Monday, 20 April 2009

The Benefits Of Consideration 2: Over-Consideration Edition

I mentioned on Thursday, whilst discussing David Brook's contention that gut reactions are teh awesome and reasoned responses are teh sux0r, that I thought his piece was silly beyond the obvious point that you can't argue that relying on your own reason is arrogant but relying on your own emotions isn't. I also said that my further objections were somewhat long-winded in nature. Thus, if you're not particularly interested in how I view the world, and our place in it, I'd recommend skipping this post entirely, and coming back later, when I'll presumably be being rude to someone or making dick jokes again.

I spent some time last year discussing Dan Simmon's Hyperion Cantos, which I read in Jersey and Slovenia. Since I've been trying to hawk it to as many of my friends as possible, I won't give too much away here, but a crucial part of the second half of the story involves a young woman named Aenea, and her attempts to set up her own philosophical movement. Said movement, which ultimately becomes known as Aeneanism (though I'm not sure she would have liked the term, and not simply because it's terrible) cobbles together a lot of theories from various religions, particularly Buddhism, but at heart it is explicitly atheist. In fact, the best way to consider the philosophy is an attempt to find a manner by which people can live moral and meaningful lives in a universe which has no greater power to define those terms for us. [1]

Unsurprisingly, this sort of idea is very attractive to a lot of atheists. The two most irritating arguments that are repeatedly put forward by the faithful against atheism (and I had to sit through half a dozen permutations of them during Adventures With Jesus Week) is that without a God there can be no concept of the importance of a human life, nor of how anyone can morally live their life. Aside from this being a really depressing argument (I've never been sure of where the virtue lies in doing good because you've been ordered to), it seems transparently false that, for example, murder or rape is only bad if God tells us, as oppose to us being smart enough to work it out for ourselves.

Aenea would argue that in the absence of God, the most powerful force in the universe is love. Specifically empathy, if love is too wishy-washy and tree-huggy for you. In truth, this is something I've believed for a while, though I confess I'm terribly bad at it in practice, and I don't really see it in the quantum-mechanical level on Aenea deals with it (still, that's fiction for you). People much smarter than me have observed that the correlation between one's empathic level and their tendency towards the left of the political spectrum is actually surprisingly high. This is the second time I've quoted this result, and I still can't remember where I read it, so treat it with caution, but it is certainly true that much of the right prides itself on being realistic and practical, which tends to boil down to ensuring people don't get what they don't deserve [2], rather than trying to find (potentially non-existent) ways by which suffering can be minimised. I can tell you that it's certainly the reason I'm on the left, though whether the chicken came before the egg in this case, I've never been sure.

In fairness, there are many on the right who object to the crusade to make everyone happy purely on the grounds that it's almost certainly impossible, and frequently males things worse in the process (see: Iraq would be better without a fascist dictator in charge [3]). Which is an entirely reasonable position to hold, I guess, but ultimately all it proves is that good intentions need to be tempered by wisdom. Which, of course, we already knew. Well, I say we, presumably David Brooks believes that it's much better to just charge in with the first idea that bothers to saunter into one's head. Unless he thinks that acting from the gut is only good if it's practiced by his fellow Conservatives, of course. I'm honestly not sure which position would make him look more stupid.

That gets me (finally) to my main point, and why it was Brooks of all people that crystallised it for me. I don't think empathic is a specific enough definition. You need to be able to think, too. You need logic in the mix.

Actually, maybe logic is the wrong term. What you really need, and this is something Brooks wouldn't recognise if it kicked him in the junk, is intellectual honesty.

The interesting thing about empathy is that there are three different groups of people to which it must be applied. Those you love, those you hate, and those you don't know. In an ideal world, you're supposed to be able to manage all three. At least, that's what Aenea would tell you. The Bible would too, which is pretty clear on the importance of charity (kindness to strangers) and loving your neighbour (whom you know, but may very well despise). Out in the real world, though, some applications are easier than others.

If we really are going to discuss empathy being more common in liberals, then it's probably worth mentioning what we're talking about is long-range empathy; the desire to do right by people you have never met, and probably never will. That disconnect between you and them makes giving a damn about them all the more laudable, but it also means that there's no personal stake for you in the situation. That's not to say that empathising with strangers is easy, or simple, or that choices don't have to be made, just that one can do all of that without getting tangled up in your own shit.

The thing is, though, whilst long-range empathy is unquestionably important; for the vast, vast majority of us we're not really going to make any difference on that scale anyways. A charitable donation here, a war protest there; it may be what we're supposed to do (and is), but the odds of actually producing change are pretty small. Chaos theory can only get you so far, and I should know.

Aeneanism, at it's heart, is about effecting large scale change by concentrating on your immediate surroundings, and trust that others are doing the same with theirs. And on the local scale is where people can excel. Some of the most moral and caring people I know, people who I suspect would be Aeneans without hesitation if it wasn't an idea cooked up inside a writer's imagination [4], work in this way. Either they try their hardest to care for everyone around them, or they try to care for those that are trying to care for everyone else, which I guess is meta-empathy, and about the best use of someone's time I can think of short of saving puppies from burning buildings.

On this closer level, though, in which you're dealing with the people you interact with on a regular basis, things get confusing. Love thy neighbour is all well and good, but what if your neighbour stole your girlfriend? Or made your best friend miserable? This is why we need to be able to rationalise, and why just reacting from the heart doesn't cut it. If your heart bleeds for the war orphans of Afghanistan, but you won't help your mate out because she was mean to you that time, then exactly what good are you? One of the fundamental constants of human nature is our desire, conscious or otherwise, to justify why we're going to do what we damn well please. If you're doing what you please, it's probably worth spending some time checking that you're lucky enough for your desires to intersect with those of the universe, rather than the far more likely outcome that you're just a dick, who's searching for cover.

This stuff is hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and we'd need to find an alternative goal to aspire to [5]. You should always be suspicious of an easy decision that involves anybody else (I'll grant that you can probably get away with whether or not to have cornflakes for breakfast). And that, I guess, is what all this is really about. Brooks, and others like him, believe that decisions should be easy, and that lives should be unexamined. Which, ironically, an atheist could claim (and many do), were they determined to pretend no-one else existed but themselves, but a Christian cannot. In fact, the most empathic and intellectually rigorous Christians are pretty much indistinguishable from Aeneans when you get down to it, assuming you don't them ask *why* they do what they do. Both sides could do with more of them. In fact, were each side to have enough of them, I'm not sure we'd need to use the word sides at all, but that's a thought I'll just leave hanging for now. Hanging there like a big floppy dick.

Ah. There you go. Normal service resumed.

[1] The universe of the Hyperion Cantos does have higher powers, in fact, but they are non-prescriptive, and possibly not even sentient in the way we conceive the term. The point is; they might offer the *means* by which we can become more than we are, but the choice to pay the price and take the leap is entirely our own.

[2] This is one of those things I can never understand. It seems pretty much axiomatic that in any society which offers aid to the people that most need it that there will exist other people who find a way to acquire that aid without actually qualifying for it. That's just human nature, combined with the sheer impossibility (and undesirability) of a government keeping a close eye on everyone at once. I've yet to meet anyone on the right who didn't think that benefit fraud wasn't evidence that benefits should be cut, despite the fact that this would guarantee less money for the people that genuinely need it. In other words, ensuring no-one gets a free lunch trumps ensuring those who can't buy their lunches still get fed.

[3] Which, I confess, I agreed with. Hell, I still agree with it, in theory, but "in theory" is a pretty dangerous term to use when you're talking about demolishing countries and then rebuilding them. Chaos theory will only let you go so far.

[4] Well, with one exception, but she's a Christian, which is cheating.

[5] Don't get me wrong, I'd like to live in a world where not being a prick was a universal quality. But we've existed as a species for two million years and we're still not all on-board with "no genocide", so I'm not holding my breath.

1 comment:

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