personal surrounding. Human civilisations began to thrive, marking attempts in our history to create diverse cultures, and often also differentiating ourselves from our neighbours. It was often through these differences that progress was made, yet one should not oversee the conflicts rooted equally in such territorial identities. While such conflicts characterised the last century, these times may soon come to pass. The rate of conflicts and casualties has gradually decreased, and armed conflicts become more and more localised. On the other hand did many global challenges emerge calling for responsibility especially among the wealthy, and unity in diversity among all people on this planet. This would call as well for unity in our ethics, because not being united to this end would be a source for continuous and newly emerging conflicts. After all, it is one of the main sources of current conflicts, beside culture and resources. Only culture shall remain a source to honour our differences, yet our ethics-what some would call our moral compass- shall no longer divide us.
The thought of harmonised and unanimously accepted ethics has long preoccupied philosophers, yet it was especially during the last decades that this ambitious goal gained momentum. Building on these previous writing, basically no thought here is new, or even original. Instead I use this opportunity to order my thoughts when my thinking indeed needs order as a beacon towards the future. Any lapse in clarity, lack of grace or flaw of structure is thus nothing but a reflection of my failure towards an ordered overview towards a united ethics. Writing these texts -which I plan to do for the foreseeable future- anyway is thus a selfish act, but my need towards more clarity and freedom makes it important at least to me.
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