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Monday, April 19, 2010

massive blog post: revelation on morality, welcome to new version of blog

This is the first blog post I've made in over 18 months.

This morning I had a revelation that seems potentially life-changing.

The background story
For a few years now, I've struggled to be comfortable with my place in the world (an apparently common situation for people).

I've always been very socially-minded. From an early age, I recognized problems with selfishness and greed. I have always tried to help the less fortunate, whether it was the timid kid being left out from activities at school recess or the broad issues of economic and political justice on an international scale. This eventually led to sympathy for the ideals of socialism and a general interest in politics.

However, I've also been ambitious in all my pursuits, particularly anything creative. It happened that I ended up focusing my creativity on music. I've long wanted to create the best, most innovative music ever and I put in substantial time and energy in that direction.

Thus, a real conflict emerged between my social orientation and my personal ambitions. This led to a mild form of self-hatred for my ambitious, selfish side. I felt it was honorable to help others but greedy and selfish to focus only on one's own interests. This inherently led to a paradoxical situation. I found myself, for example, generally admiring people working to end discrimination and injustice, but I was contemptuous of "self-centered" folks who complain of being victims of discrimination.

Clearly, if there is to be generosity in the world, there must also be reception; but that could still fit in the world-view I held. We could have everyone giving and receiving, like in that old parable about heaven and hell being the same big feast with absurdly long forks (in hell everyone fails to feed themselves, and in heaven everyone happily feeds each other). The problem I had was not with accepting generosity from others, it was with pursuing one's own selfish interests. It is a valid concern that those who focus on their own misfortunes might be selfish enough to discriminate against others if the situation were reversed. 

Still, I had to eventually confront the problems with accepting advocacy on certain issues only from those not affected. As I matured in my understanding, I eventually learned to respect a healthy degree of selfishness. I grew to have a much more nuanced perspective of all these complex issues. That said, I am no relativist. Truth may be too complex for human understanding but that doesn't mean everything is a matter of opinion. I continued to pursue (and expect I will continue for the rest of my life) an understanding of morality and life purpose that fits with my values.

One day, a teacher friend mentioned the book "The 4-hour Workweek", which suggests that one can live a healthy, wealthy life with little work and even retire young. I haven't read it, but by my friend explained that this is accomplished by designing products instead of laboring in manufacture or services and by outsourcing the menial work (such as scheduling appointments even) to India. The premise is certainly selfish. It's certainly capitalist to the extreme. But, having learned to be less dogmatic about these things, I had a harder time deciding what to think about it. At a gut level, I thought it was probably either impossible or immoral, but I didn't want to judge so quickly. Then my friend said, "well, of course it does violate Kant's categorical imperative..."

I looked that up and was really inspired. Here's a moral principle I felt I could fully support. "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Essentially: act as you would if you knew everyone else would follow your example in similar circumstances. This is compatible with the everyone-feeding-each-other idea, but it doesn't reject acting on self-interest. It allows me to pursue my ambitions just keeping in mind that I am not asking others to do differently.

My recent personal philosophy up to today
I started to really apply Kant's imperative to my life. For example, as a teacher I find it frustrating when a new guitar method is published that is lousier than existing ones and offers nothing new. It just crowds the already bloated field and is an annoyance if not a true detriment to society. I want authors to know something about what is already out there and be sure they are adding value, so therefore I should do that myself before I consider publishing anything.

Similarly, I don't generally like being only a spectator to other people's athletics or music or art or academics, I prefer to participate. Therefore, I shouldn't ask others to be passive spectators to my own music. I should instead figure out how to get others to participate. Furthermore, I don't like being told strictly what to do, I like being creative. So I should only present music in ways that allows and encourages creativity from all participants. Also, I don't like ethnocentric teaching that assumes music (or anything else) necessarily works the way one tradition says it does. Therefore, I should teach a broad global perspective. I really appreciate understanding the technical background of things, such as the sciences of physics and psychology in relation to music. Therefore, I should teach a science-based, globally-minded, creative, experimental, participatory approach to music. But I should find out what is already out there and make sure that anything I publish or promote is adding value to society as a whole and not just adding bulk.

Trying to live up to those ideals was stressful, to say the least. Often, I wanted to just go back to recording new original music, writing articles, and lots more; but I kept questioning whether I'd want everyone else out there to follow my example. On the one hand, I want to encourage participation and creativity and so I should be creative myself, thereby in line with the categorical imperative. On the other hand, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how much total content is out there and I wish I didn't have to wade through mediocrity to find the greatest stuff, so I don't want to publish and publicize more mediocrity. The tentative balance I found was to be creative but not record it unless I thought I had something of exceptionally special value.

This attitude has now come into conflict with practical career and life goals. I am interested in post-graduate programs and I need to present examples of my work as part of applications to various programs; but I've kept the best of my ideas unrecorded—thinking that they aren't quite ready for my absurdly high standard of adding major value to society. I've hesitated to maintain a blog because of my concerns about narcissism and the issues about adding to bulk versus producing substantial value; but now academic advisers are recommending that publishing a blog of academic interest is a good thing for my resumé.

Today's revelation

Today I really questioned it all in a way I hadn't done in a long time.

I had come across philosopher and author Sam Harris' new emphasis on promoting science as a tool in determining morality. This is a very contentious assertion. Science is generally thought of as purely technical and non-judgmental in terms of morality and ethics. Harris asserts that morality is only meaningful in how it promotes well-being generally, and that well-being is, at least conceptually, something able to be studied scientifically.

I was thinking about the various sides of the argument regarding Harris' claims, when I just got a little overwhelmed, maybe uncertain, and decided I wasn't prepared to engage in the subject much further. Then something clicked. I don't know if I can express it in words. Perhaps I realized that if science could inform morality, that doesn't mean it already has the answers that may be possible in principle. Thus, maybe we can reject total relativism and say that there exists right and wrong, moral and immoral (and gray all along the continuum of course) without already knowing what the right and wrong actually are. We can say that we don't know but that we're working on it and have some preliminary ideas.

Somehow I felt a sense of a lifted burden. I never claimed to know absolute morality. I never even claimed that the categorical imperative was necessarily the best guideline. But I had been tentatively following it nonetheless. I had used it in dealing with personal doubts and questions and priorities. Now I am somewhat letting it go.

My exact experience really can't be expressed. I imagine my feelings to be similar to someone believing a supernatural religious viewpoint while intellectually knowing the arguments against it but then suddenly one day really accepting the possibility that the world truly isn't as they'd believed. I guess I'm just trying to say that the shift isn't intellectual. It's more of a feeling. A feeling of freedom, of catharsis.

Conclusion for now: blog
I had been suppressing myself, telling myself that blabbing all my thoughts in a blog to the world was narcissistic and maybe even immoral, even if carefully expressed and edited. This suppression was infecting many aspects of my life even as I was productive and progressing in many ways. Now I'm writing this blog entry. Aside from some perfectionistic dedication to high quality writing, I feel less inclined to self-censorship. Those who know me personally might think, "but Aaron is already perhaps the least self-censoring person I know!" Well, being pent-up in my creative output probably caused me to blow up more when I had a chance to express myself in a casual setting (although I'm not promising to now become quiet and introverted).

In reflecting on the categorical imperative and my general feeling of being overwhelmed and burdened, a lot of things are obvious now. First, there is the absurdity of trying to understand everything about society and the universe before acting. Of course, the simple idea of sensing broad consequences to every action is stressful and also nonsense. The world doesn't actually model any or every person.

Perhaps there will be problems with any moral guideline that says "act as though" we were in some hypothetical reality. Perhaps a better guideline is to act as though the world is as we actually understand to be to the best of our knowledge, given scientific understanding and personal experience. Instead of, e.g., living each day as though it were your last, maybe better advice would be to live each day as though it is most likely not your last but just might be.

From now on, I'll attempt (might not be easy) to consider my behavior and judgments in terms of what I know about each specific situation rather than on some generalized principle or vague possibilities. Of course, rather than analyze every situation, there is also value in trusting intuition. I can trust my own inherent compassion for others to guide me in being socially responsible without a lot of intellectualizing. I'll be a lot happier feeling free to do and say (or not do and say) as feels right without suppressing myself excessively.

Therefore, expect a real blog. I'm still busy, but if I feel I have something to write here, I'll try do it. Please feel free to leave comments. If I get the idea from feedback that I could do something better, I'll work to improve. I still want to be socially-minded and not just driven by selfish impulse, and I still want to be a model for expressing informed, thoughtful, valuable ideas. The start will be any sharing at all. It will be easier to get feedback on how to improve something than feedback on how to improve nothing!

1 comment:

  1. Update a few years later: I recently read some of Kwame Anthony Appiah's books (Honor Code and Experiments in Ethics) and they did a good job of expressing a lot of my concerns here. His work can be summarized something like this:

    We live in reality and while ideals are important, we need to focus on things that relate to reality as we know it. There may be more than one solution to a problem. People really care about their own sense of honor and morality and place in society.

    Appiah has some nice critiques of how Kant's ideas are just out of touch with reality. I recommend Appiah's books to anyone who enjoys reading philosophy. Unfortunately, they are still filled with obscure references and a bit tied to jargon, but he's trying to make them truly accessible and gets pretty far with it.